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Can Listening to Hip-Hop Music Help You Learn a New Language?

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(ALBERTA, Canada) -- Paula Chesley, a visiting professor at the University of Alberta, is no rapper.  But in a study released Wednesday, she found that hip-hop music could actually help children and young adults learn new language.

Some rap lyrics are notoriously difficult to understand, but the correlative study published in PLoS ONE found that the number of hip-hop artists that a person listened to could predict knowledge of non-mainstream words and phrases used in hip-hop songs.

“Hip-hop is highly prominent in mainstream culture nowadays, and thanks to technologies like iPods, smartphones [and] YouTube, adolescents and young adults are able to listen to more music than ever before,” said Chesley.  “This means they get the benefit from repeated exposure, enabling them to better process contextual details that allow for learning these words.”

Researchers gave 168 undergraduate students a set of rap-specific vocabulary words and then told the participants to define them. Students were likely to understand the meaning of the specific vocabulary words tested if they also indicated hip-hop was their preferred music, had social ties to African-Americans and knowledge of pop culture in general.

“Associating language with a melody is generally beneficial to memory,” said Chesley. “In addition, literary tropes such as rhyme, which is omnipresent in hip-hop, are also beneficial.”

While hip-hop tends to interest younger generations, the music genre may still serve as language therapy for older adults as well.

“Insofar as motivation and the desire to be cool seems to be a key element in the learning process, older people currently might not derive any benefit,” said Chesley. “That might change though as people who have grown up with hip-hop get older.”

But Susan Bookheimer, a professor of cognitive neurosciences at UCLA Medical Center, said, “There is no reason older people wouldn’t benefit, provided they actually attend to the lyrics,” and said the research could contribute to novel approaches to language therapy.

“The study is correlational only, that is, they did not introduce new words intentionally in hip-hop songs or use control conditions, so it is difficult to know how useful that would be,” said Bookheimer.  “However, I find it a very exciting finding with clear implications for enhancing knowledge in school-aged kids, particularly among those who struggle with traditional memorization approaches or who are generally disengaged in schoolwork.”

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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