Does musical activity help the language development of children who are born deaf and use cochlear implants (CI)? Speech and language therapist Ritva Torppa answers this question on the 6th of November in the public defense of her thesis.
She has studied brain responses to changes in musical sounds. Event related brain potential (ERP) measurements in children between 4 and 13 who used a CI showed that the children who sang regularly at home were better able to shift their attention to changes in sounds than those who did not sing, as evidenced by a brain response known as P3a. The P3a responses of the children who sang were very similar to those of normal-hearing peers. These results indicate that singing aids the development of the neural discrimination of acoustic changes of rhythm and especially changes of musical pitch and timbre. Singing also may help the brain to recover from the effects of deafness on the neural networks for auditory attention.
Children using CIs who participated in supervised musical activities outside of the home were able to hear changes in voice pitch, and to identify emphasis in spoken words and syllables (sentence and word stress) as well as normal-hearing children, while other children using CIs found these tasks much more difficult. Further, auditory working memory in children using CIs showed improvements over time only in those children who participated in musical activities.
The thesis also showed a link in normal-hearing adults between the perception of word stress and the perception of musical rhythm.
It has been found previously that good perception of voice pitch and of emphasis in spoken words and syllables are related to language skills. It is also known that the perception of musical pitch and timbre is linked to the perception of speech. Moreover, good auditory attention and auditory working memory are important for perception, language skills and learning in general.
The results of the thesis indicate that the combination of singing at home and taking part in supervised musical activities might be a powerful way to optimize hearing for pitch, along with underlying cognitive functions, spoken language skills, with a consequent improvement in quality of life for children using CIs, and maybe also for the hearing-impaired children in general.