Rhythmic aptitude linked to child’s grammar skills

I got rhythm, I got … grammar?

Children’s ability to distinguish one rhythm from another may be connected to how well they form sentences when they speak, a recent study from Vanderbilt University in Nashville found.

“In both speech and in music, there’s variations in timing and intonation that help us focus attention on what the important parts, the important words, the important syllables, the important notes are,” said Reyna Gordon, a Vanderbilt otolaryngology research fellow and study author.

The Nashville researchers gave rhythm and grammar tests to 25 6-year-olds with little or no musical training. One exercise had the children distinguish between rhythms played by cartoon characters. In another exercise, researchers asked questions about photos to measure the grammatical correctness of the children’s answers.

Kids who were good at differentiating between rhythms used better grammar when they described the pictures, even when researchers controlled for socioeconomic background, IQ and musical experience.

Past studies have associated music and language, tying rhythmic aptitude to ability to identify words and formal music training to ability to pronounce words in a foreign language.

“We don’t totally know (why) yet, but we think it’s because of overlapping brain mechanisms,” Gordon said. “Both language and music use many brain areas.”

The current study, published in the journal Developmental Science, focused on innate rhythmic ability. Now Gordon’s set her sights on studying whether musical training improves grammar skills. If it does, it could point to music lessons as a way to help children having trouble with grammar, she said.