Spoken language is a special type of music

According to an article I came across yesterday music might be what enables us to acquire language, and spoken language could be thought of as a special type of music.

When acquiring language babies first hear speech as “an intentional and often repetitive vocal performance” and they learn to hear and mimic its emotional and musical components, such as rhythm and pitch, before they start to learn and focus on meaning. Being able to distinguish the different sounds of speech seems to be an essential first step for the acquisition of language. Newborn babies are able to distinguish phonemes of any language they hear, but gradually focus on the language(s) they hear most often.

The researchers also found connections between how the brain processes consonants and how it recognize the timbre of different instruments – both processes that require rapid processing.

These findings lend support to the idea that singing came before speech, as discussed in The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen.

I find that it helps to spend time listening to a language to tune your ears to its sounds, and to mimic those sounds, even though you don’t understand what they mean at first – a bit like a baby. If you spend plenty of time listening to a language, when you learn words and phrases it’s easier because they already sound familiar. I probably heard hundreds of hours of Taiwanese while I was in Taiwan, for example, so it sounds familiar, even though I don’t understand much. If I decided to learn more of it, I would find it easier than a language I haven’t heard so much.

Some would call this passive listening, but it isn’t passive – your brain is busily working away trying to make sense of all these strange sounds you’re filling it with and looking for patterns. You can’t learn a language simply by listening – conversational interactions with others are also needed – but I think listening is an important part of the learning process.

4 thoughts on “Spoken language is a special type of music

  1. I think you see this phenomenon in action when you’re at the intermediate level of learning a language: you start talking to a native or listening to something (e.g. a movie) in the language and have a lot of trouble keeping up and understanding, but after an hour or two of this you’ve somehow “adjusted” and can understand almost everything and without a great deal of effort.

    It actually irritates me to no end when I start talking to someone in Spanish via skype and have to ask them to repeat what they said every other sentence but by the time we’re getting ready to end a couple hours later I can understand them perfectly now. Why can’t it be like that at the beginning of the call? Very frustrating.


  2. It can take a while to ‘tune in’ to the way different people speak a language, especially if they have an accent that you’re not familiar with, and/or use unfamiliar turns of phrase. This applies not but just to foreign languages but also to your native language. The more different voices you hear, the easier it becomes to understand unfamiliar ones.

  3. I find it fascinating how in the movies The 13th Warrior and The Last Samurai, the protagonist gradually learns a new language by listening to the conversation of people around him. In the first one, an Arab learns Norse, and in the other, an American learns Japanese. Of course language learning isn’t quite this easy, but especially in The 13th Warrior, the scene where he finally starts to understand what people say, was nicely done.

  4. I had essentially that experience with Spanish (admittedly not as exotic a language as Taiwanese or Arabic). In 1985-1986 I spent about eight months in Chile, and at the end of that time I was depressed at how little my Spanish had improved. Not long afterwards we went to live in France, and as improving my French seemed to be the more urgent objective, I made little effort to improve my Spanish for two or three years. However, I heard it every day, as my wife always spoke in Spanish to our daughter, and towards the end of 1988 I had to give a lecture in Madrid and realized that I could do something reasonably easily that would have been impossible two years earlier.

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