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Is there something you have always wanted to know about language? We might have an answer! On this page we answer questions about various aspects of language asked by people outside of the language researcher community.

Is it true that people who are good at music can learn a language sooner?

Yes. This has indeed been found. However, the answer is a bit different for children learning their mother tongue and individuals learning a foreign language.

What advantages have been found for children who attend music lessons? At age ten these children show a more mature brain response when processing grammar. At age six to nine they read better. At age four they remember words better and make better use of grammatical rules for word formation. On top of all that, infants aged around one year who were assigned to early active music experiences gesture more to communicate with others. So, the answer for children learning their native language seems to be yes: music lessons do indeed improve language use or its precursors.


However, when it comes to learning a foreign language, the music advantage seems to be more restricted to hearing and producing the basic sounds which make up a language. For example, it has been found that among adults or children without music training, those who have more musical talent are also better at perceiving and producing non-native linguistic sounds like Chinese tones.  Furthermore, individuals with music training are better at discriminating and learning foreign speech sounds, while they are also better at detecting mistakes in the way foreign speech is pronounced. There is evidence showing that the musician’s brain encodes speech sounds more efficiently and that parts of the brain that are dedicated to sound processing have a different structure in musicians compared to non-musicians. To summarize, people who are good at music are better in learning to perceive and to produce foreign speech sounds.

Might it be that more intelligent children stay in music classes while the others drop out, thereby explaining these results? This is unlikely: studies where children were randomly placed in music or painting classes have found better language abilities after music training. However, a word of caution is in order. It is not clear what it is about music that improves language use. Is it the training of long concentration during music lessons? Is it the training of complex, structured sound patterns during music listening? Yes, music classes make people good at music and somewhat good at language. But it is not exactly clear why that is.

 Written by Richard Kunert, Salomi Asaridou & Tineke Snijders

Further reading:

Asaridou, S. S., & McQueen, J. M. (2013). Speech and music shape the listening brain: Evidence for shared domain-general mechanisms. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 321. (link)

Kraus, N., & Chandrasekaran, B. (2010). Music training for the development of auditory skills. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 11, 599–605. (link)

Patel, A. D. (in press). Can nonlinguistic musical training change the way the brain processes speech? The expanded opera hypothesis. Hearing Research. (link)

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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.


Questions and Answers

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Mark Dingemanse
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