Music and bilingualism in babies and toddlers

Music and bilingualism in babies and toddlers

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Since the earliest days of life bilingual children can distinguish familiar voices and familiar sounds in the languages they hear. Very young babies tune into the rhythm of language as they acquire the languages of their family and their community. 

Babies love listening to songs, rhymes and music, and singing together is a great way for both parents and children to have fun together! But music and rhythm are not just fun, they are important tools for language development. And the good thing is that singing can boost language skills at every age! 

So, how do can parents get started?

Babies and toddlers love music and movement!

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Songs are a very portable tool, you can sing while playing, while cooking or while pushing the pram. Even if your child doesn’t sing yet, you can be reassured that they are learning from you! With a young child a fun way to sing together is to associate rhythms and sounds with movement. Associating words with gestures can help to learn the meaning of words, and can also help to memorise songs. For bilingual children this is really important, as many words they find in songs may be new to them. 

With very young children, adults are the key resource! There is no app that can beat a good laugh with your child! You can pick any song or lullaby from your childhood, or ask a friend or a family member to teach you! I meet so many parents who have moved abroad and say that they can’t remember childhood songs in their mother tongue, and I completely sympathise! I remember some songs in my grandparents’ dialect, and parts of other songs my grandmother used to sing to me… and often after a few words I realise that I don’t remember all the words! I still have family and friends in Italy, so sometimes I ask them to help! The internet is also a huge resource and nowadays we have access to an incredible amount of music of all kinds.

One thing to remember is that the best way to make the most of music as a tool for language learning in the early years is to remove the distraction of videos, especially with children under the age of 5. Babies are particularly responsive when the music comes directly from the parent. Singing along with a parent is for the development of reciprocal communication (cit Guardian).
The World Health Organisation recommends to avoid screens for young children (find out more here on the HSE website).
Videos and written lyrics can be a very powerful tool for older children, so your strategy can adapt as your children start to learn to read! (more on this soon!)

So, what works with under 5s? Noise! 

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Musical instruments to create rhythm… and noise!

So you have picked your favourite song, it rhymes and it is funny! Now it’s time to make noise! Any cardboard box or shoe box can be used to highlight the rhythm. 

The video embedded here shows a good example of how to use simple objects to have fun with sounds. You can easily adapt this approach to any song, in any language and use your hands to clap, or wooden spoons to bring a twist to it! Anything you have at home can be used, or you can make your own instrument, as shown in this tutorial.
At the start a very young child will beat repeatedly, but if you regularly play this game, your child will learn with you.

How is this linked to bilingualism?

Acquiring two languages means acquiring two sound systems. Singing simple songs, even better if they rhyme or if they have lots of repetition in them, helps to identify sounds and syllables, which is important in language acquisition. Memorising songs requires repetition, so don’t expect that singing a song once or twice will be enough for your child to learn it. Sing the song regularly and your child might naturally want to join in after a while. 

So many parents tell me that their children become “shy” when they have to speak the parent’s mother tongue or when they feel that they don’t know the language well enough. An answer to this challenge is definitely singing. Singing and rhyming are an easy and comfortable way for children to try out their language skills. If children become comfortable singing in the language, and they get encouraged to continue singing as they get older (alongside speaking of course!), they will develop a good pronunciation and confidence in their own skills. 

How do I get started?

If you are a bit scared about trying this out, prepare a little in advance! Pick one or two of your favourite songs that have words that are suitable for your child’s age. Pick some objects that make unusual noises, and something for the beat! Create a relaxing environment and sing looking at your baby in the eyes. Use your own voice or a CD/MP3 player so the child is focusing on listening and will watch you rather than a screen. Use gestures to accompany some sounds and clap to mark beats. Let your child clap with you. 

Once you become a pro, nothing will stop you and you will start singing together in the kitchen, during bath time, and at bed time! Don’t forget to give your child time to try out words, make mistakes and experiment, as this is a natural part of learning about language. As you become a master of songs and rhymes, you can change some words to make the song sound funny or different, and your child will soon follow with their own creative input. 

As you get to the end of this blog post, we are getting ready for a very unusual St. Patrick’s Day Celebration in Ireland, so I will leave you a song as Gaeilge by Futa Fata!

Buon divertimento!

Dr Francesca La Morgia
Founder of Mother Tongues


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