Maria Hörl

The Impact of Bilingualism on Musical Abilities: measured in 445 German-English/French/Turkish Bi-and Trilinguals

Supervision: Susanne Maria Reiterer, Rosemarie Tracy
Period: 2015-

Many studies have focused on the impact of musical abilities on linguistic abilities such as the enhancement of phonological processing or L2 proficiency through musical training. The idea that not only musical abilities positively influence linguistic abilities, but that this may be the case in both directions, is relatively new. Previous research claims that even though musical pitch differs from linguistic pitch, (long-term) experience in pitch distinction may lead to better performance in auditory tasks in both musical and linguistic domains. Recent brain measurements also suggest that music and language are processed in similar and partly overlapping areas of the brain and not in different ones as previously thought. Generally, it is assumed that training as well as genetic disposition contribute to musicality, as is the case with language.

Each language has its own intonation and rhythm. These features are also present in music. When learning two languages, early bilinguals have to distinguish languages by these means and therefore constantly train their auditory perception. Bilingual infants are able to use prosodic cues to identify word order. This auditory training may result in higher density of grey matter in the brain, which has been recognized more often with early bilinguals compared to late bilinguals.

We measured 445 monolingual, bilingual and trilingual school children.  The monolinguals were raised with German only. The bi- and trilinguals were all raised with German and another language from birth. The bilinguals were grouped as follows: children speaking English and German, French and German or Turkish and German as well as bilinguals Speaking German and another language apart from the three languages.  

The musical abilities regarding music perception – including pitch, rhythm, tempo, tuning and instrumental timbre – of the bilinguals and trilinguals were compared to those of the monolinguals.

First findings indicate that different types of bilinguals result in different scores in the musicality test, depending on the second language spoken. However, further analysis reveals that this can be explained by other factors, such as intelligence or musical training.

Our findings further show that the bilingual groups measured differ in intelligence, musicality and SES.