Music and Language Acquisition

A group of researchers from Italy, Chile, Montreal, and the USA (Stanford University) studied 112 newborns that were between 1-5 days-old; they wanted  to find out their capacity to recognize common words of their native language.

There is little evidence for this before four months of age. Fundamental to acquiring language is the capacity to memorize speech sounds. They wanted to find the answer to: Can the human brain remember words heard this soon after birth? They also wanted to understand the causes of forgetting in early infancy. What they discovered was novel words and music were vital to language acquisition.

Scientist have already shown that babies are sensitive to varying characteristics of speech (rhythm, prosody, simple regularities) and are able to recognize familiar voices, songs, and stories; they can differentiate between rhythmically distinct languages; and they prefer their native language over a foreign one. This study found: “newborns recognize the familiar word after two minutes of silence or after hearing music, but not after hearing a different word. . . Moreover, because neonates forget words in the presence of some –but not all– sounds, the results indicate that the interference phenomenon that causes forgetting is selective.

Benavides-Varela S, Gómez DM, Macagno F, Bion RAH, Peretz I, et al. (2011) Memory in the Neonate Brain. PLoS ONE 6(11): e27497. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0027497

While we’re on the topic of the importance of music and, by inference, rhythm to cognitive development, please check out University of California, San Francisco’s new Rhythm and the Brain Project:

Dr. Adam Gazzaley, M.D., Ph.D. and Mickey Hart are collaborators “unlocking the power of rhythm to understand and enhance brain function.” As they explain: “Rhythm training & musical intervention might arrest the worst effects of cognitive aging & even ward off neurodegenerative disease.”

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