Music and languages

While I was still studying at university, I heard that those who show a particular aptitude for languages usually have an ear for music too. As I’ve been singing in a choir since I was six years old and I’ve always been good at learning new languages, I was intrigued and I decided to gather some information about this connection.

The connection basically lies in the fact that music imitates sounds, which can also enhance one’s phonetic ability: musicians develop a habit to distinguish, memorise and repeat sounds and this holds particularly true for singers. Having an ear for languages means being able to listen and reproduce a wide range of sounds: if the language you’re learning presents a wider range than your own native language does, you will certainly encounter more pronunciation difficulties.

According to Susanne Reiterer, who works at the University of Vienna, musicians –singers especially – are better than your average bloke at learning foreign languages: the brain regions in charge of reproducing sounds are in fact more developed in musicians.

However, musical aptitude is just one of many factors as far as learning languages is concerned: Susanne Reiterer and her team have identified some 20 others, which can be classified as biological, social, linguistic and psychological factors. All in all, 70% of us are neither particularly good nor bad at learning new languages, whereas 15% possess a particular talent and the remaining 15% find it very difficult. Reiterer also established that there is no age limit to start learning foreign languages.

Even though natural talent plays an important role in learning new languages, as for everything else, it is not enough: study, exercise and hard work are crucial to achieve progress. This means that musical aptitude is not enough and is also not essential for the purpose of learning new foreign languages: it may just be an advantage.