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Learning

5 Ways Music Helps Kids Learn Languages

Oct 17, 2017

Over the past decade performing as a bilingual children’s musician, I’ve performed in hundreds of schools across the country and have experienced first hand how music can be hugely beneficial in teaching children a second language.
Before becoming a musician full time, I worked as a French immersion music teacher where I used my own songs to teach French and saw how kids picked up more quickly on vocabulary in a fun way. My first French album, “Will et sa maman,” which I recorded with my mom, a former French immersion kindergarten teacher, is still a popular teaching resource that is used in French immersion classrooms. During my tour in China this past summer, I saw how my new live music show integrating the Will’s Jams video content, engaged children and reinforced language learning in an entertaining way. Next summer, I’ll be returning to tour more in China due to the growing demand for English education.

This idea of learning language through music is supported by lots of research as well. As Liisa Henriksson-Macaulay writes in an article for the Guardian, “As music training boosts all the language-related networks in the brain, we would expect it to be beneficial in the acquisition of foreign languages, and this is what the studies have found.”She also writes, “When children start studying music before the age of seven, they develop bigger vocabularies, a better sense of grammar and a higher verbal IQ. These advantages benefit both the development of their mother tongue and the learning of foreign languages.”

When you add lyrics and singing to music, the melody, rhythm and rhyme can all greatly enhance language learning. Here are 5 musical tools that you can use with your kids to help them learn a second language:

Melody

Having a melody to sing makes memorizing new vocabulary easy and fun. Just think of the alphabet song. We learn that song at such a young age and I bet you still run through it in your mind when organizing a list alphabetically.

I have used well known melodies to teach French for my entire career as an educator. Here is an example of I song my mom wrote called “Merci, merci,” which teaches kids about being thankful and uses the melody from “When the Saints go Marching In.”

I thought I’d share an interesting story: when I was in China, we were driving in the car with our host and his 5-year-old son. He’s learning English and I witnessed how my music is helping him. While in the car he sang my song, “Make Friends with an Earthworm.” He was definitely singing above his language level and I found it so inspiring that my music could have that effect.


Rhythm

Language and poetry are rhythmic. When you add lyrics to songs, the rhythm is a powerful language-learning tool. Hip hop and rap are prime examples of this. I can still rap the entire “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” theme song because the rhythm of the words are etched into my mind!

Let’s try an example “en français.” ‘Le mot éléphant a trois syllables,’ so we can use the rhythm of a waltz or ¾ time for that word. I’ll make up a little verse in French in ¾ time to reinforce the rhythm of the words:
Je suis un éléphant
Tu es un chat
J’ai deux grandes oreilles et
Tu chasses des rats.

My favourite Will’s Jams song that really makes the rhythm a key feature and reinforces the lyrics is “Full of Beans.”


Rhyme

“Full of Beans” is a perfect segue into our next musical language-learning tool, rhyme! Rhyming words is central to most songwriting and it also happens to be incredibly valuable for recognizing the sounds within words, and common letters that those words share. It’s also FUN!

My daughter’s class last year learned my most recent French song called “La récréation.” It’s a song about recess and there are some long and complicated words in the song that those kids were able to learn because of the rhyme. Here’s the chorus:
“C’est la récréation
Mangeons notre collation
Ensemble nous jouons
C’est la récréation”


Action songs

Adding actions to songs is a sure-fire way to reinforce language learning. I use this strategy as a teacher and performer all the time, especially in my French shows for French immersion kids, and in China with my English show for ESL kids.

My first example is a song my mother wrote to teach her French immersion kindergarten students called “En haut, en bas.” This song continues to be one of the most popular and frequently requested songs the 1,000 school shows I’ve performed!

Here’s a song in English with actions that the kids in China loved doing: “Bike Safety Boogie.” While they loved this song in China, I do have to admit there is not a lot of helmet wearing over there!

And here is a live French version of this same action song, “Le boogie à vélo.”


Humor and creativity

Now, with all of the musical tools we’ve explored above, this is where things really become fun. As kids are learning a new language and building their vocabulary, there is an incredible opportunity to take their new language and make songs of their own. Simply take a melody you know well, change the lyrics, pick a topic, have some fun and try to make each other laugh.

You can do this easily with your kids or they can even do it on their own. My 3-year-old does this all the time in English as she continues to gain more vocabulary in her mother tongue. I do this with my older daughter in French as she is in second grade at a French immersion school. It doesn’t even matter if all of the words they use are real. I find often they might use made up words to maintain the rhyme or the rhythm. It is fascinating and often hilarious to hear what they come up with.

Music is fun. Learning a second language should and can be fun as well, so why not put these together. Music and language go together so harmoniously so write a song, sing along, you can’t go wrong, and before long you and your kids will be bilingual!


Watch Will's Jams on the CBC Kids YouTube channel and on CBC Kids on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 9:45 AM and Saturdays at 10:12 AM. Check the CBC Programming guide for details.

You can also see Will’s Jams Live in Toronto on Nov. 12, Halton Hills on Nov. 18 and Vancouver on Nov. 26. Studio K hosts Janaye and Tony will each be emceeing one of the shows in Ontario and will be available for meet & greets with Will. Click here for more info and to buy tickets!

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