Breaking the Language Barrier: The Effects of Foreign Language Music on Word-List Retention

Over the past decade researchers (e.g., Furnham & Allass, 1999; Pring & Walker, 1994) have explored a number of musical variables that affect memory and word-list retention. These researchers provided a scientific basis for supporting the use of music to enhance word-list retention. Judde and Rickard (2010) found that word-list retention was significantly enhanced when a music condition was present. This study exhibited that music improves recall. Researchers also examined variables such as musical complexities, un-vocalized instrumental pieces, and foreign, free-flowing music. Furnham and Allass (1999) studied instrumental complexities and found that extroverted individuals exhibited greater text recall with complex pieces than introverted people. This research showed that individuals may be more likely to retain items from a word-list if listening to complex music, such as something one may hear on the radio. Another study focused on un-vocalized, instrumental pieces. Pring and Walker (1994) theorized that because vocals are distracting, individuals will be more likely to perform better in a purely instrumental condition. They found that individuals listening to un-vocalized music can more efficiently recall information (Pring & Walker, 1994). This study demonstrated that the lyrical aspect of music can be distracting and lead to poor performance. Un-vocalized pieces are more effective at bringing about memory recall, so perhaps lyrics that are not understood (such as unfamiliar foreign lyrics) would bring about similar results. Many individuals assume that because they cannot understand a language that is being sung or spoken, they will not be distracted by the lyrics when compared to an understood language. One more study examined foreign, free-flowing music. Here, Cockerton, Moore, and Norman (1997) studied Japanese Koan music and found that this type of sound enhances memory and is generally facilitating. This study displayed that unfamiliar, foreign music may be less distracting and enhances memory, as previously mentioned. This was one of the few studies featuring a foreign language (Japanese), and this is why Japanese lyrics were used in this study.

Research shows that memory recall is stronger when in a complex music condition, such as something one may hear on the radio (Furnham & Allass, 1999), and that listening to a familiar, lyrical piece can lead to poor performance (Pring & Walker, 1994). Cockerton, Moore, and Norman (1997) showed that foreign, Japanese Koan music is less distracting and enhances memory. However, Koan music is natural and free-flowing, and is meant to be used during meditation. Research has yet to cover the effects of foreign lyrics on complex, up-beat music, such as the type one may hear on the radio. This study addressed this gap in our knowledge.

It was hypothesized that individuals would perform better in the Japanese lyrics condition than in the English lyrics condition because research has shown that unfamiliar music is less distracting, especially with lyrics that are not understood (e.g., Pring & Walker, 1994; Cockerton, Moore, & Norman, 1997).



Thirty (30) Penn State New Kensington undergraduate students participated in the study. Participants received extra credit toward their course grade in exchange for their participation. Both males and females were included because it was likely that both genders listened to music, especially while studying. Participants who were familiar with the music used or fluent in Japanese (or not fluent in English) were excluded from the study experiment because the premise was that a foreign, unknown language will be less of a distraction than an understood (English) language.


Participants were asked to memorize a list of 30 words. Participants were exposed to one of two music tracks. Either the English or Japanese lyrics version was played in a music condition. Half (15) of the students were exposed to the Japanese version of the song while the other half (15) were exposed to the English version of the song. Students were given two minutes and 30 seconds (the length of the song) to memorize the word-list. After time was up, the music was turned off and word list taken away. Students were then asked to write down as many words as they could recall from the word-list on provided paper. Participants had a maximum time of five minutes to complete this task.


Two music tracks were used. The song was ‘Hikari (Simple and Clean),’ by Utada Hikaru and remixed by PlanitB. Either the English or Japanese lyrics version was played in a music condition. The singer is fluent in English and there was no accent in the song.


A 30 item word-list was developed, modeled after Nielson and Powless’ (2007) study, where each word was highly imaginable. Words such as “grass, butterfly, and house,” were used. Simple words that can be imagined as a picture or item are more easily recalled than complex, indistinguishable words (Nielson & Powless, 2007). This increased the probability that individuals would accurately recall information.


The number of correctly recalled responses was submitted to an independent samples t-test to compare the effects of foreign lyrics on word-list retention. There was no significant difference in scores for participants in the Japanese lyrics condition (M = 13.73, SD = 3.33) and participants in the English lyrics condition (M = 11.78, SD = 3.19; t(31) = 1.72, p > .05, two-tailed).


It was hypothesized that individuals would perform better in the Japanese lyrics condition than in the English lyrics condition because research has shown that unfamiliar music is less distracting. Given that the significant findings are above 0.05, there is no significant difference between the groups, and the hypothesis was therefore not supported. Foreign language appears to have no effect on memory, and so students should feel confident that listening to music while studying, in any language, will neither aid nor hinder memorization.


Limitations of the study include sample size and music choice. A sample of 33 undergraduate students is not large enough to generalize to the larger population. Also, the difference between the music tracks was not significant enough to bring about larger results. Several participants mentioned that they did not notice that the piece was in a foreign language.

Future Research

Future research could examine this with a larger sample size, different instrumental complexities, or a control group. It was mentioned that the music choice was distracting, and that a less complex, slower piece may bring about better results. It is also important to note that future research should investigate musical pieces with a greater significant difference between the conditions.


Cockerton, T., Moore, S., & Norman, D. (1997). Cognitive test performance and background

music. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 85, 1435-1438.

Furnham, A., & Allass, K. (1999). The influence of musical distraction of varying complexity on

the cognitive performance of extroverts and introverts. European Journal of Personality, 13, 27-38.

Judde, S., & Rickard, N. (2010). The effect of post-learning presentation of music on long-term

word-list retention. Neurobiology of learning and memory, 94, 13-20.

Nielson, K., & Powless, M. (2007). Positive and negative sources of emotional arousal enhance

long-term word-list retention when induced as long as 30 min after learning. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 88, 40-47.

Pring, L., & Walker, J. (1994). The effects of unvocalized music on short-term memory. Current

Psychology, 13, 165-171.

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