The Link Between Learning Languages and Music
American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called music “the universal language”. Perhaps there’s something innately musical about humans – a primal way of communicating and building community that dates back as far as the earliest cultures. Soon after we’re born, we start to dance and recognise musical cues.
What Came First: Music or Language?
Some research suggests that music predates language – and even human beings. It could have been integral to the development of our early societies and prehistoric languages, maybe even human intelligence.
Historically, the most widely-accepted view of music is that it’s nothing more than “auditory cheesecake”: the term coined by renowned cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker to describe music as nice, but unnecessary for language to develop.
This view is being challenged fiercely with the rise of new evidence in neuroscience – which shows our brains treating music as it does language.
While emerging sciences are slowly providing evidence for a link, some musicians and linguists have felt the relationship between music and language their whole lives. Research has shown that bilingual children are more sensitive to detecting musical sounds, and that musicians make better language learners.
In both language and music, the earlier in life children are exposed, the better they develop their skills – learning either music or modern languages as a subject can impart lifelong skills and abilities that exceed their face value.
Learning both together creates a feedback loop of knowledge, where one subject informs the other – and together, they open a world of new possibilities.
Learning Language and Music
Our first attempts at speaking a new language share striking similarities with our first attempts at playing a musical instrument. Fragmented, slow phrasing, frequent mistakes and corrections – they’re one and the same. Both are physically and mentally demanding: but with enough time (and a great teacher), they become second nature.
Both music and language demand a certain level of confidence. Balancing encouragement with reassurance ensures that children and young people see their progress, build their confidence and keep going with their subject. It takes courage to speak a language you’ve only just started learning – just as much as playing an instrument in front of a class.
Even the processes of learning and teaching music and languages are similar. Both are highly interactive and practical, but also involve a disciplined understanding of theory. And neither is more complex or simple than the other; both are deep wells of knowledge, passion and intricacy.
For that reason, it’s difficult to prioritise one over the other. Does one subject offer an advantage over the other? Are certificates for languages more of a “legitimate” qualification?
There’s no serious answer to these questions, because the true value of each is much deeper than their perceived advantages or usefulness. Just because a child learns the piano doesn’t mean they’ll become a celebrated concert pianist – but similarly, a student learning Spanish may never live or study in Spain.
Ambition is a wonderful thing – but often, lofty goals miss the point of learning a new language or studying music: if a child loves it, if they’re interested in learning more and being better at it – then it’s the right subject for them.
It’s our job to nurture, encourage and give direction to all of our students – to help them find a fulfilling and rewarding path in life.
Music and Languages at School
We are Clayesmore School – a prep school and senior school, as well as one of the leading boarding sixth forms in Dorset. We have a deep understanding of the value of music and languages. Language comes to life at our school, and we’re proud to encourage all of our students to speak, sing and be the best they can be.