A new study published in the journal in Memory and Cognition, has found that adults learning phrases in Hungarian were better able to match the words with their English counterparts when they learned the phrase by singing it. Lead author, linguist Dr Karen M Ludke of the University of Edinburgh, became interested in whether singing could help in learning a language when she was teaching English as a second language in New York.
"I started using a lot of song and music in my lessons, so they could practise when I wasn't around," she says. "Then I started to doubt myself a little bit. I thought, 'Is this scientific?, Is this actually beneficial to use song to teach?'"
"I started to look into it, using Google Scholar to find out what research there was out there, and I did find a lot of stuff from teachers [saying it worked], but I couldn't find anything that actually compared singing with a spoken presentation."
Ludke decided to answer the question herself and enrolled for a Masters and then a PhD. In her study, sixty people aged between 18 and 29 were split into three groups.
One group heard spoken English phrases followed by a spoken Hungarian translation, another group heard the Hungarian phrase being sung, and a third group heard the Hungarian phrases being with the same rhythm as the song, rather like a chant.
She says Hungarian was chosen as the test language because it is unfamiliar to most English speakers and it is quite different from both the Germanic languages and the Romance languages such as French and Italian.
The study results showed that people who had heard the Hungarian phrases being sung performed significantly better than the other groups. In particular, when they heard the English phrases again they were better able to repeat the correct Hungarian phrase. And they were more likely to be able to translate the Hungarian phrases back into English as well.