It has been often stated that musicality, in its very broad sense, facilitates foreign language learning. Such statements are found in popular science articles or internet forums and are also often repeated by foreign language teachers. Are such opinions scientifically justified? As it turns out, we still know surprisingly little about this relation.
Firstly, we decided to narrow down the scope of our research to the English language, as the language we have been teaching for a long time now and the processes of which we investigate in our everyday scientific work. Secondly, it is widely known that actual language proficiency is affected by a variety of competences that are processed in different parts of the brain and thus, cannot be treated equally. It is not unheard of that one person finds it easy to acquire new vocabulary, but verbal communication is hard for them, while another might learn grammar quickly, but struggle with pronunciation instead. From these various competences, we decided to investigate the last one, as both music and pronunciation are based on similar parameters: both have melody and rhythm and they trigger the same areas of the brain.
It is commonly thought that people exhibiting musical talent acquire foreign language pronunciation with greater success, however, in the majority of studies on the topic, musical hearing and language proficiency are both verified impressionistically or with the use of surveys, rather than tested empirically. Our study is a longitudinal one. We have gathered material for acoustic analysis by recording our participants during their two-year long pronunciation course. In doing so, we were able to monitor their progress with regard to the acquisition of their English vowels and intonation. Subsequently, we tested the musicality of our participants using a series of tests and then analysed the correlation between their progress and their musical hearing. As it turned out, having an ear for music actually facilitates the acquisition of English pronunciation, however, there are a few points to be raised. First, musical hearing should not be treated as a singular concept. It is composed of multiple competences, such as tonal perception, musical memory and rhythmic memory. Moreover, musical hearing should not be mistaken for musical experience, i.e. singing or playing an instrument, as not every musical person actually practices music, and conversely, not every person who sings or plays an instrument has a good ear for music. The results of our study confirm that the various competences comprising musical hearing facilitate the acquisition of different facets of foreign language pronunciation, e.g. musical rhythm and the ability to distinguish tone helps with the acquisition of intonation, while melodic memory helps with the acquisition of English vowels.
The results of the study also confirm, that foreign language pronunciation can be learned and mastered even at later stages of education. Taking into consideration the context of Polish education system, it has to be stressed. None of the participants were taught English pronunciation explicitly while at school and the situation in other stages of education in Poland is similar. As we monitored our subjects for four semesters, while they were studying English pronunciation at the university level, we also observed, that the more time they devoted to learning pronunciation, the better their results were.