The Power of Music to Enrich Language Learning

At Wellington College Bilingual Shanghai our setting is alive with music each day. Music is part of who we are; part of what it means to be human. Every culture and language on earth has music, and we have learned that regardless of where we come from or what languages we speak, all people seem to feel music in the same way. Music is an important part of how we communicate what is important in our culture, our history, and our sense of identity.

As an experienced early childhood educator and former ESL teacher, I know from personal experience the power music has to enrich language learning and help children succeed in the classroom. Through music and movement, children with all language abilities can become successful learners. Music bridges language gaps and can be an international platform for expression. Music activities provide children with an avenue for learning that is simultaneously fun and not intimidating. Children who speak limited English can not only participate in musical activities, but can also take pleasure in and gain knowledge from these experiences. Through words set to music, children experience language in an engaging and meaningful way.

Learning language for young children needs to be viewed the way children see it – as part of a larger overall learning process. Children learn all languages in a very natural and integrated way. They don’t separate into first and second language the way we do as adult learners. We know that learning to play music appears to cause changes in several sensory, motor, and higher-order association areas of the brain that result in improved attention, sequencing and processing. Music is a good example of a skill builder that gives both specific skills and improves a child’s academic operating systems. Music training encourages self-discipline, stimulates a variety of brain functions, and aids verbal memory. All of these areas can help children to be better language learners.

In addition, there may be an enduring cognitive advantage afforded by early and extensive music education on adult learning of a new language in an instructional setting. According to research done by Dr. Laura-Ann Petito at the University of Toronto in 2007, musicians showed greater improvement in expressive fluency and competence in their new language than non-musicians.

Through songs, students are exposed to authentic examples of the second language. Furthermore, target vocabulary, grammar, routines and patterns are modelled in context. This type of active learning is ideal for young learners.

Dr. Suzanne Medina agrees in Using Music to Enhance Second Language Acquisition: From Theory to Practice, that when second language learners hear ‘story songs” that is, stories, which have been set to music, it is possible to similarly acquire vocabulary …because of the positive effects which music has upon second language learners, story songs motivate and captivate the attention of second language-learners in ways that oral stories cannot. The extra information provided in music can facilitate language-learning, in the same way that gestures or pictures might be equally helpful for learning a language.

We take all of this knowledge to heart at Wellington College Bilingual Shanghai, and music is a vital part of our learning activities for all children. The children gather once a day with their year level for a lively and meaningful Learning Through Song session, but music is in air all day long! Walking and singing go hand in hand as we move around the setting making the joyful noise of learning as we go. Classroom routines feature music and songs to take the work out of cleanup, promote healthy habits, and remind the children of what is coming next. We use music to help our small pupils learn to identify and cope with their big feelings. Songs find their ways into story times, group games, and even inspire art!

Why not try adding the music advantage at home too? Download some quality children’s music in English and Chinese to play on your commute to the setting. Play a soft lullaby at bedtime. Make up a tune and sing a book. Sing a song you loved when you were young to your child and share your family’s traditions with a new generation. Grab some pots and empty containers, a couple of spoons, turn up the music, and you’ve got everything you need to find a steady beat in your kitchen. Build patience and self-control by creating a Freeze Game where you dance until the music stops! Choose a new style of music – jazz, classical, rock, rap, Chinese opera – and take the time to listen to it with your child. Even just a few minutes of something new can open up a whole new world of ideas and sounds. These activities are simple, active, and fun for children and families. And who knows, maybe the grownups will learn something new too!