By BERT GAMBINI
Published August 2, 2023
A background in music helps speakers learn a tonal language, such as Mandarin, a new UB study suggests.
People with musical training — whether instrumental or vocal — are better at imitating pitch than someone without that training. Understanding pitch structure is critical with tonal languages that rely on inflection to communicate meaning.
Unlike English, where the inflection placed on a single word can alter a word’s pitch in ways that convey emphasis or emotion, altering pitch in a tonal language can change a word’s meaning.
“Both a musical background and a Mandarin language background influences the ability to match pitch,” says Chihiro Honda, a graduate student of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, and first author of the paper published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. “These findings imply that teachers might want to introduce music as part of their instruction for those trying to acquire a second language.”
This research also speaks to the long-standing debate about whether our brains have separate networks for language and music, according to Peter Pfordresher, professor of psychology and one of the paper’s co-authors.
“This paper isn’t the final say on that debate, but we seem to have the same network at work for both behaviors,” he says. “We might rely on different features of that network depending on whether we’re in a language or a music situation. If you’re attuned to paying attention to pitch through learning a tonal language or through music, that training is going to help you in either situation.”
The research team recruited 127 participants for the study: Mandarin and English speakers, both with and without a background in music. The researchers created 96 short sentences in each language phrased as both a statement and a question — “The children can’t sleep,” for instance.
The authors then used computer software to create pitch patterns based on the spoken sentences, and then composed short melodies based on the pitch of each syllable. Participants listened to and then vocally reproduced these synthetic pitch patterns and melodies, but never heard the original spoken sentences.
After collecting data, the researchers calculated the differences between target pitch and what participants produced.
“Musicians were more accurate in matching absolute pitch across syllables and musical notes than non-musicians,” says Honda. “Mandarin speakers were more accurate at imitating changes within and across pitch patterns compared to English speakers.”