Piano Lessons and Language

My mom enrolled my sisters and I into piano in hopes that we would find a hobby (for me, it became more than that - thanks Mom!) and that we would learn discipline and patience. But I doubt that my mom was thinking about how piano would help us in learning languages. Growing up my mom taught us how to speak Mandarin and Cantonese, and in school up to high school I took higher level French (I completely lost it all!). Language was not my strongest subject in school but then the question lies, had I not been in piano lessons would I have been able to retain my mother tongue? On the flip side, one of my closest friends who was never enrolled in music lessons, how is she able to absorb any language like a sponge?


Nevertheless this week's blog is quite fitting given the challenge that I am currently going through in preparation for the international music festival in Chengdu, China that I am so excited to embark on in exactly 1 week. If any of you have seen my Instagram stories the last couple of weeks you would have seen the struggle that I was in trying to learn, pronounce correctly and memorize Chinese lyrics! I came across an article in TIME magazine where a new study concluded that putting your child in piano lesson can help "kids build up their language skills". (Why You Should Enroll Your Kids in Piano Lesson, According to Science;  Ducharme, J ; July 1, 2018)

“There’s evidence that early exposure to piano practice enhances the processing of sounds that extend not only from music, but also into language”

This can easily tie into specialized professions within child psychology in the learning and development segment when studying how is this so? I'm no child expert by any means but the conclusion that came out from this study is so interesting, I think I may know a thing or two about how piano, and if I may, how studying any musical instrument can increase aptitude in language skills.

I studied classical music in piano since the age of 6 and went all the way up to the ARCT Performers level. Along with the practical side, we had to learn theory, history and techniques. Part of the technical side were ear tests where we had to train our ears to distinguish between major/minor keys, diminished vs dominant 7ths, intervals (the space between two played notes), and then you would have to "play back" a short tune. The more advanced the level, the harder and longer the segment. I was never that talented with my ear - in fact I believe I may be tone deaf at times and require chords in order to learn a new song. Only then I can potentially improvise and make it "my own" once I learn the keys. A child in piano lesson may be able to hear the subtle differences between spoken words as heard in different languages. Let's take English for example - differences among vowels are a lot more easier to distinguish from consonants that require more precision. Now let's take a second language - the language that I grew up speaking but ironically have a hard time at memorizing the lyrics for - Mandarin. This is probably one of the hardest language to learn because Mandarin is extremely tone dependent. What I mean is that one syllable can have 4 to 5 different meanings! Here is what I'm talking about:

EG. "MA"

Crazy right? Pitch discrimination is so key! I've also learned recently from another friend who also happens to be one of the most talented piano players in Edmonton, that the way their EAR is trained is FREQUENCY differentiation! I CAN'T EVEN IMAGINE WHAT THIS IS LIKE! We are talking about hearing the difference among SOUND FREQUENCIES - we're talking about hearing the difference between the note C (which is equal to 32.703 HZ ) vs D (which is equal to 36.708 HZ) !


As an adult learning a new language, we tend to not pick up new skills as quickly as children because we've already developed a lot of habits and skills through our experiences, education, social interactions etc. and our neurons are already wired in a way that makes it harder for us to learn new things. For me, I see how learning the piano helped me in learning new languages - but I would also like to add that  learning a new language in my adulthood also requires meaning, emotional attachment and because lyrics are associated with music, the flow and syncopation can also help me learn! So, I am happy to report that I am 98% complete in learning the 3rd song and extremely excited to share the covers with all of you!


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