Could early music training help babies learn language?


Christina Zhao, University of Washington

Growing up in China, I started playing piano when I was nine years old and learning English when I was 12. Later, when I was a college student, it struck me how similar language and music are to each other.

Language and music both require rhythm; otherwise they don’t make any sense. They’re also both built from smaller units – syllables and musical beats. And the process of mastering them is remarkably similar, including precise movements, repetitive practice and focused attention. I also noticed that my musician peers were particularly good at learning new languages.

All of this made me wonder if music shapes how the brain perceives sounds other than musical notes. And if so, could learning music help us learn languages?

Music experience and speech

Music training early in life (before the age of seven) can have a wide range of benefits beyond musical ability.

For instance, school-age children (six to eight years old) who participated in two years of musical classes four hours each week showed better brain responses to consonants compared with their peers who started one year later. This suggests that music experience helped children hear speech sounds.

Music may have a range of benefits.
Breezy Baldwin, CC BY

But what about babies who aren’t talking yet? Can music training this early give babies a boost in the steps it takes to learn language?

The first year of life is the best time in the lifespan to learn speech sounds; yet no studies have looked at whether musical experience during infancy can improve speech learning.

I sought to answer this question with Patricia K. Kuhl, an expert in early childhood learning. We set out to study whether musical experience at nine months of age can help infants learn speech.

Nine months is within the peak period for infants’ speech sound learning. During this time, they’re learning to pay attention to the differences among the different speech sounds that they hear in their environment. Being able to differentiate these sounds is key for learning to speak later. A better ability to tell speech sounds apart at this age is associated with producing more words at 30 months of age.

Here is how we did our study

In our study, we randomly put 47 nine-month-old infants in either a musical group or a control group and completed 12 15-minute-long sessions of activities designed for that group.

Babies in the music group sat with their parents, who guided them through the sessions by tapping out beats in time with the music with the goal of helping them learn a difficult musical rhythm.

Here is a short video demonstration of what a music session looked like.

Infants in the control group played with toy cars, blocks and other objects that required coordinated movements in social play, but without music.

After the sessions, we measured the babies’ brains responses to musical and speech rhythms using magnetoencephalography (MEG), a brain imaging technique.

New music and speech sounds were presented in rhythmic sequences, but the rhythms were occasionally disrupted by skipping a beat.

These rhythmic disruptions help us measure how well the babies’ brains were honed to rhythms. The brain gives a specific response pattern when detecting an unexpected change. A bigger response indicates that the baby was following rhythms better.

Babies in the music group had stronger brain responses to both music and speech sounds compared with babies in the control group. This shows that musical experience, as early as nine month of age, improved infants’ ability to process both musical and speech rhythms.

These skills are important building blocks for learning to speak.

Other benefits from music experience

Language is just one example of a skill that can be improved through music training. Music can help with social-emotional development, too. An earlier study by researchers Tal-Chen Rabinowitch and Ariel Knafo-Noam showed that pairs of eight-year-olds who didn’t know each other reported feeling more close and connected with one another after a short exercise of tapping out beats in sync with each other.

Music helps children bond better.
Boy image via

Another researcher, Laura Cirelli, showed that 14-month-old babies were more likely to show helping behaviors toward an adult after the babies had been bounced in sync with the adult who was also moving rhythmically.

There are many more exciting questions that remain to be answered as researchers continue to study the effects of music experience on early development.

For instance, does the music experience need to be in a social setting? Could babies get the benefits of music from simply listening to music? And, how much experience do babies need over time to sustain this language-boosting benefit?

Music is an essential part of being human. It has existed in human cultures for thousands of years, and it is one of the most fun and powerful ways for people to connect with each other. Through scientific research, I hope we can continue to reveal how music experience influences brain development and language learning of babies.

The Conversation

Christina Zhao, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Still fighting fit and having fun at forty

Melanie Butler talks to BEBC’s John Walsh about four decades in the book business

Forty years ago you had a good job as a book editor – you famously edited the smash hit Kernel Lessons Intermediate, the best-selling ELT title of its time – so what possessed you to throw away a solid career and open a bookshop?

I was working in the leading ELT publishing house as a desk editor and sales executive in the UK and I thought people were waiting too long to get books – it was taking six weeks to get books delivered from London to anywhere else. There weren’t any specialist bookshops for language teaching, so I decided to start one. I asked the publisher and the author Louis Alexander, the bestselling ELT author ever, if they wanted to support me. The publisher said no, but Alexander and his friend Ronald Ridout supported me, lent me a small sum of money, and that’s how I started BEBC. The main plan was to cut delivery times so I just drove to London every week – most of the publishers were near London – and picked up the books. I got the delivery time down from six weeks to a maximum of six days.
This was in the middle of the 1974 recession, and we had the three-day week and power cuts three days a week. Everyone said I was rather silly to start a business. I just said, if things are so bad now, they can only get better – and they did.

Looking back, who were the three people who most influenced your success and why?

Apart from Louis Alexander, there was the late great Tim Rix, my first line manager, who went on to become managing director at Longman – he taught me to always hire the best. Then Paula Kahn, for all her sins and faults! She taught me a lot about management, what to do and what not to do. I still remember her in her punk days, all in black and with purple hair – and still they promoted her because she was a great publisher. Finally the author Robert O’Neill. He was such an imaginative person.
He had such a fresh approach to his writing, to his teaching and to dealing with people. He was open – you knew exactly where you were. When we published Kernel Lessons Intermediate he signed a copy for me and wrote, ‘To the Editor of this glorious battle.’

What are the biggest changes you have seen in the ELT book trade since you began?

The drop in the number of publishers. When we first produced our Critical Guide there were 72 UK ELT publishing imprints, and now there are about a dozen. The other major change has been the European open market. Forty years ago the same coursebook would retail for 130 per cent more in Spain than in the UK. All that began to change with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Eager to get a foothold in the emerging markets, the publishers began to discount heavily. A video that sold at £150 in the UK cost £15 in Poland. People got into their cars and drove across borders to buy books. Now buying around, as we call it in the trade, is perfectly legal – it’s a single market, there is free movement of goods. In Europe you can no longer have exclusive deals – market pricing is dead.

And what about the digital revolution?

It will happen, but it hasn’t happened yet – not in my markets, which are mostly in Europe. In parts of the world like Korea, where the bandwidth speeds are very fast, it is almost totally digital. But in much of Europe the digital infrastructure is just not there. In Italy the bandwidths are barely better than dial-up. A teacher friend told me they had seen a class where half the students had laptops, and the rest had books. The teacher spent half the class trying to fix the technical problems with the laptops – the amount of language learning going on was zilch. That’s the thing with books: they don’t crash. Also you have to factor in the teacher training. Most teachers aren’t digital natives, and in the private language schools, where most teachers are casual and wander from one school to another, there is a real problem with all the different packages. That’s why so many interactive whiteboards are unused
or underused. It’s a very conservative market – for any course, nine books with a CD of materials will be sold for every one book where the extra materials are online. To be honest I don’t think that today’s big ELT publishers will be the dominant digital content providers of tomorrow. They haven’t got a great track record on new media – they keep trying to get into markets they don’t understand and just charge too much. One minute they charge £190 for whiteboard software, the next they give it away with the book.
The problem the publishers have is they are moving in the right direction but they are ahead of the market. You have to take your market with you, and at the moment my market doesn’t want digital. There is phenomenal growth in the market. At BEBC we have seen record sales – but in books.

Are you still the largest supplier of ELT books in the UK?

Among the independents, yes. BEBC’s turnover is more than four times that of its nearest specialist competitor. But compared to Amazon I just don’t know. They are the big beasts in the room, and it’s a beast the publishers helped to create – giving them huge discounts. They operate in the UK but pay their taxes in Luxembourg at a much lower rate than the UK, and they pay very low wages, so the high-street bookshop can’t compete. But specialist booksellers like us, we can. We have to match everything Amazon does, and beat it. We have more books in stock – we have 95 per cent of the top 250 titles in our warehouse all the time. They discount on specific titles; we discount on the size of the order for every title. The biggest advantage we have, though, is there is a person on the end of a phone. Our clients are placing big orders. They want advice, they want reassurance, they want comfort.
We are competing aggressively with Amazon, and that is what motivates me, what keeps me getting up in the morning. BEBC is forty years old this year and I am 68, but we’re still fit, we’re still fighting and we’re still having fun. I have no intention of retiring – I’m having too much fun.


BUY THE BOOK John Walsh says that the digital revolution in publishing is happening in some places, but not yet in Europe Courtesy

“John Walsh of BEBC was interviewed in the April issue of the EL Gazette by the editor, Melanie Butler”

Click here to visit the BEBC website.

Online Resources – are we all going digital?

Somewhere in the world there is a huge demand for online access for supplementary ELT materials. Or is there? Discuss.

John Walsh, Founder and Managing Director of  BEBC, raises some issues and concerns about ELT Publishers’ relentless drive to produce everything “digital”.

Do you buy and do you use online resources contained in ELT coursebooks and grammar books? Over the last two years, ELT publishers have been working under the impression that students and teachers have been crying out for extra materials (practice tests, placement tests, supplementary exercises, etc) all to be available online. This “demand” has led management at the top of the publishing houses to instruct commissioning editors to include digital content wherever possible to meet the demand.

Several facts cloud this debate and I raise these for discussion.

  • Are teacher’s aware that when they purchase a book with an attached Access Code they are often only buying a licence for online use which will expire a number of months after the Code is activated? This period varies from 12 months to 21 months currently and online support ceases at the end of the stipulated period. This applies to material from Pearson, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and Macmillan. It does not apply to online material from National Geographic Learning (Cengage) where there is no expiry date for support.
  • There has been a very low uptake on these titles (compared with editions which are either stand-alone books or are perhaps accompanied by CDs or CD-Roms) and sales do not appear to reflect the supposed demand.
  • Of those titles that have been bought, publishers concede that there is currently a very low level of conversions (c. 10%) where the Access Code has been activated by the students or institutions making the purchase. They put this down to “early days”
  • Publishers are increasingly making the “Book only” or “Book with CD/CD-Rom” editions unavailable and re-issuing the books with a mark up in price anywhere between £2.00 and £9.50 (Pearson’s FIRST CERTIFICATE EXPERT Book + CDRom and OUP’s IELTS MASTERCLASS respectively). Here again, National Geographic Learning is exempt from these price increases (OUTCOMES and SPOTLIGHT ON FCE are provided with online access codes yet Cengage prices are at the lower end of the price range for this material).

 It is important that teachers and students know when they are only buying licences for this online access and equally important that publishers are made aware of the real demand (or lack of it) for this material. Publishers, too, need to examine critically the amount of sales and conversions. Publishers need feedback, and I feel sure teachers will have views, on the present demand and the price they are prepared to pay for this added functionality. No doubt, in time, the world will go wildly and, perhaps, completely, digital, but until that time comes, I believe teachers, students and publishers need a free and fair exchange of both information and opinions.

John H Walsh

Managing Director

BEBC’s IWB Evening 2012

We hosted our first IWB Evening on 30th May 2012 at Anglo-Continental in Bournemouth, in association with the Southern Regional Teachers’ Association (SRTA).

The event was designed to offer new perspectives on the uses of Interactive Whiteboards for language teaching and was aimed at teachers of all levels in terms of IWB experience. Here are a few photos taken on the evening:

Arrival in the main hall at 6pm

BEBC’s stand displayed a selection of teachers resource books, including some IWB books on offer!

Our MD, John Walsh, welcoming everyone.

Ami Tonkin from Southbourne School of English delivering one of our teacher-led experience sharing sessions.

Local language teachers sitting comfortably for a teacher-led experience sharing session.

Lucy from Pearson demonstrating the Speakout software on an IWB.

Georgina and Ciaran from Cambridge University Press demonstrating the English Unlimited software on an IWB.

After the sessions, attendees were encouraged to visit the publisher stands and ask questions. Macmillan had presented the Straightforward software on an IWB.

Richard from Oxford University Press commanding the crowd for a competition giveaway! Oxford University Press had presented Headway iTools on an IWB.

A celebratory dinner after the event. Cheese!!

The event was a huge success, and we are looking into the possibility of holding similar events in other parts of the country in the future – watch this space!

Classic Picture Stories for Language Teaching (free sample materials)

ELT Author Peter Viney has provided us with free sample materials (PDFs) which you can print off for classroom use. This is something he would like feedback on and you can let him know your thoughts by commenting below or via his blog here. Some teachers may recognise the material as did BEBC Managing Director, John Walsh, who used them himself back in 1964! Enjoy.

Flight 13

Flight 13 is a sample from the classic ELT series of picture compositions based on the work of the artist Fougasse. These were multi-purpose and used for practice while teaching any language. The virtue of the Fougasse series was that it could be used at any level (depending on the ingenuity and imagination of the teacher), and that the stories were clear, simple and timeless.

The picture stories were available as large wallcharts and also in a book, with very complex sentences where students added words, but this wasn’t a free choice as the initial letter of the word, and the number of characters, was given. This doesn’t tie-in with current methodology, and also removes the flexibility that attracted teachers to the picture stories in the first place.

Three Vee and BEBC have discussed making these picture stories available again. To this end, we have prepared new Teacher’s Notes and new Student Worksheets for one story, Flight 13. We are offering it to ELT (and other language) teachers as a trial. It’s preferable to present the stories one frame at a time rather than as a whole. Please try it class. These are wonderful time-fillers, and wonderful ‘lessons up the sleeve’ for unforeseen circumstances.

The materials available as A4 PDFs are:

The master picture (with all four frames of the story at A4 size) PDF. Check your printer. On our HP printer we had to scale it at 150% to fill an A4 sheet.

Picture 1 (A4) for use as a flashcard

Picture 2 (A4) for use as a flashcard

Picture 3 (A4) for use as a flashcard

Picture 4 (A4) for use as a flashcard

Teachers’ Notes (5 pages A4)

Student worksheets (4 pages A4)

We would like teachers to try these in class and to give us feedback by commenting on this page.

These are some questions we would like to answer:

1)    Would you like Teachers Notes for Hiigher Levels?

2)    Would you like large (A2) wallcharts?

3)    Would you like the pictures available for Whiteboard?

4)    Would you buy the pictures on their own?

5)    Would you buy a set of Photocopiable Masters with Worksheets?

6)    Would you buy small books for classroom use, containing twenty-four of the picture stories with worksheets?

7)    Do you like the activities given? Would you omit any? Would you add any?

A NOTE ON COPYRIGHT: We have endeavoured to find the original copyright holders on these pictures, but our enquiries at previous publishers, and on illustrator and author websites have drawn a complete blank. If the copyright holder would like to contact us, we can discuss further moves.

Activities and notes: Three Vee / BEBC © 2014

What is the meaning of this word, please?

John Walsh gives his view on the meanings of English words…

Given the breakdown (or break-up) of the single dictionary definition as an authority, is it still possible to answer the question “What is the meaning of  (a word or phrase)”?  The role of the dictionary has been superseded by the new authority, usage, and by the time you have added in factors such as colloquial and idiomatic use, register, pragmatics, formal and informal, spoken or written, context, and a whole host of other influences, I feel the  task of answering the question is nigh on impossible. I write not from the view of a grumpy old grammarian but more as someone with feeling for those trying to learn our vibrant developing language where the linguistic goalposts are constantly moving.

John H Walsh

Managing Director

The Bournemouth English Book Centre Ltd (BEBC)