Can music help young children speak?

The triple meter of that waltz may be beneficial to your baby. In any case, it’s one of the types of music that a team of researchers from the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington used in order to highlight the positive effects of early music education on speech development in young children. How can music help them acquire language? Let’s take a look at the research!

In their study, T. Christina Zhao and Patricia K. Kuhl wanted to determine whether music games could facilitate speech development in infants. 20 9-month old babies were taught to reproduce musical rhythms and were compared with 19 other babies of the same age who were allowed to play with cars and cubes. 12 sessions of 15 minutes each were filmed over a period of 4 weeks during which the researchers (with the help of the parents) had the children listen to songs with 3 different tempos (chosen from CDs commercially available for infants and young children) and taught them to tap the rhythm; the babies would for example shake maracas, tap their feet or “bounce.”

One week after the experiment, all of the babies were placed in a scanner while listening to a series of musical sounds which were occasionally altered by for example softening the last 2 beats of a sequence, or deleting a beat. To assess the infants’ sensitivity to speech, they were also subjected to foreign syllabic structures.

So what happened? When listening to the altered stimuli, the babies in the music group all demonstrated greater brain activity than those in the control group. The researchers largely focused their attention on the temporal and prefrontal areas of the cortex, which play a key role in attention and concentration. According to the authors, “like music, language has strong rhythmic patterns. The timing of syllables helps listeners define one speech sound from another and understand what someone is saying. And it's the ability to identify differences in speech sounds that helps babies to learn to speak.”

Their study demonstrates that, very early on, rhythm processing (through the rhythm copying game) can be generalized to speech processing, improving young children's capacity to detect and anticipate language rhythms. It’s important to emphasize that the experimental protocol used in the study combines auditory experience with other modalities, particularly motor function (the children had to reproduce the rhythm through movement). It is thus necessary to determine the contribution of the sensory-motor system in auditory learning by establishing a passive listening protocol, for example.

Nevertheless, the study by T. Christina Zhao and Patricia K. Kuhl opens new perspectives; the authors conclude that “the effects of engaging in music go beyond music itself. Music experience has the potential to boost broader cognitive skills.” Does having rhythm also make you a smooth talker?
Source: T. Christina Zhao and Patricia K. Kuhl, “Musical intervention enhances infants’ neural processing of temporal structure in music and speech”, in PNAS, vol.113, n°19, 17 March 2016.

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