Mag. Markus Christiner

Musicality and second language acquisition: the role of singing in phonetic language aptitude

Betreuung: Wolfgang U. Dressler, Susanne Maria Reiterer
Zeitraum: 2017-
Kontakt: oder

In previous research on speech/accent imitation musical expertise has been shown to be the best predictor for explaining individual differences in imitating foreign languages of familiar and unfamiliar utterances. The underlying mechanisms why musicians (instrumentalists and vocalists) may be benefited in the acquisition and imitation of speech have been discussed in much detail in the recent literature. Behavioural research, for example, found that musicians may treat short and unintelligible speech streams like musical statements, or rely on the “musical components of speech” when listening to and generating new utterances. Others concluded that overlaps of speech and music processing might explain musicians’ better ability to imitate, memorize or reproduce unfamiliar and familiar speech to name but a few. More recently, it has been demonstrated that differences among instrumentalists and vocalists were also found when their speech imitation ability was compared directly, while their perceptual ability to discriminate musical statements did not differ. Most of the former mentioned investigations may approach towards music and language comparisons from a more music dominated dimension. Reversing this, it may be worth taking a closer look from the perspective of linguistics. Following traditional theories, languages vary on their foot rhythm and are classified into stress-timed, syllable-timed and mora-timed. Additionally, Chinese has been categorized as a tone language which has a strong musical component. Considering classifications in linguistics, I want to analyse whether participants perform differently according to the rhythmic dimension of the language they imitate. The working hypothesis is that people with higher language aptitude may be able to imitate various languages more easily irrespective of the rhythmic dimension a language belongs to. In previous investigations vocalists outperformed instrumentalists when imitating Hindi which is rather difficult to perceive and to produce as the stimuli contained retroflex sounds which require the tongue curled back when generated. The reason for vocalists’ better performances may be a result of enhanced somatosensory ability and vocal flexibility which may play an as important role in the imitation of speech as enhanced perception does. Taking into consideration that Hindi was the only language tested, it will now be of interest to examine whether this finding  holds true for other languages, such as,  Chinese, which is more musical in its nature. As a third research question I want to test whether any of the categories, that is to say stress-timed, syllable-timed or mora-timed languages, may be more easily reproduced by participants of higher musical/singing ability.