Music and language learning

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Research in second language learning has found correlations between general intelligence, musical ability, and success in learning the second language. The studies reported here concern the extent to which university conservatory students are better at perceiving and producing unfamiliar linguistic tones in Mandarin. In Experiment 1, native speakers of American English with musical training performed significantly better than non-musicians when determining whether a sine-wave tone went up, down, or remained the same in pitch. Musicians also performed significantly better than non-musicians when asked to identify the four distinctive tones of Mandarin (high-level, mid-rising, lowdipping, high-falling), which had analogous shifts in fundamental frequency to those of the sine-wave stimuli. Accuracy on the Mandarin tones for both groups was relatively low since listeners were not trained on the phonemic contrasts. Experiment 2 compared musicians and non-musicians on discrimination and imitation of these unfamiliar tones. Listeners were presented with two different Mandarin words that had either the same or different tones; listeners indicated whether the tones were same or different. All listeners had significantly more difficulty discriminating between mid-rising and low-dipping tones than with other contrasts. Listeners with music conservatory training showed significantly greater accuracy in their discrimination. Likewise, musicians’ spoken imitations of Mandarin were rated as significantly more native-like than those of nonmusicians. These findings suggest that musicians may have abilities or training that facilitate their perception and production of Mandarin tones. However, further research is needed to determine whether this advantage transfers to language learning situations.


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