Language, Music and the Brain

Language, Music and the Brain

Learning new skills in adulthood may seem like a daunting task. Over time there is a gradual decline of the brain’s ability to absorb new information. But experts say, with the right tools and a few tricks, we can continue to grasp...

Learning new skills in adulthood may seem like a daunting task. Over time there is a gradual decline of the brain’s ability to absorb new information. But experts say, with the right tools and a few tricks, we can continue to grasp and retain information as we age. The process of learning a language or how to play a new instrument offers interesting insights into the challenge. Two experts join us to talk about how mastering new and complex skills differs as we age and what it takes to become a lifelong learner.

Guests

Gary Marcus

Professor of psychology, the director of the New York University Center for Language and Music, and author of "Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning."

Michael Erard

author of "Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners"

Program Highlights

Ever dream of learning a new language or to play an instrument, but felt it was too late? There might be hope. Two new books offer a glimpse into what the brain is capable of and offer some tricks to learning new skills, even in adulthood. Gary Marcus, author of the new book titled "Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning," and Michael Erard, the author of "Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners" talk about how older adult brains learn new, complex skills.

Our Innate Abilities

Marcus thinks that just as humans are born with a capacity to learn language, we can also learn music. It just takes most people a little longer to figure out the abstract nature of music. Moreover, Marcus thinks that our ability to learn language actually contributes to our ability to learn music. Erard has done research on people who speak many languages, and found that they generally have hig proficiency in a certain group of languages, middling proficiency in others, and somewhat limited proficiency in something he calls "surge languages" that they need to activate in memory to be able to use. Erard said such people may be able to create and retrieve memories more quickly, and that there is overlap between how the brain learns languages and how it learns musical skills.

Language And Music Draw In All Parts Of The Brain

Learning a language engages all parts of the brain, Erard said. Erard wrote about a man who won a contest in Brussels in 1990 to find the "most multilingual" European. A Scottish church organist, Derick Heming. Heming could converse with native speaker judges in 22 languages. Erard said Heming has what he calls a "will to plasticity," which is a commitment to having a different brain tomorrow than the one he had yesterday. People like Heming, Erard said, don't have language barriers like most people.

In Music, Focusing On Weaknesses Is Key

In music, as with other skills, Marcus found that those who focused on their weaknesses show the most improvement. Anders Ericsson called this "deliberate practice." "Regardless of what strategy you use, you can't just sit there rehearsing things you already know," he said. Also, children do have some advantages when first learning an instrument. Their expectations for how good they will sound is lower, so they just keep practicing. Adults want to sound good right away. The lack of self-consciousness, then, is really a great benefit for kids, Marcus said.

The Minute Learning Is Not Fun, People Stop

Marcus spoke to several teachers during the course of his research, and one of his favorites, a Suzuki music teacher named Michelle Homer, tries to encourage parents not to discourage their children when they practice their instrument. Homer tells parents not to correct their children unless they've made the same mistake three times. "That's all about keeping the learning process fun," Marcus said. "The minute it's not fun, people stop," he said.

You can read the full transcript here.

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