By Dr Jessica Mordsley

04 October 2017 - 14:36

Acoustic guitar in a field. Photo (c) SplitShire, licensed under CC0 1.0 and adapted from the original.
'Musicians acquire new language patterns more easily than non-musicians.' Photo ©

SplitShire, licensed under CC0 1.0 and adapted from the original.

Researcher Dr Jessica Mordsley explains, on the examples of Welsh and Spanish, why rhyme, repetition, and rhythm are so effective in helping us learn a language.

Rhymes are useful for children and adults

Many cultures around the world use nursery rhymes to soothe, entertain, and teach their young children. Simple, repetitive songs are often the first steps in learning language – their rhyming and rhythmic structure helps babies, and children and adults too, to remember and retain words.

The musicality of language learning

Musicians acquire new language patterns more easily than non-musicians - and there are parallels between the skills that musicians and linguists need – for example, the ability to identify and create specific sounds, to segment sound patterns (i.e., divide these up into smaller units of sound), and the need to develop sophisticated aural memory and perception.

How can we use this relationship to teach languages?

Pupils retain vocabulary in additional languages more easily when these are taught through song, compared to normal speech. Many language teachers already incorporate songs to help the learning process. But teachers can take this a step further by teaching languages using the inherent sound qualities of the languages themselves.

Every spoken language has its own ‘prosody’ - the characteristic patterns of stress, intonation, and rhythm. Unlike English, in both Welsh and Spanish the stress usually falls on the penultimate syllable of a word (although this varies, according to the position of the word in the phrase).

One way to teach languages through music

Some primary schools in Wales have been teaching English, Welsh, and Spanish at the same time, in sessions led by linguists and professional musicians, as part of a project called ‘Cerdd Iaith / Listening to Language’. The programme teaches listening skills, and trains the children's ears to hear the characteristic rhythms and melodies of the three languages.

The first exercises introduce single words in English, Spanish, and Welsh. Each syllable of every word is given a musical tone and rhythm, and this creates a small unit of music. The words are introduced to pupils as musical units, along with images of the object they represent, with all three languages presented together.

For example, using a slideshow, pupils are shown a picture of a dragon along with the word in each of the three languages, and above each of the words is the number of syllables:

2 1 2

dragón draig dragon

A learner clicks to play the word, as spoken by a native speaker. Clicking on the number plays a short piece of music that imitates the sound of the spoken word. Initially, all three languages are played every time the word is used.

Teachers can then encourage the pupils to say the words by using different combinations of cues, like images or sounds. They can play the musical phrase, and ask the children to say the matching word. Or they can play the word in one language and ask the children for another language, using the syllable count as a clue.

Then, pupils are introduced to more complex units – whole phrases rather than single words – of the type that would not normally be encountered in the early stages of language-learning.

For example:

Spanish - Tengo hambre

Welsh - Mae eisiau bwyd arnaf i

English - I'm hungry

These three very different and complex grammatical structures are challenging to translate word-for-word, but make more sense as entire musical phrases.

The below verses are in Spanish, Welsh and English and are all incorporated into a song, an original composition by Gareth Glyn in the form of a tango in C minor, that the students and teachers learned together. Rhyme is used to create unity of sound and sense, and repetition to assist memory.

Tango’r Tengo

Tengo hambre 
Tengo sed 
Tengo miedo 
Tengo tos 

Mae eisiau bwyd arnaf i
Mae syched arnaf i
Mae ofn arnaf i
Mae peswch arnaf i

I’m hungry
I’m thirsty
I’m afraid
I have a cough

Tengo sueño
Sin embargo
Tengo ganas de bailar
El tango, tango, tango, tango
Tengo ganas de bailar

Dwi wedi blino
Beth yw’r ots?
Dwi eisiau dawnsio’r
Tango, tango, tango, tango
Dwi eisiau dawnsio

I’m tired
But still
I feel like dancing
The tango, tango, tango, tango
Yes, I feel like dancing

Watch Tango’r Tengo:

What about the cultural context of music?

The choice of a tango was important, as this is a Latin American musical form. In Welsh schools, learning Spanish and Welsh has been integrated with learning about Patagonia, a region of South America where a community of Welsh speakers still exists over 150 years after Welsh settlers arrived there. Learning about Patagonia and its musical traditions has helped the students feel more connected emotionally to the languages.

How have teachers and pupils responded to this type of learning?

Both teachers and pupils not only remembered and understood words and phrases in the three languages better, but were more willing to use and correctly pronounce them, and they seemed to be having fun. One teacher said:

'When we were on a walk the other day, a pupil used the English word ‘yesterday’ in the middle of a Welsh sentence. I encouraged the pupil to use the Welsh word. The pupil paused to think. Searching for the missing Welsh word, the pupil hummed the ‘tune’ for the English ‘yesterday’, then for the Spanish 'ayer' before singing out in the Welsh word 'ddoe', and returning to complete the sentence. It was an unexpected but very satisfying moment to see the trilingual mind at work, using music to make connections between languages.'

Learning through music removes the fear of making mistakes

Pupils have been creating new sentences that would be unusual unless they had been learning the language for two or three years. It seems to work especially well with pupils who are reluctant to participate or who find it difficult to stay focused.

For teachers, teaching with music may also make them feel more confident about leading a language learning class, perhaps because it removes some of the barriers to teaching in an additional language, such as the fear of making mistakes.

The multilingual turn

There is increasing interest in ‘the multilingual turn’ within education policy and research. This is the belief that the acquisition of multiple languages can lead to 'social cohesion, equity and respect for diversity'.

This reflects the view that language-teaching should respect the linguistic and cultural diversity that pupils bring to the classroom, as well as extending their language repertoires. This challenges the traditional monolingual theories of language teaching, which assume that the language learner is an ideal ‘native speaker’ of a single language, rather than an individual who may be competent to different degrees in multiple languages.

Dr Jessica Mordsley is an evaluator working with the Cerdd Iaith / Listening to Language project team.

Access resources such as videos, audio clips, lyrics and activities for pupils, which will help you use this method in your classroom, regardless of your own individual music skills (from mid-October 2017).

A number of primary schools in Wales have been simultaneously teaching English, Welsh, and Spanish in sessions led by British Council Wales, BBC National Orchestra of Wales, University of Wales Trinity St David’s and ERW (Ein Rhanbarth ar Waith), as part of the Cerdd Iaith / Listening to Language project.

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