URCA researchers link music with Spanish vocabulary learning

Foreign languages professor Heidy Cuervo Carruthers and her research assistant, Chase Tiffany conducted research that revealed music can enhance learning of Spanish vocabulary.

URCA student Chase Tiffany and foreign languages professor Heidy Cuervo Carruthers collaborated in research to test the effects of music on Spanish vocabulary learning. Chase will present their research at St. Louis University later this month. Photo by Theresa San Luis.

Tiffany will present at the 2015 St. Louis University Languages, Literature and Cultures Graduate and Undergraduate Student Symposium on March 28th.

Tiffany, a foreign languages major, is also an Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (URCA) student and a former saxophone player in SIUE’s music department.

Tiffany said he was excited about presenting at the event.

“It’s kind of cool to be able to show research in an area where people will understand,” Tiffany said.

Cuervo Carruthers said she was impressed by Tiffany’s knowledge of music and foreign languages when interviewing him for the URCA position.

According to Cuervo Carruthers their experiment, testing vocabulary learning can be replicated in other languages.

According to Tiffany, research has found that areas of the brain that process music and that are used to learn a foreign language are near to each other.

“Studies have been done where musicians trying to learn a tonal language such as Chinese had a much easier time because their ear was so in tune with the tonal inflections,” Tiffany said.  “People with musical experience may pick up [some languages] a lot faster than people who don’t have musical expertise.”

Tiffany explained that tonal languages have inflections that change the meaning of words.

He added that he thought that having musical expertise could also reflect on other foreign languages besides the tonal ones such as Spanish.

Cuervo Carruthers herself often uses music in her classes developing language lessons contextualized with popular songs and singers from Latin America and Spain.

She added that she uses songs that are repetitive and have good rhythm to enhance their learning experience.

In their experiment last fall, Cuervo Carruthers and Chase tested 40 volunteers who participated in a Spanish lesson.  Many of the participants were students from the music department and the foreign languages and literature department.  The experiment group received a lesson with music while the control group was not exposed to music.  Both groups took pretest and posttest on their vocabulary knowledge.

In addition, some of the participants also took a test on musical aptitude called the Gordon Music Test to determine their abilities.

They found that overall, students exposed to music in the lesson performed better in the vocabulary tests.  In addition, students with the musical aptitude also performed better when music was part of the lesson. Further data analysis is in progress.

Cuervo Carruthers said the research reinforces what is being implemented in the classroom in the foreign languages program.

“More teachers need to take advantage of music as a context that will motivate and also improve the learning outcomes from the students,” Cuervo Carruthers said.

According to Cuervo Carruthers, her experience was great working with Chase on the project.

Cuervo Carruthers and Tiffany plan to give a presentation at the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese 2016 conference.

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