A Mozart is not a Pavarotti: singers outperform instrumentalists on foreign accent imitation

Front Hum Neurosci. 2015 Aug 28;9:482. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00482. eCollection 2015.


Recent findings have shown that people with higher musical aptitude were also better in oral language imitation tasks. However, whether singing capacity and instrument playing contribute differently to the imitation of speech has been ignored so far. Research has just recently started to understand that instrumentalists develop quite distinct skills when compared to vocalists. In the same vein the role of the vocal motor system in language acquisition processes has poorly been investigated as most investigations (neurobiological and behavioral) favor to examine speech perception. We set out to test whether the vocal motor system can influence an ability to learn, produce and perceive new languages by contrasting instrumentalists and vocalists. Therefore, we investigated 96 participants, 27 instrumentalists, 33 vocalists and 36 non-musicians/non-singers. They were tested for their abilities to imitate foreign speech: unknown language (Hindi), second language (English) and their musical aptitude. Results revealed that both instrumentalists and vocalists have a higher ability to imitate unintelligible speech and foreign accents than non-musicians/non-singers. Within the musician group, vocalists outperformed instrumentalists significantly.

Conclusion: First, adaptive plasticity for speech imitation is not reliant on audition alone but also on vocal-motor induced processes. Second, vocal flexibility of singers goes together with higher speech imitation aptitude. Third, vocal motor training, as of singers, may speed up foreign language acquisition processes.

Keywords: instrumentalists versus vocalists; language acquisition device; memory; singing ability; speech imitation; vocal flexibility; vocal motor system.