Does being a musician allow you to have a better accent in a foreign language?

Three hundred and sixty three-minute tracks (i.e. 18.4 hours) is the weekly music listening time of 16-64 year olds revealed, in 2021, by a report by the IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry ). Humans are sensitive, music-loving beings, and the appearance of music, just as much as that of speech, has been decisive in the construction of societies. The closeness of music and speech encourages people to think that being a musician helps in learning foreign languages ​​or mastering accents.

But what is it really?

The links between music and speech

To consider the links between music and speech is to start from the principle that these are two partially interconnected human activities (singing or whistling languages, for example) which mobilize all the organs necessary for the production and perception of sound vibrations. and their cognitive processing.

Understanding of the interactions between music and speech has increased over the past few years with the development of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which has made it possible to measure cerebral activity in real time and in action. Researchers like Aniruddh D. Patel have extensively studied these interactions at different levels.

A consensus of researchers, following the work of Isabelle Peretz and her colleagues, tends to demonstrate a neural overlap and a separability in the processing of music and speech that does not necessarily imply neural sharing. This means that there are cerebral areas activated by processing processes dedicated to music and speech without being able to definitively determine whether areas process these two activities indiscriminately. Some authors argue that this neural sharing could take place at the level of syntax – a neural network dedicated to managing the temporal processing of sound units that make sense (musical or discursive).

More concretely, researchers from the Institute of Cognitive Neurosciences of the Mediterranean have highlighted the fact that musical training can have positive repercussions on the processing of certain sound units in the first language of individuals. Others have been able to testify to similar effects in the case of the other languages ​​learned.

Also, the scientific literature on the subject seems to confirm the hypothesis that musical training has effects on hearing capacity that is not exclusively dedicated to music.

What is a musician?

The lexical portal of the National Center for Textual and Lexical Resources defines the musician as “one who devotes himself to music, whose profession is to perform or compose music” or even any person “who has a disposition for music”. These provisions may relate to singing – mobilizing the same organs of phonation as speech; or instrumental practice. On the question of the links between music and speech, defining what a musician is comes down to asking how his expertise can influence the processing of speech units.

It is recognized that any expert, in a given practice, develops specific skills supported by specialized brain activations. These specializations are found, for example, at the level of the motor areas dedicated to the management of particular movements related to the practice of an instrument.

Journalist Malcolm Gladwell argues that these changes would only be effective after 10,000 hours of practice. This hypothesis remains widely disputed by specialists in the field in view of the complexity of the phenomena involved.

In their Neural Symphonyresearchers Emmanuel Bigand and Barbara Tillmann point out that expert musicians have better abilities to process the basic acoustic information of musical sound (pitch, intensity, etc.) but when it comes to comparing musical structures more complex, the perception of experts and non-experts is similar.

In this regard, it seems important to note that the vast majority of non-experts are expert listeners since they are very heavy consumers of music. Emmanuel Bigand, professor of cognitive psychology, considers that the cerebral changes operated by musical expertise are reduced. Indeed, regular and implicit listening to music reduces the distance that exists between expert musicians and expert listeners (who do not play an instrument). However, expert listeners have less sophisticated resources to explain their musical analyzes and musicians possess additional metacognitive capacities to support this analysis.

An advantage for the accent

Considering that there are links between music and speech but also that the listening or the practice of music influences the processing capacity of sound units, do musicians have facilities when it comes to accent in languages foreign?

Studies conducted on the subject show that musicians do indeed have increased capacities for processing the primary units of sound; they are able to better process low level information (being able to discriminate the difference in duration between two sounds) but this advantage is reduced when it comes to higher level processing (identifying a melody, categorizing a sound) . On the music-speech links, this is what two researchers have shown by considering that Sinophone speakers (Mandarin) discriminate better between musical melodies but identify them less well than English speakers despite the fact that the former master a language at tones. However, musical practice seems to give an advantage over the ability to imitate an accent – ​​imitation being a specific activity.

Speaking in a foreign language requires individuals to manage all the complexity of human language (production of sounds, interactional adaptation, management of emotions, etc.). Also, if the musicians can have a certain advantage on the low-level processing of the units of speech, this advantage is largely reduced with regard to the skills of the expert listeners of the music but also of other linguistic elements which come into play in oral performance (linguistic insecurity, legitimacy, etc.).

It should be pointed out, however, that musical practice can make it possible to develop many skills transferable to the learning of foreign languages: orality, management of breath and emotions, expression of intention, vocal hygiene, memorization – as so many tools for the benefit of interpretation.

If the musicians do not directly benefit for their accent from their musical expertise, they can always be recommended to sing to limit the perception (if they wish!). This is shown by several studies on the subject. Indeed, certain markers of the accent are less perceptible in song since they come into confrontation with certain constraints of the melody. To your karaokes!

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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