In CRBLM Research Spotlight articles, we provide accessible summaries to highlight current and ongoing work being produced by our members on various themes. “Research-Policy Connections” posts each focus on a single published article, giving a very short summary and highlighting potential applications to real-world policy matters.
Blog post by Mehrgol Tiv
Reference article: Vaquero L, Rousseau PN, Vozian D, Klein D, & Penhune V (2020) (joint last author). Music and language training are not the same: Differential impact on structural connectivity linked to early experience. NeuroImage, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.116689
The structure of a person’s brain is determined by their genes before they are born. However, as a person interacts with their environment throughout life, the brain can form new connections between critical regions to adapt to those experiences. Researchers at Concordia University, McGill University, the Center for Research on Brain, Language, and Music, and the International Laboratory for Brain, Music, and Sound Research, found that long-term musical training and using two languages can lead to such rewiring in the brain.
These changes were found in the size of connections between brain regions involved with processing sounds and controlling movements, since both producing music and speech require coordination of sounds and movements (e.g., shaping the mouth to create different sounds, arranging the fingers to play different notes on an instrument). Interestingly, the impact of language experience on the brain varied from that of musical experience, and both depended on the age at which a second language or musical training began. Language experience increased the connections between sound and movement brain regions in the left side of the brain, which is the side of the brain more involved for language processing, especially when two languages were learned from birth. Music experience increased the connections between these same brain regions in the right side of the brain, particularly when musical training began early in life and before the age of seven. In addition to these brain changes, trained musicians were better able to distinguish musical melodies than non-musicians. When it came to non-musical performance, such as general intelligence, memory, or reasoning skills, there were no differences between having early musical training and early language learning. However, musicians trained at any age had higher intelligence scores than non-musicians who learned a second language later in life. Altogether, early exposure to intensive practice with language or music can be formative for brain development and mental performance.
This research minimally offers three real-world applications relevant to general readers, educators, and policymakers. First, the results can (1) inform the public of the brain and behavioral implications of the timing of learning a second language or practicing music. Specifically, this paper finds that the earlier one begins to acquire second language and musical skills, the bigger the impact on brain and behavior. This means that experiences in the home, before a child starts school, can be influential for their brain development. However, it is important to keep in mind that not all homes are equally able to support language and musical training for children for a variety of reasons, including persistent economic, racial, or migratory disenfranchisement. Thus, these results can also be used to (2) advise educators to find equitable solutions for language and music education to lessen these potential disparities. For instance, language and music education may be added to school curricula in earlier years, and schools may offer home transportation for children enrolled in after-school language and music programs if their caretakers are working or unable to pick them up. Finally, these results can guide whether and how (3) policymakers regulate language in contexts that shape children’s exposure to language, including public signs in home neighborhoods, early childhood care centers, and educational institutions. This application may be particularly relevant in Québec, where these aspects of language use are regulated through policy.