Friday, October 21, 2011

Music: Like jet fuel for kids' (and adults'?) language learning?

Some scientists seem to have come up with some darn good stuff for kids' language learning. From Science Daily:

Canadian scientists who specialize in learning, memory and language in children have found exciting evidence that pre-schoolers can improve their verbal intelligence after only 20 days of classroom instruction using interactive, music-based cognitive training cartoons.
And the results are impressive:
The verbal IQ tests assessed the children's attention, word recall and ability to analyze information and solve problems using language-based reasoning. Brain imaging enabled researchers to detect if functional brain changes had occurred related to the cognitive training.

When the children were re-tested five to 20 days after the end of the training programs, researchers … found quite a different result in the children who took the music-based, cognitive training. Ninety percent of those children exhibited intelligence improvements -- five times larger than the other group -- on a measure of vocabulary knowledge, as well as increased accuracy and reaction time. The music group also showed brain changes that co-related to their enhanced cognitive performance.

So what's that mean for us language learners (and our language-learning kids)?

First, let's take a step back: what the heck is this "interactive, music-based cognitive training" stuff? Well, it's not really clear, but here's the closest thing they give to an explanation:

In the study, 48 pre-schoolers four to six years of age participated in computer-based, cognitive training programs that were projected on a large classroom wall and featured colorful, animated cartoon characters delivering the lessons. [It] involved a combination of motor, perceptual and cognitive tasks, and included training on rhythm, pitch, melody, voice and basic musical concepts.
So I can't say that completely clears it up (cognitive training = learning in fancy-shmancy science speak?), but it's clear that they're using multiple types of exposures to the information: movement of some sort (motor), audio and visual exposure (perceptual) and presumably output of some sort (cognitive tasks). That alone would be pretty uninteresting; it's well-known that multiple kinds of exposure to a piece of information will allow you to draw more connections to that piece of information in your head, and thus lead you to recall it more easily.

What's more interesting is the second part: what does the training on basic musical concepts have to do with it all?

"These results are dramatic not only because they clearly connect cognitive improvement to musical training, but also because the improvements in language and attention are found in completely different domains than the one used for training…," said [Dr. Ellen Bialystok, a principal collaborator in the study].
From the article alone (the study itself is behind a paywall), I'm not so sure the connection is so clear: could it not have just been the multiple and varying exposures that led to the increase in verbal IQ?

If it's the music factor that's providing the boost, it makes me wonder what benefits I could have gotten from picking up a musical instrument more effectively. I did take drum lessons for a few years (and even now am constantly tapping on things, as drummers are wont to do) and sang in choirs and a capella groups in high school and college, and although I was just good enough to make the cut I was always picking up the rear, as a favorite target at which musical directors could yell "You're off key again!" My wife, on the other hand, took piano for much of her life and I'd say that her innate language skills are way superior to mine. I wonder what role her musical training (as opposed to her gender) played in that? (Our bases are covered with our kids; my daughter's taking piano lessons and my son violin. My wife nixed my rock-'n-roll electric guitar suggestion, but, hey, they'd get the same verbal IQ boost from that too, right?)

That leads to another question: is it too late for those of us who didn't get the musical skills when we were young? Could I start some serious musical training now and get the benefits from it? As the article says, "The findings have exciting implications for conceptualizing and improving neuroeducation programs for children of all ages, and potentially for older adults," but this study alone certainly won't let you draw any conclusions for adults. It might not be music alone, but rather the whole package of this "interactive, music-based cognitive training" stuff.

The take-away message for adults or kids isn't wholly clear from the article alone, but I'm leaning towards the "music boosts verbal IQ" hypothesis and considering joining my daughter at her next piano lesson.

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