Language experience predicts music processing in ½ million speakers of 54 languages
Tonal languages differ from other languages in their use of pitch (tones) to distinguish words. Lifelong experience speaking and hearing tonal languages has been argued to shape auditory processing in ways that generalize beyond the perception of linguistic pitch to the perception of pitch in other domains like music. To examine this, we first conducted a meta-analysis, finding moderate evidence for this idea, but in studies strongly limited by mostly small sample sizes in only a few tonal languages and countries. This makes it challenging to disentangle the effects of linguistic experience from variability in music training experience, cultural differences, and other potential confounds. To address these issues, we used web-based citizen science to test this question on a global scale. We assessed music perception skill in n = 34, 034 native speakers of 19 tonal languages (e.g., Mandarin, Yoruba) and compared their performance to n = 459, 066 native speakers of other languages, including 6 pitch-accented (e.g., Japanese) and 29 non-tonal languages (e.g., Hungarian). Whether or not participants had taken music lessons, native speakers of all 19 tonal languages had an improved ability to discriminate musical melodies. But this improvement came with a trade-off: relative to speakers of pitch-accented or non-tonal languages, tonal language speakers were also worse at processing the musical beat. These results, which held across tonal languages from a variety of geographic regions and were robust to geographic and demographic variation, demonstrate that linguistic experience shapes music perception ability, with implications for relations between music, language, and culture in the human mind.
- Liu, J; Hilton, C; Bergelson, E; Mehr, S
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