This study provides the first experimental evidence that a ‘listen-and-repeat’ singing method can support foreign language learning.

It was conducted by Dr Karen Ludke and Dr Katie Overy at the Institute for Music in Human and Social Development at ECA, together with Professor Fernanda Ferreira, formerly based in the Department of Psychology at the University of Edinburgh.

Funded by a scholarship from the University, the research was published in the journal, Memory & Cognition, in July 2013. Its findings were widely covered by both specialist and mainstream media around the world.

In the study, 60 adults were randomly assigned to undertake one of three kinds of ‘listen-and-repeat’ foreign language learning tasks. These tasks were: speaking (normally); speaking (rhythmically); or singing. Hungarian was chosen as the test language because it is unfamiliar to most English speakers and is quite different from both Germanic languages and Romance languages, such as French and Italian. The three groups of 20 adults then took part in a series of five Hungarian language tests.

The singing group performed the best in four of the five tests. Not explained by potentially influencing factors - such as age, gender, mood, memory ability or musical training - this superior performance was statistically significant for the two tests that required participants to recall and produce spoken Hungarian phrases.

As well as offering insights into the way in which the brain integrates music and language, with opportunities to enhance foreign language learning within and outside of the classroom, the study also opens the door for future scientific research in this area. One question, for example, is whether melody can provide an additional memory cue for speech, which later facilitates recall.

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“Most people have experience of remembering words from songs they have heard and songs are sometimes used by language teachers with young children. We thought we would explore whether there was a benefit and found singing was more much effective, particularly when it came to the spoken language tests.”

Dr Katie Overy, IMHSD


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