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Music and language: Why musical people can make the best interpreters

– Posted in: Interpreters
Music sheet and piano keys

Mounting evidence suggests that people with a musical background will have an increased ability when it comes to learning languages and an enhanced intellectual aptitude in developing difficult linguistic skills, such as being able to translate different languages rapidly in their heads. For these reasons, those who are musical could find themselves highly suited to linguistic occupations such as an interpreter.

Music can also give those learning a language a greater appreciation of the culture surrounding a language, and having this understanding is another vital component of being a successful interpreter. Here is an exploration of these reasons why musical people can make the best interpreters.

Music and language are linked scientifically

This enhanced ability for musical people to make effective interpreters stems from the scientific connection between music and language. Spoken word is musical in itself, with humans speaking in varied rhythms and tones—just like music. Humans interpret language and music through similar cognitive processes. Although we process speech and music in opposite hemispheres of the brain, experts have found ‘the neural regions underlying speech and music perception’ show significant overlap.

This has been demonstrated continually listening to a looped speech recording can make it begin to sound like music, as our brains begin to focus on the melodic inflection of the language rather than the meaning itself. The line between language and music has been constantly blurred throughout human existence. Examples can be found in the ancient whistling language of silbo gomero and in the fusing of music and speech to create poetry’s metric rhythm.

Musicians are better at processing different languages

This strong connection between music and language allows those who have had musical training to grasp languages substantially better than those who have not. This can allow them to become much more effective speakers and means they are well suited to language careers. Research shows that people who have studied music before the age of seven develop a number of skills that can significantly aid them in processing foreign languages. Since the brain is at its most sensitive stage of development during this period, musical training leads to increased cognitive ability, providing young musicians with larger vocabularies, and an enhanced ability to recognise subtle differences between sounds and pronounce unfamiliar words.

Older musicians can still benefit however, as the process of learning and speaking a language relies on many of the same cognitive processes as playing an instrument. Research shows that mastery of both music and speaking multiple languages both require higher levels of executive control in the brain. Mechanisms like attention shifts, memory, and switching between tasks are needed for both, meaning those that are musical hone these skills and can then use them when learning and speaking a language.

This enhanced linguistic capability provides those that are musical with a number of skills that are useful to those undertaking language based occupations. This includes the ability to translate languages rapidly in their heads, to effectively judge the tone of speakers and better pronounce foreign languages. These skills can be highly difficult to learn, yet evidence suggests that musicians will be at a significant advantage to non-musicians in doing so. This means that they are well placed to take on the tough role of an interpreter where these attributes are needed on a daily basis.

Music helps language learners in other ways

The best interpreters are the ones who can use their cultural experience to go beyond just providing a sterile translation. Whilst it is recommended that those wanting to be an interpreter should spend time in a country in which their second language is spoken natively, listening to music in that language can also provide an effective way to engage with a culture, as it is inexpensive and allows people to do so on a daily basis.

Foreign-language music can also help people who are learning a language. Many new learners can be apprehensive about attempting a foreign accent out of fear of not sounding right, yet those who perform music can instead sing the language. This makes them less self-conscious and more willing to express themselves.

This method of learning is more fun, allowing those learning languages to process sounds that their brain automatically enjoys instead of contriving to learn through reading a textbook or listening to somebody drily speak. Music also makes both the left and right sides of the brain to work together, leading to higher levels of comprehension.

For those who are musical, learning and speaking different languages can be a noticeably easier process, and provide them with a great way to immerse themselves in the culture of that language. It is for these reasons that musical people can make the best interpreters.

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