Grammar, rhythm, and the brain

Drums and drum stick symbolic of grammar language learning and rhythm

If music and language are so similar, shouldn’t they overlap in the brain? The answer is yes, and it’s probably been that way for many thousands of years. In fact, we often end up in a chicken-or-egg situation when we talk about music and language. Which one came first, evolutionarily speaking?

“Music is a fundamental part of our evolution,” says Jay Schulkin, a scientist at Georgetown University’s Department of Neuroscience. “We probably sang before we spoke in syntactically guided sentences.”

If this is true, it means music and rhythm probably had an impact on the formation and use of language.

So, do our brains process music and language in a similar way?

In 2015, researchers found that we may use the same part of the brain—the Broca’s area, under the left temple—to process both music and language. But there was an important nuance to their discovery: specifically instrumental music (no lyrics) and grammar (not the meaning of words) were processed in the same area.

That means there may indeed be a close relationship between music and language, but it’s grammar and rhythm in particular that justify the comparison.

Their study was quite clever. After asking participants to read simple and complex phrases while listening to a short clip of music, the researchers had them judge the “closure” of the music—in other words, how complete it felt. Did they think the clip had been played fully, or cut off before the end of the sequence? When they’d been reading more complex phrases, participants reported the music to have less closure; when they’d been reading simpler phrases, they judged the music to be more complete.

What does this mean? The structure of the music and the structure of the sentence was being processed in the same part of the brain, so the two information streams were competing with each other for the participants’ attention. “This is the first direct evidence which suggests that music and language syntactic processing interact in Broca’s area,” the researchers write.

Learning and music processing


A research team at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Educational Sciences, the Beijing Normal University (BNU,) and the University of Turku found that music and language both have an impact on the neural processing of auditory signals.

Their study involved Chinese primary school students aged 8-11 who were attending music training courses as well as English classes. Chinese speakers are known to be “tonal language speakers,” meaning the language relies heavily on the perception of pitch.

The music courses involved singing practice in one-hour-long sessions twice a week throughout the school year. The English classes trained them in both speaking and writing. The researchers measured their brain activity in response to auditory stimuli before and after the courses. They found that students who took the English classes showed enhanced processing of musical sounds in their brain, especially related to pitch.

“A foreign language program is able to foster auditory and music neurocognition, at least in tonal language speakers, in a manner comparable to that by a music program,” they concluded. “Our results support the tight coupling of musical and linguistic brain functions also in the developing brain.”

Commenting on this study, Erin Hannon, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, said, “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.”

If music and language are so closely tied in the brain, we may have a great opportunity on our hands to leverage this connection for better foreign language learning outcomes.

Rhythm and foreign language learning

Young child with microphone learning language through music

Earlier this year, a group of German researchers found that singing improved EFL students’ vocabulary and grammar skills in a primary school setting. Compared to students who learned vocab and grammar through speaking lyrics only, students who sang the lyrics made greater strides in spelling, vocab, and grammar. “Results indicate a potential benefit of singing for grammar learning,” the researchers wrote [source].

Meanwhile, at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center in Nashville, another group found that children with strong musical rhythm perception skills also have strong grammar skills [source].

Testing twenty-five 6-year-olds, the team measured musical aptitude and grammar skills using a series of melody-based computer games and questionnaires, respectively. Kids who aced the rhythm games also scored higher on the grammar questionnaire, regardless of non-verbal IQ, socioeconomic status, or prior musical experience.

“In grammar, children’s minds must sort the sounds they hear into words, phrases, and sentences, and the rhythm of speech helps them to do so,” explains Reyna Gordon, who led the study. “In music, rhythmic sequences give structure to musical phrases and help listeners figure out how to move to the beat.”

In 2014, Ludke, Ferreira, & Overy studied the effects of foreign vocabulary learning in “three listen-and-repeat” conditions: hearing sung phrases, rhythmic spoken phrases, or spoken phrases. While student performance was highest in the sung condition for all tests, the researchers found a significant difference between sing/rhythmical versus spoken conditions for students speaking their target language (Hungarian).

Another study on Hungarian learners found that “rhythmic priming” (being played a rhythm before a vocabulary task) improves young children’s grammatical processing. Specifically, they found that it improved performance on grammatical tasks but not word retrieval or non-linguistic tasks.

Children with developmental language disorder were tested as well, and they too showed improvements on the grammar task after rhythmic priming. “The results highlight the importance of rhythm in spoken language processing, and point towards a possible intervention tool in language disorders,” the researchers write.

Learning languages with music in the classroom


Despite the research on music and foreign language learning still being in its early years, there are a few things we can try out now to help boost our skills. Pauline Degrave, a researcher at UCLouvain in Belgium, outlines three main ways we can leverage music in the classroom:

1. Sounds and background music

    Sometimes simply having music can simply be a good backdrop for language learning. Referencing a 2006 study on the effect of background music on vocabulary recall in university students, Degrave says memory for new words can be enhanced just by playing the right music in the background.

    “Half of the students learned the pairs in silence and the other half learned while a Bach’s concerto played in the background,” Degrave says. “Recall scores were higher for the musical condition compared to the silent condition.”

    2. Songs

      Degrave notes that from the 1950s through the 1970s, songs were sometimes used with the Audiolingual Method, which is an “approach in the teaching of foreign languages based on a system of drills in which the student repeats or adapts model sentences delivered orally or played aloud by the teacher.”

      Since then, instructors have developed a range of different foreign language teaching methods using songs, including Anton’s Contemporary Music Approach (1990) and Mora’s Melodic Approach (2000).

      3. Rhythmical activities

        In 1993, English teacher Carolyn Graham came up with an ESL teaching method using the rhythms of traditional American jazz to teach American English. She called these lessons the “Jazz Chants.”

        The chants reflect the link between music and language within a culture. Around the world, foreign language instructors have developed similar methods, such as the Dutch Taalriedels and the French Ritmimot.

        Despite convincing evidence from neuroscience and foreign language literature, however, teachers are still slow to adopt music-based lessons in the classroom. In a survey on the incorporation of music in English classrooms in Brussels Secondary French-speaking schools, Jamoulle (2017) found that music was seldom used as more than a fun activity.

        “Teachers seem to be positive about the use of music in the foreign language classroom, but the incorporation appears rather occasional,” Degrave says. “A lack of resources and a lack of theoretical grounding could explain this discrepancy.”

        With so many students taking learning into their own hands these days, whether through language learning apps or extra time spent studying outside the classroom, making language learning more musical can be a fun challenge to take on independently.

        Memorizing lyrics to songs in your target language, or simply playing foreign songs in the background as you go about your other daily activities might be good ways to experiment with boosting your skills.