Recently, Monique from Brain Wise Learning gave me a taste of the Fast ForWord Program which is an online computer program that helps children with language impairments. Developed by a team of neuroscientists and health professionals, the program is a series of exercises that target specific areas of language at the pace of the child’s learning. The exercises get more challenging as the child gets better at them. The speed of an exercise may be slow at first but then as the child gives more and more correct answers, it speeds up.
The first thing I noticed about the program was that it was fun. The exercises take the form of games involving quirky creatures that do appealing things when you get the right answers. Fun should not be underestimated. A child is more likely to engage in a learning activity if it captures their interest, and I found that I could enjoy it too, even as an adult.
The second thing I noticed, with my musical background, is how some of the exercises target musical elements. One of the exercises involved listening to sounds that swept up or down in pitch and I had to press an up or down arrow according to what I heard. I found this emphasis on pitch interesting to think about in terms of the ways we use pitch in our speech. When we ask a question, for example, we tend to raise our voice at the end of the phrase to alert the hearer that we require a response. Emotion is also conveyed using pitch. When we are excited, we tend to talk at a higher pitch, but when we are sad or tired, the pitch of our voice naturally drops. It made me aware of the communication gaps that may be present if a child has difficulty recognising pitch and whether the pitch is going up or down. They could miss out on meaning and emotion in language, even if they had no difficulties with the words themselves. It struck me that this simple exercise when repeated, could have far-reaching consequences for understanding some of the more subtle cues in communication. In particular, children with autism would benefit from such an exercise, as they often have difficulties understanding the subtleties of language and take words very literally. I hadn’t realised how this musical element of pitch feeds into language until I was face to face with this simple exercise.
As a music therapist, I often talk about “communicative musicality” which is a concept explored by Colwyn Trevarthan and Stephen Malloch in their book of the same name to explain the musical qualities that underlie all our communication. The term developed from studies of early parent-child interaction. Before a baby even babbles, he or she coos with their caregiver through vocal expressions and dynamic movements that can be analysed in musical terms, such as pitch, rhythm, pulse and dynamics. The parent and child tune into one another and find a common pulse to turn-take to. It is the same with a free-flowing conversation. Although not an obvious element of conversation, there is a need to tune in to our conversation partner’s speed of talking and to negotiate when to speak and when to listen, so we need to find that shared pulse. Communicative musicality precedes spoken language and so if there is a language delay, it would be worth ruling out problems with the basic interactive experience that can occur with music, being a non-verbal form of communication, like in the shared cooing of a mother and baby. It makes sense then, that a program designed for language improvement would involve some musical work as a starting point.
Another key part of the program is the focus on listening. One exercise involved listening carefully to a sound played at intervals and recognising the point that the sound changed. For example, the sound “ti” was played over and over again but then it changed to “gi” and I needed to press the mouse when I heard the change in the consonant sound. The exercise required me to be alert and attentive as I didn’t know when the change would occur, and I felt that this kind of exercise would help children with attention problems. I had difficulty hearing the difference in the consonant sound at first, so my brain began to search for additional clues to identify when to press the mouse. I became aware that there was a slight change in the beat of the sounds. The “ti” was presented at regular intervals and then when it changed to “gi”, it came a little faster. I spoke to Monique about this and she showed me a more advanced version of the same exercise where there was no obvious change in the beat when the new sound was presented, so it seems that this musical cue is there to assist you in tuning in to the change point, and then gradually reduced as you sharpen your phonetic awareness. I liked the presence of the musical beat- it reminded me that music is something the brain grabs hold of, and that it can assist in language development, simply by applying a beat to the repetition of a sound.
All in all, I was impressed with the program and would be happy to recommend it to children that require some assistance with listening and language. I also think that children are likely to develop stronger musical skills as a positive side effect of engaging with the program.
 Trevarthan, C. and Malloch, S. 2009. Communicative Musicality. Oxford University Press, Oxford.