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A Developing Brain May Process Music Differently When Learning a Foreign Language

a child's hands write chinese characters

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Key Takeaways

  • Group-based foreign language learning had a greater impact than music training on children's auditory predictive processes.
  • The music program facilitated pitch encoding when focused on basic sound features. 
  • Musical and linguistic functions appear to be closely linked in the developing brain.

Extra-curricular activities are often encouraged from a young age, but different activities have varied effects on the brain. A study published in Cerebral Cortex found that when children partook in foreign language classes it affected how their brains processed music as well, particularly in facilitating the processing of auditory signals.

This research highlights the link between music and language in developing brains and emphasizes the importance of exposing children to both activities in order to strengthen auditory processing skills.

Understanding the Research

This longitudinal study was conducted among elementary school students aged 8–11 in China, whereby electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings were assessed before and after completion of various training programs.

Researchers found causal evidence that a group-based foreign language training program facilitated neural auditory processing more than a music program when both were provided with similar content and intensity.

Despite these novel research findings, a limitation of this study is that its participants all spoke Mandarin as their first language and were learning English, so this may not be easily generalizable to other groups.

Language Learning Should Be Promoted

Behavioral health medical director at Community Health of South Florida, psychiatrist Howard Pratt, DO, says, “More research is needed to make definitive conclusions, but I think it points to the issue that the more kids are exposed to different languages, but music as well, that education is likely to have a positive effect on their overall academics.”

Since funding issues tend to be addressed by cuts to the arts, Pratt explains how this research demonstrates the value of such programs. “We always like to stress math and science, which of course are very important, but equally important is exposure to music and different languages,” he says.

Pratt says, “This research bolsters the greater body of research that has shown that music and language education help improve performance in other areas like math and science. They are vital parts of a well-rounded curriculum and countless studies have shown that they have immensely positive effects on children and their overall academic progress.”

Howard Pratt, DO

We always like to stress math and science, which of course are very important, but equally important is exposure to music and different languages.

— Howard Pratt, DO

Despite such research, Pratt cautions that this should not serve as a silent call for parents to enroll kids in piano, violin, Mandarin, etc., especially if not of interest to them. “It’s important to realize that every child is different, with varying interests. They will be drawn to different things and influenced by different things and that is totally okay,” says Dr. Pratt.

Pratt says, “I was working with an 11-year-old who was doing horribly in school work, but wanted the latest electronic gaming system.” When his parents declined to buy it and instead enrolled him in piano lessons, Pratt shared that the child was obviously upset but he started excelling at music, which introduced him to a new social circle of peers who were performing well academically, which led him to do the same over some time.

Pratt explains, “What’s interesting is that doing well in piano led him to approach his academics in the same way he would approach a piece of music that he had never played before. He had learned a new way of looking at a problem and solving it, and that not only helped him in his studies, but I think it’s a valuable life lesson he can now apply to any challenge.”

More Research Needed

Psychology professor and director of the Auditory Cognition and Development Lab at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Erin Hannon, PhD, says, “This is a very nicely designed study and it would be great to see it replicated with other native language groups because it’s quite possible that these effects arise from factors related to differences between Chinese (a tone language) and English (a non-tonal language).”

For example, Hannon explains that it would be beneficial to see such a research study repeated with native English-speaking children learning both Chinese and perhaps also Spanish. “With these kinds of studies, it is always critical to replicate them with larger and more diverse samples but this study provides an intriguing first piece of evidence,” she says.

Hannon says, “The public should appreciate that there appear to be interesting links between language and music processing, especially during childhood. This is getting more attention lately, but language and music both develop in tandem and are key modalities of human communication.”

While attention has long been given to how musical training impacts other abilities, such as language and academic pursuits, Hannon supports the idea that language experience could influence musical processing as important. “There are other studies showing that your native language can influence how your brain processes pitch, but this study is unique in suggesting that learning a second language could also impact pitch processing,” she says.

Erin Hannon, PhD

With these kinds of studies, it is always critical to replicate them with larger and more diverse samples but this study provides an intriguing first piece of evidence.

— Erin Hannon, PhD

What This Means For You

As this research study demonstrates, linguistic and musical brain functions appear to be closely connected. Especially among children given their developing brains, such learning of a foreign language may support music training. This research reinforces the need for schools to invest more funding in the arts to support well-rounded development.

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  1. Tervaniemi M, Putkinen V, Nie P, et al. Improved auditory function caused by music versus foreign language training at school age: is there a difference? Cereb Cortex. Published online July 16, 2021. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhab194