Perfect pitch

Discovering the relationship between language learning and music inspires professor and his team of undergraduate researchers
Student Researchers

Assistant Professor of Psychology Evan Bradley works with Brandywine undergraduate researchers. 

Credit: Mike McDade

MEDIA, Pa. — Evan Bradley of Penn State Brandywine is working with six undergraduate students to discover the relationship between language learning and music perception, which could change the approach to language education.

“Both language and music involve auditory perception, but we don’t truly know how much they have in common,” said Bradley, assistant professor of psychology. “Previous research shows that musicians perceive sound differently when compared to people who don’t play an instrument. Sometimes that impacts the way they perceive languages, especially tonal languages.”

Tonal languages, such as Mandarin, are languages where the pitch pattern of a word matters in determining its meaning. Bradley explained that many native English speakers have difficulty learning tonal languages because identifying pitch in words is not a familiar skill for them. However, “if you’re a musician, you are a little better at pitch perception because you develop that skill,” he said. “A lot of people have notions about how languages and music relate that may or may not be true.”

During the study, Bradley selects research participants who are not musicians and has them complete a computerized musical training program. After completing the training, he tests the participants to determine whether or not their ability to perceive a foreign language has improved. During the computerized language perception test, participants are told that they are going to hear words in Mandarin and that the pitch pattern of the words matters in determining the words’ meaning. Then, the program speaks two Mandarin words consecutively and the participants decide whether the words are the same or different. Brandywine students Jacqueline Brown, Corey Young, Brian Fairfield, Guy Mauro, Antonio Nicosia and Lori Ezzedine help Bradley look at the data and discover potential correlations between music perception and language understanding.

“This research will help us get a better understanding of the differences in our perceptions of languages based on the language that we’re native to,” said Brown, a senior psychology major.

Given the popularity and amount of language learning software and applications currently available, Bradley explained their research could prove to be very significant in changing the approach to language education.

“Theoretically, if it’s true that having musical experience changes the way you perceive language, being able to replicate that in the lab would be exciting because we could then essentially develop auditory training geared toward specific languages that people want to learn,” Bradley said.

“Not only do we investigate various influences of language perception, but we also attempt to discover how strong these influences are to interpreting a new language,” added Young, also a senior psychology major. “Significant findings may permit interventions in how we teach tonal languages to non-native speaking students.”

This spring, the students plan to present their work at Penn State Brandywine’s Exhibition of Undergraduate Research Enterprise and Creative Accomplishment (EURECA). Each year, the event allows undergraduate students across numerous academic disciplines to showcase their research and creative endeavors to the campus community and outside guests after several months of hard work and dedication.

“I think that undergraduate research is becoming a standard at Penn State Brandywine,” Bradley said. “Research requires you to not just passively take in information. It helps you to become a more effective problem solver.”