DUROSE TRANSLATIONS Your words, your world.

Post #4: Music…the key to language learning?

"If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music." Gustav Mahler

Although this blog is primarily focused around language, translation and all things wordy, I thought that it was about time that I brought my other passion in life into the picture.

Music has always been extremely important to me and has always played a huge part in my life. As a musician, music is my escape when life becomes overwhelming and you need that moment to collect your thoughts and just be. For any freelancer, I think that having something that takes you away from your work, even if just for 5 minutes, is enormously important, if you are to keep a fresh mind and work efficiently and accurately. For me, that something is music making.

The links between the two disciplines I have based my life around have always fascinated me. Language learning and music making have always seemed to come naturally to me, and I have often noted that I apply the same mental processes to both practices. Why is this? What do the two have in common exactly?

If we break both disciplines down into a single musical excerpt and a sentence in a foreign language, the common factors shared between them are obvious. Both are made up of a string of sounds, which vary according to numerous criteria. Within a musical excerpt, the sounds vary according to pitch, note length and timbre, which can loosely be mapped onto intonation, word/syllable length and choice of consonants or vowels. These variations can often be extremely subtle, and those amongst us who have been exposed to music at an early age therefore often find it much easier to identify the subtle sound changes within a foreign language. This is particularly pertinent when considering different accents for different social and geographical subsets, as in these instances, variations between the sounds are extremely subtle. So subtle that they are almost impossible to identify for a foreign speaker.

When I think about all those hours spent in a practice room, the key to achieving the sound I desired was listening. Without listening to your own playing, you cannot begin to adjust the sound you create. In exactly the same way, recognizing the subtle differences in the sounds that make up a foreign language does not only help us to understand the words being spoken, but it also helps us to reproduce the pronunciation of those words.

I have met many linguists who have actually used music within their language learning, often listening to popular music in their chosen language to help them acquire a faster grasp of it. (This is something I am definitely an advocate of, particularly Catalan rock – have a listen to Els Pets). Yes, in some ways this is just a fun way to learn new vocabulary and become more familiar with the culture of the language, but I think it goes deeper than that. As I mentioned before, the length of the notes or words/syllables is a defining factor in the resulting musical or verbal phrase. One of the main difficulties I encounter when interacting with someone in a foreign language, particularly when they are speaking particularly quickly, is knowing where one word ends and another begins. Without deciphering this, all you hear is sounds, and you cannot begin to translate the meaning of the words. However, when you listen to a song, the natural rhythm of the language is reflected far more than in normal speech. Using songs to aid your language learning can therefore be useful in becoming accustomed to the natural rhythm of a language. Many musicians, however, often already possess the ability to internally ‘feel’ this rhythm, as it is essential in terms of phrasing, mastering complicated rhythms and generally playing in time. This is therefore maybe why ‘people who have a better sense of rhythm and can move to a beat show more consistent brain responses to speech than those with less rhythm’, published in the September 18, 2013 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience. In other words, if you got rhythm, you are also more likely to possess the ability to decipher the individual sounds of each word within a sentence.

Although music is obviously a primarily creative discipline, it is still built upon profound, complicated rules of harmony. In exactly the same way, just as a language is a means to expressing oneself, it is built upon fixed rules of grammar and syntax. In this way, the two disciplines prove themselves to be fairly mathematical, and require use of the frontal lobes of the brain, which help us to unconsciously learn and utilize the rules of both music and languages.

All of the technical stuff aside, I think it’s also important to take a moment to appreciate the pure creativity and overwhelming richness of the two disciplines. Music and languages provide us all with a plethora of cultural stimulus, which really do go hand in hand in my opinion. After all, just as languages are defined by the cultures they stem from, so is music, and an appreciation and interest in this definitely provokes similar brain processes for the two disciplines across a large number of people.

I hope this has been an interesting read, whether you are musically/linguistically inclined or not. For those linguists amongst you who have ever used music throughout your linguistic development, I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Have a great week!

Rebecca Durose Thursday 30 April 2015