Friday, July 14, 2017

Why using music helps learning pronunciation even when it doesn't!
How did we ever teach or solve problems before neuroscience--or as we occasionally refer to it here: "near-ol'-science"? It is axiomatic that even when an experiment or study goes no place, or worse, it is still scientifically valid as long as it was well designed. (Try telling that to your tenure and promotion committee, however, or try and get a "no results" report published sometime, although that is changing when it comes to replicating well-known studies.)

Neuroscience has certainly added a new dimension to our work. Sometimes, for instance, it highlights a change in brain structure related to some experimental process, even if the treatment in the study didn't work as predicted.

Here's an example with particular relevance for pronunciation teaching, a "no discernable difference in main effect but related changes in the brain anyway" study, relating sound and movement. To misquote one of my favorite quotes from Bertrand Russell: A difference that doesn't make a difference . . . DOES make a difference in this case. Perhaps significantly.

In the study by Moore, Schaefer, Bastin, Roberts and Overy, summarized by Science Daily, Diffusion tensor MRI tractography reveals increased fractional anisotropy (FA) in arcuate fasciculus following music-cued motor training, subjects were trained in a pattern of finger movements either accompanied by music or not, and, of course, fMRI'd as well. The music treatment did not result in any significant difference in learning the skill but in the area of the brain connecting sound and movement, there was a striking increase in activity and activated "white matter". The music had still facilitated the learning in some sense, just not enough--but enough to suggest to researchers that the music-connection is indeed valuable in enhancing motor skill development.

My guess (based on common sense and the experience of generations of teachers who use music for this purpose and others) is that had the experiment involved a more complex skill and possibly more time, the gain by the music group would have been more evident. Another possibility is that the way that the skill was measured did not get at some other aspect of the process or look at it over a long enough time period. Perhaps had a second, related skill been learned next, the enhanced sound-movement connectivity would have been more "pronounced" . . . The researchers suggest as much in their conclusion.

The significance of the study, according the researchers was that: "The study suggests that music makes a key difference. We have long known that music encourages people to move. This study provides the first experimental evidence that adding musical cues to learning [sic] new motor task can lead to changes in white matter structure in the brain." Again, that key difference was in the brain, not in the hands. But if they are right, and I'm certain they are, it points to five important principles:
  • Music facilitates (at least motor and sound connected) learning.
  • The effect may be more cumulative, rather then evident in controlled "one time" studies.
  • Pronunciation learning, especially early in the process is in many respects is a sound-motor problem for the learner.
  • Evidence that training is consonant with brain development should be understood as more systemic, affecting and supporting other analogous processes in language learning as well.
  • There is much we do now that we lack clear empirical evidence for but experience argues strongly for it. Before abandoning it, connect up fMRIs to students and see what is actually going on in the brain. You may be making all kinds of progress that will be evident soon, or a bit later. 
Publish it, using this study as your model! It's a (no) brainer!
University of Edinburgh. (2017, July 6). Learning with music can change brain structure: Using musical cues to learn a physical task significantly develops an important part of the brain, according to a new study. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 13, 2017 from

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