Lexical tone languages like Mandarin Chinese require listeners to discriminate among different pitch patterns. A syllable spoken with a rising pitch (e.g. bí ‘nose’) carries a different meaning than the same syllable spoken with a falling pitch (e.g. bì ‘arm’). For native speakers (L1) of a non-tonal language, accurate perception of tones in a second language (L2) is notoriously difficult. Musicians, however, have typically shown an aptitude for lexical tone learning due to the unique perceptual demands of music. This study tested whether musical effects can be exploited to improve linguistic abilities in the general population. A pre-test, 8-week training, post-test design was used to measure L1 English participants’ sensitivity to tone. Individual Differences Scaling was used to measure participants’ weighting of pitch height and movement cues. Participants took part in classroom Mandarin learning only (+L2), musical ear training only (+Music), or classroom learning combined with musical training (+L2+Music). An L1 Mandarin group served as a baseline. At pre-test, mean sensitivity to tone and multidimensional scaling results were similar across all three L1 English groups. After training, all three L1 English groups improved in mean sensitivity, though only the +L2+Music group did so at a significant rate. Multidimensional scaling revealed that all groups increased their weighting of the more informative pitch movement cue at roughly equal rates. Short-term musical training thus affected change in cue weighting of linguistic pitch in a manner comparable to that occurring after a semester of L2 classroom learning. When combined with classroom learning, short-term musical training resulted in even greater sensitivity to pitch movement cues. These results contribute to models of music-language interaction and suggest that focused application of non-linguistic acoustic training can improve phonetic perception in ways that are relevant to language learning.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Language and Linguistics
- Linguistics and Language