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