Monday, 4 February 2008

Foreign languages easier to learn when they're sung rather than spoken

You know what a native speaker sounds like when you're trying to get to grips with a foreign language. The verbal cacophony seems to roll off their tongue so fast that you can't event tell one word from the next. Now Daniele Schon and colleagues have completed a study showing that hearing foreign words sung can help with this segmenting process - a finding that has obvious practical implications for learning new languages.

The researchers created a set of six nonsense words made up from a choice of 11 syllables: Gimysy, Mimosi, Pogysi, Pymiso, Sipygy, Sysipi. Then they used a speech synthesiser to play a continuous stream of these words in random order to 26 French-speaking participants, over and over, for 7 minutes.

Afterwards, the words were presented, one at a time, alongside more made-up words, formed from the same choice of syllables, such as Mosigi and Sypogy. The participants' task was to identify the words that had appeared in the original recording, but it turned out they were hopeless, performing no better than if they had guessed.

Next, a second recording was created of the same six nonsense words used first time around, but in this version each syllable was sung by the synthesiser at a different pitch. A new group of 26 participants had to identify the original words from new ones, and this time they had some success, achieving 64 per cent accuracy.

There are two ways that hearing the words sung could have helped. One is that it is more emotionally engaging. The second is that, together with clues from phonetics, it provides a source of statistical information about which syllables tend to follow each other in words, and which don't.

To test which way singing was helping, a final recording was created in which the nonsense words were sung, but the pitch each syllable was sung at wasn't fixed. This removed the statistical information provided by the singing, leaving only the emotionally engaging aspect.

Performance in this condition was midway between hearing the words spoken and hearing them sung when each syllable always had a fixed pitch. In other words, hearing words sung helps both because it is more emotionally engaging and because it can help identify which syllabic sounds tend to come together.

"Learning a foreign language, especially in the first learning phase wherein one needs to segment new words, may largely benefit from the motivational and structuring properties of music in song," the researchers concluded.

SCHON, D., BOYER, M., MORENO, S., BESSON, M., PERETZ, I., KOLINSKY, R. (2008). Songs as an aid for language acquisition. Cognition, 106(2), 975-983. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2007.03.005

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

4 comments: said...

I had thought over the years that my early 'learning' of Spanish had occurred simply by retaining the words of "folk songs" in that language. I know people who quite competently sing psalms in Hebrew, but who I believe would find it difficult to say what the words meant. They are established simply as sounds - part of tune. I had early on thought that the process of reaching deployable meaning was essentially in several stages - the first was simply in establishing the sound of the words and retaining these sounds AS melody. At that stage , one hadn't any competence to make statements in Spanish but in second and third stages, once the words were "in there" they could be slowly understood, and then perhaps deployed. A downside of the situation - for me at any rate - is that I experienced great difficulty in deriving any meaning from hearing the words in operas I did not really KNOW - the word-sounds went into the same brain-position as melody, which brain part was not specialised in attributing meaning. Quite a different experience was to READ surtitles thus engaging two separate parts of the brain simultaneously - that which entertained (and was entertained by) melody - and which was experienced WITHOUT meaning, and at the same time, another brain part via the eye rather than the ear, which was appraised by a different brain part, to denote meaning. Try setting these (three syllable) nonsense words to tunes in three-time (eg. God Save the Queen) and I suspect that the "words" (or vocal sounds) will be quicker learned than they would be if they were treated as visually-read words ...

Anonymous said...

I kinda agree with this study. I certainly agree with the first point made in that listening to a foreign speaker the language just rolls right off their tongue, which makes it more difficult for you to learn the language from the native speakers heh.

I found a great help was getting hold of some language learning software and taking it at my own pace to learn the language. I was trying to learn spanish at the time, and by doing it slowly myself I found I could get the hang of it faster than going to a weekly tuition class at the local high school.

And of course as I got more fluent and had more spare time, I could speed my learning up as needed :)

Chancellor Carlyle Roberts II said...

Sounds great, in theory - until you come across singing groups (e.g. Chambao, Gipsy Kings) that drop vowels and consonants (e.g. Chambao pronounces desconocido as deconocio or ahi estas tu as ya ya ta tu; Gipsy Kings frequently drop the ending s and replacing it with an o).

Yeditepe University Writing Center said...

There is a great post on this issue at Hakan's blog. Speech is silver; singing is gold. An enjoyable read

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