Ep. 131: Are musicians better able to learn an additional language? with Jennifer Krizman, PhD

Are musicians better able to learn an additional language?

Photo by Jan Antonin Kolar on Unsplash

Are people who study a musical instrument better able to process and learn foreign languages? What similarities underlie speech and music? Bonus: Discover a fun and simple test to measure a person’s adeptness at learning a foreign language!


My guest today is Dr. Jennifer Krizman, Research Assistant Professor at The Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory (aka Brainvolts) at Northwestern University. The Brainvolts lab investigates sound processing in the brain, and its director, Dr. Nina Kraus, has been a guest on this podcast a couple times (talking about her new book, Of Sound Mind; and also the topic of musicians’ enhanced ability to pick up subtle emotional cues). Professor Krizman‘s research is focused on how experience shapes the brain and its interactions with sensory surroundings; and the brain’s neural encoding of sounds, especially speech. The aim of her research is to improve human communication. She has many degrees, including degrees in Biology, Psychology, Neurobiology & Physiology, and Communication Sciences & Disorders.


We discuss:

  • Are people who study a musical instrument better able to process and learn foreign languages?
  • How and why does music have this benefit?
  • What similarities underlie speech and music?
  • How do you measure a person’s adeptness at learning/processing a foreign language?
  • Is there a correlation between the age someone begins music training and the extent of this particular benefit.
  • Music IS a language.

Connect/Other Resources

In-Episode Promo

This is a quick break to tell you about Sonix, the service that I use to transcribe these episodes. Sonix is an artificial intelligence transcription service that automatically converts audio and video files to text – and can translate to over 40 languages. I transcribe these episodes to make them more accessible. I tried multiple services, and chose to stick with Sonix because of their accuracy, affordability, and because their site is just so easy to use; that’s a big plus for me, to not need to spend a bunch of time figuring out one more platform! While I love podcasts, I do tend to be a very visual learner. I figure other people probably are, too; and having that written form of your work just makes it more versatile. Sonix transcripts make the most of your hard work and can increase traffic to your site. Sonix is spelled s-o-n-i-x. You can check them out with a free trial PLUS an extra 100 minutes of free transcription by using the link sonix.ai/invite/enhancelife100. There’s a link in the show notes. Again, it’s sonix.ai/invite/enhancelife100 for a free trial AND an extra 100 minutes of free transcription.


[Note from Mindy: This Coda MELTS my heart!] Jen says: I’ve given a lot of thought to the coda. I feel like I should start off by saying that I’m not a musician. Yes, I’ve taken piano lessons, guitar lessons, and I was in the school choir for years as a kid, but I don’t have the skill or the vocabulary that an expert would have. I come from a very musical family and music has always been an emotional connection for us.

When my dad was growing up, he and my grandfather used to play together: my grandfather played the mandolin and my dad played the guitar. And they would sing all of their favorite songs — some (what would now be classified as classic) rock, but mostly country and bluegrass. Sometimes my grandma would join them (everyone in my dad’s family was a musician — his sisters used to play the church organ at Sunday mass).

When my mom was pregnant with me, my grandfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. We had just moved to Minnesota and my grandparents were living in Indiana, so it was hard for them to see my parents and my older brother, who was 2, at the time. So, my grandparents made a tape for my brother of them singing and playing so he could hear them and they could give him a memory to share one day with his kids.

After almost 40 years, we only have one song that remains from that tape. I’m not sure who originally wrote it or sang it; I’ve only ever heard it sung in my family, but the song is called Choo-choo please do. It’s the only way I remember the sound of my grandfather’s voice. I was about 8 months old when he died. As I grew up, about once every month or so my father would pull out his guitar and his binder of songs and he would play and sing. As my older brother and my younger sister and brother and I learned the words, we began to join in, singing the words of Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, the Louvin brothers, and Willie Nelson, to name a few. I remember one time, when I was about 8 or 9, I asked my mom why my dad does this. She said that it’s because he misses grandpa and that’s how he remembers him.

Over time, it became a family tradition. Even to this day, our family get-togethers always include a guitar and our favorite family songs. Attached is Choo-choo please do, sung and played by my grandfather — from that tape he made after he was diagnosed with cancer and wanted to give my brother a lasting memory of him. I do not know if this is what you are looking for — it’s completely off topic from bilingualism and musicianship, but it’s the deepest memory and attachment that I have to music. 

Closing Words

That has to be one of the most touching recordings I have ever heard! Thank you so much to Dr. Krizman for sharing the heart-warming story from her family’s history with us! What a sweet example of music enhancing her family’s life. And thank you also to Dr. Krizman for sharing the intriguing science and research behind today’s topic… and for putting it in layperson’s terms!

Thanks so much for joining me today. All links from today’s episode – including a transcript of this episode – can be found in the show notes. All links are also in the episode details right in your podcast app. While you’re there, I would love to hear from you! Let me know how music is enhancing YOUR life. You can reach me on email (mindy@mpetersonmusic.com), Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn. 

Thanks so much for joining me today. Until next week, may your life be enhanced with music.

Note: We occasionally use affiliate links for products and services we whole-heartedly believe in. We may receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you, for purchases made through these links. This helps support the free content we provide.