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How Music Benefits Language Development in Toddlers

There’s no doubt that exposure to music and music education helps babies recognize sound patterns—the foundation of learning language—but some researchers believe the link between music and language goes much deeper than recognition.

Between the first word, which usually comes around 1 year of age, and fluency around age 3 or 4, a toddler’s brain undergoes a burst of growth. For most toddlers, language development is natural. It comes with little or no effort.

Music, however, seemed to operate along a separate path. Learning to recognize music on a higher level comes more slowly to toddlers, and playing music is even slower. It requires practice and effort. This observation led researchers to guess that music ability derived from language, meaning that a toddler learned advanced music only after they had mastered the concepts of language.

At least one group of researchers is questioning this traditional model and looking at music development in a new way. Their theory is that music and language may be so closely related that language is just a “form” of music. In this model, learning music and mastering language are tangled together so deeply in the brain that it’s impossible to separate them.

In fact, music and language centers in the brain overlap very heavily. Around the same time that toddlers are learning to speak more fluently, studies show they also begin to prefer their own culture’s music over foreign music.

In other words, at the same time they become fluent in their native language, they become fluent in their native music.

This period of overlap between music and language brain development lasts for several years. Later, as your child goes into preschool, music and language will begin to split apart and follow separate developmental tracks. Part of this is purely physical—learning to play guitar or piano or violin, for example, requires mastering difficult physical skills that have nothing to do with talking.

During this window of development, however, it\’s possible that musical education can result in language improvements such as being able to identify emotional content in speech, learning second languages faster, identifying different types of sounds, and even advanced reading.


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