Sing and Ye Shall Learn! Why Singing is Important to Language Acquisition | Think Bilingual

Sing and Ye Shall Learn! Why Singing is Important to Language Acquisition

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This is the first week of Spanish camp and my daughter has been coming home each day singing children’s songs from Cuba as she demonstrates the basic steps of the Mambo.   The joy of singing shines through and I am reminded of her earlier years from ages one through three when we had taken Spanish music and singing classes with Natalie Kane at Semillitas de Español.  I have so many wonderful memories and great videos of her singing in Spanish and dancing, all the while having so much fun.

Turns out singing for language learning is not just for babies or small children. Research supports the use of singing for language acquisition regardless of age and musical ability.  A study published in 2013 in Psychonomic Society, Inc. by Karen M. Ludke, Fernanda Ferreira and Katie Overy adds to earlier research that showed simple and catchy melodies in a native language can improve memory recall (the opposite was true for more complex melodies and rhythms).  Their study went on to show how singing simple and catchy melodies develop phonetic aspects of an unfamiliar language thereby directly transferring important speaking skills in that language.  More importantly, their research also found that singing helped participants learn and more quickly recall vocabulary in an unfamiliar language than did “listen-and-repeat” exercises and rhythmic speaking exercises.  

This report is especially good news for adults since many may feel more encumbered when learning a second language.  Yet, it also speaks to the need to incorporate more singing based curriculum in bilingual and language learning programs for all ages.   Some teachers are doing just that. For example, at this year’s annual conference for Bilingual Education in Austin, Adelante, I sat in a session with a local AISD dual-language teacher, Sergio Ramos.  Mr. Sergio Ramos demonstrated how he successfully uses singing in Spanish to teach language acquisition and subject matter to non-native speakers in Elementary school.  He does so by chooseing songs with repetition, meaningful lyrics and catchy rhythms to weave lessons in grammar, science, history and social studies.  And while he does not force his students to sing, he says that most students simply cannot help themselves.

140404013617434_1To delve more into this topic, I decided to go back to where singing for language learning first took center stage for my daughter and myself.   It has been four years since we took Semillitas de Español’s music and singing classes and since then, so many mothers I know have also taken her classes.  So over lunch at a local Italian restaurant, I met up with Natalie to ask her about what she has witnessed and/ or learned over the years about language acquisition through singing and music.  As we sat there talking I shared with her how my daughter still loves to go back and sing those songs she learned long ago from her classes.  Natalie opened up by sharing one of her favorite quotes by Alfred Mercier, “What we learn with pleasure we never forget.”  This seemed to me to be very apropos as I know from experience that Natalie beautifully incorporates pleasure through music, singing, movement and the use of props.  By doing so she intentionally strives to provide rich context, melody, and manipulation that carries significance to the words being sung.

During our conversation, Natalie described what she understood to be the initial stage of language acquisition through music and singing called the “silent phase” whereby the child (and often times the caregiver) begin developing an ear for the language as well as the proper mouth movements to produce specific sounds.  With this silent phase begins the development of word and meaning association for both the tangible and imaginary.  In affirmation, Natalie has received testimonials from parents who have shared how their young children have extracted words from a song and have applied those words in proper context to other external situations.  Such testimonials also supports the research findings highlighted above.

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Natalie Kane from Semillitas de Español at Think Bilingual Austin’s Bilingual Preschool Fair

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Natalie Kane from Semillitas de Español at Think Bilingual Austin’s Bilingual Preschool Fair

Natalie also brought to my attention the work of a leading Linguistics theorist, Stephen Krashen.  Stephen Krashen, a Linguistics professor from the University of Southern California, specializes in theories of language acquisition and development.  His theory for effective early language acquisition focuses more on the importance of input in a comfortable situation where effective communication is the most important component rather than focusing on grammatically correct output.  (To learn more about Stephen Krashen’s theory click here.)   This is exactly what Natalie strives for in her program (important language input in an inviting and comfortable setting that uses song, music, movement and props to effectively communicate meaning). This focus on input in a relaxed and comfortable setting may be one reason why singing is so effective in language acquisition.

In accordance with Stephen Krashen’s theory of language acquisition and development, once meaning has been obtained, participants naturally move toward better understanding the language structure.  In support of this theory, Natalie shared that she has received testimonials from caregivers who claimed that singing with the Spanish music from class seemed to further strengthen and reinforce their own Spanish language capabilities.  I can certainly attest to this from my own experience.  Rather than focus on organizational structure first as is the case with traditional academic language learning, singing incorporates structure in a more natural and rhythmical manner. The structure then becomes more recognizable once meaning is clear.  The fact that you can convey meaning and structure through singing further supports the multiple benefits of using this method for language acquisition and development.

Conclusion

Singing enhances language acquisition and development regardless of age, musical abilities and level of language proficiency.  Hence, we benefit greatly when we find more ways to incorporate singing and music in our daily lives.  Songs must have a catchy and simple melody to be effective for language transfer.

Benefits of singing for language acquisition include the development of

  • more accurate vocal skills,

  • better vocabulary association and retention

  • and a better internalization of language structure.

How  you can use singing to improve language acquisition.

  • Find Online Resources that provide simple but meaningful songs that you can learn in home.

    • Check out our online resources for ideas. You can also search for songs on itunes and youtube.

    • Make sure that the songs have a catchy and simple melody and are somewhat repetitive.

    • Find songs that have lyrics written down so that you can follow along.

  • Attend bilingual programs that offer music and singing as part of a key component to language learning.

  • Share this information with your bilingual educators and ask that they incorporate more singing and music in their language programs.

  • Discover local bilingual musicians.  Attend their concerts and learn songs for the entire family to enjoy.

  • Most importantly,  HAVE FUN!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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