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How Music Learning Assists in Language Acquisition

Updated: Nov 3, 2020

Singing at effraspace

I recently attended Sound Connections’ Get Business Ready, a 1-day conference that explored pathways into music education, fundraising and provided practical support for business development for individuals and organisations, in partnership with Royal Albert Hall. I'm very pleased to do a repost of an article that I wrote for them, originally published here. Have a read to find out more about how music assists infants and children in learning to speak a language.

“In many cultures and societies around the world, songs and nursery rhymes are a common element of childhood. Globally, they are an important part of oral tradition and shared cultural experience. Singing to your child is one of the earliest forms of social bonding between a parent and child fostering emotional closeness, and music has the ability to calm and to soothe. A 2015 study from the University of Montreal supports this, showing that infants remained twice as calm when listening to an unfamiliar song as they did when listening to speech. “These findings speak to the intrinsic importance of music, and of nursery rhymes in particular, which appeal to our desire for simplicity, and repetition,” stated author Mariève Corbeil, of the University of Montreal.

Another study at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute demonstrated that music study helps the brain to develop more quickly with increased efficiency. “The auditory system is stimulated by music,” said Assal Habibi, the study’s lead author. “This system is also engaged in general sound processing that is fundamental to language development, reading skills and successful communication.”

Music is formed by a combination of different sounds just as language is formed by speech sounds, and there are many similarities between the two. Pitch, intensity, tempo, melody, intonation and rhythm are elements that are present in both music and speech. Nursery rhymes and songs allow children to explore, play and experiment with these elements.

Singing songs helps teach your baby about speech sounds, giving them the opportunity to hear and practice them. The Centre for Early Literacy Learning conducted a study which demonstrates the positive impact that nursery rhymes and songs on literacy and language abilities. By using repetition and singing songs and rhymes over and over again, your baby begins to recognise them and also remember the associated actions. Many songs reinforce vocabulary by using gestures and corresponding movements. This is also a good way to help them develop their fine and gross motor skills, body awareness and physical coordination. Some good examples of songs with gestures are The itsy bitsy spider (l’araignée gipsy in French) and Head, shoulders, knees & toes (tête, épaules, genoux et pieds in French).

The advantages of learning through music can be capitalised upon to facilitate the acquisition of a foreign language in an organic, fun way. Researcher Patricia Kuhl has found that from birth, babies have the ability to discriminate between all the sounds of all the languages in the world, and with that are able to acquire any language that they are exposed to. Music and rhymes lend themselves as a natural method to learn a language. They are memorable and infectious – you may find yourself humming the tune and singing some of the words long after singing to your child! Song lyrics also help to learn foreign language vocabulary in context, particularly when gestures are used to help form an association with the words.

It’s also important to note that the most valuable learning experiences are those that are relevant, engaging, authentic and involve social interaction.  Joining a local foreign language music group is a fantastic way to support your child’s learning as it incorporates all these elements. In the French language music classes for Early Years that I run in South London, called Les Petits Tigres, I use authentic stories and traditional songs and rhymes along with puppets, props and sensory play to really engage and make learning fun.

The benefits of learning another language extend far beyond communication. Language learning develops a multitude of other skills such as listening, observation, creativity and analytical skills. It also gives us a more flexible view of the world and expands cultural perspective.

Music is an extremely powerful way of bonding and helping your child learn. So why not learn some French songs together? There are plenty of videos on YouTube to get you started or attend a local class.”

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