Music as a second language – an interview with Paula Roncaglia-Denissen

by Gisela Govaart, August 2014

Paula Roncaglia-Denissen is a postdoctoral researcher at the Music Cognition Group at the UvA. She grew up in Brazil, studied linguistics in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and did her PhD at the Max Planck for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, where she studied the interaction between speech rhythm and syntax in second language learners. She now works in the NWO-Horizon project ‘Knowledge and Culture’.

Paula Roncaglia-Denissen
Paula Roncaglia-Denissen

“I did my master project at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig and then realized that I wanted to stay in research and continue the work I started there. My supervisor said she would like to have me in her team, but I would have to find my own financial support for it. So I started applying to different PhD programs, and finally I got accepted in a program called MaxNet Aging. The MaxNet Aging is an interdisciplinary research program from the Max Planck Society created to investigate how age effects are perceived and addressed by different disciplines, such as linguistics, psychology, history, ethnology, and law. It was a very nice program. I profited a lot from this interdisciplinary background, and I made some of my very good friends during those years.”

“In the first year of my PhD I met my husband, who is Dutch and worked in Berlin back then. Two years into my PhD I knew we would get married, and that we would be going back to the Netherlands because of his job. I did everything I could to collect my data in the second year of my PhD. I worked 7 days a week at times to test all participants I needed, but I was decided to be close to him, so I did what it took. In my last year I just had to analyse my data and write my dissertation, so I could be with him in the Netherlands.”

“As people say: it is not research what scientists do, but me-search! Learning a second language is a big part of my life and my interest. When I was a teenager and learned English I realized that speaking a language opens up a whole new world of possibilities and I wanted to have access to them. Then I decided to study linguistics and I also learn German, studied Spanish, Romanian. Dutch came into my life because of my husband. Since I learned my first foreign language, I have always been interested in why some people are better in learning a language then others and how one could learn a language with more ease. Also, my private life shaped my professional life the minute I met my husband. From that moment onwards my life took a specific turn. I would not be in the Netherlands, and probably I would not be doing this job, if it was not for him. So I focused my research to fit my personal life. Back then it was the first time I have done such a thing, and at times it felt difficult, but for me it made back then and still does now.”

“For me, the Netherlands is a softer side of Germany. People are more relaxed here. It is somewhat in between Brazil and Germany: people work just as hard as in Germany, but they also know how to enjoy themselves and they have free time and they value that. I think that is a good balance.”

“When I was pregnant with my first child, and also almost finished with my PhD, I decided I wanted to continue in research, but did not want to work in any job, just for working. It would have to be something that I really loved; otherwise I would have taken a time off to take care of my child. When I found out about the position I have right now, I fell madly in love with it. I applied only for this position and no other else. I was told I was not the first candidate though: they had somebody with a stronger music background. But the position was supposed to be mine! It turned out the other person did not take it. Since then, I am here.”

“I am very much an outsider in musicology, so sometimes I really feel like an intruder. The musical exposure that I had was that I played the recorder for 6 years when I was very little and I danced classical ballet for 9. I came in contact with music again through an indirect way, via linguistics, because I was interested in speech prosody. For second language learning this is the icing on the cake, because even if you achieve all the proficiency you can possibly get in all different linguistic levels of the second language, prosody might still give you away and reveal that you are not native. I wanted to know why it is so hard to acquire prosody, and how can we facilitate prosody learning for people that are acquiring a second language.”

“When I did my master I fell in love with speech rhythm. I thought it was awesome that rhythm would give away so much about a language. Studies with non-human primates, rats, and babies show that they are able to distinguish languages based on the rhythmic properties only. The explanation is that speech rhythm is based on acoustic features like duration and intensity, which are also present in music. I figured that if speaking languages with different rhythmic properties trains the ability to perceive these durational and intensity features in language, then maybe this could be translated into an effect on the perception of rhythm in music as well. And indeed, we found out that people who speak languages with different rhythmic properties are better in perceiving rhythm in music.”

“This finding wasn’t my original PhD goal, it was something that I thought of along the way. But it was very fortunate, because that is how I got back into music. I learned a lot about music during my PhD, and I am still learning, but I always try to be very humble towards it. I still feel that I have to apologize all the time if I am making claims about music to musicologists (laughter). But it is also a nice thing to get out of your comfort zone!”

“For me, musicality is the ability to get into music and to enjoy music; to recognize music as such and to resound to it. So if you can resonate to the music, than you are musical. I have a very mainstream taste in music, namely pop. I also listen to a lot of Brazilian music, such as samba, bossanova and Brazilan popular music (MPB).”

“In my current job I am investigating what syntax in language and music might have in common. There is a very popular and well accepted hypothesis proposed by Annirudh Patel, saying that even though the elements and their representations are different, the resources being used to process language and music are the same. There is a lot of supporting evidence for this hypothesis and it makes everybody very happy, because it keeps domain specificity but it still accounts for a domain general mechanism underlying the processing of language and music. It says: every domain has its specificity, but whenever these things are integrated, we have this common parser. Recently, however, research came out suggesting that music and language do not share the same integration mechanism. This research suggests that when you are processing language together with music, your attention is actually divided. So, whenever you have a violation in language and music, it is harder to process because your attention splits. Right now I want to investigate if it is the attention or the parser that could account for the literature findings. ”

“My child is 1,5 year old, and I am expecting a second one, who should be born in November. My daughter is growing up bilingually. I guess I like studying bilinguals so much that I wanted to create my own cohort (laughter)! Most of her words right now are in Portuguese, because she spends most of her time with me. My husband and me speak English and Portuguese at home. Dutch is spoken only when we are together with my in-laws.

Raising my daughter bilingually is actually a lot harder than I thought it would be, because it takes more time, energy, patience than one thinks. Also, there are a lot of things you have to commit to. Such as making my peace with the fact that Dutch is probably going to be my daughter’s dominant language because her whole schooling will be in Dutch. People believe that if you are raised bilingually, you learn two languages perfectly and you are just as good in both languages in every context of your life. This is actually not true. There is always going to be one language that is the strongest one in certain context and situations. The fact that she will probably prefer to speak in Dutch rather than in Portuguese is still a bit difficult for me to accept. Nothing against the language, which I find fun to speak and interesting to learn, by the way. It is just an odd feeling to know that what I consider a foreign language and have a hard time expressing some thoughts and feelings will be the most comfortable one for my children. But for me, it is very important that my children learn Portuguese, it is my language and my culture, and they should have access to the world where I and half of their family comes from. Sometimes I am speaking to my daughter and she answers using Dutch words. It is difficult, but I pretend that I do not understand what she means and repeat it in Portuguese.”

“I am still very much interested in how we learn a second language. In my opinion, music is a kind of second language for a lot of people. I would like to know why some people are better at learning a second language than others, even though they might have the same training, exposure and background. By understanding these little differences between people, how they process music and language together or separately, we can understand what makes one better at it than the other. Also, music and language are uniquely human features. By understanding what they have in common, we can also understand what makes us human.”





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