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Singing and language

Sing a song, learn a language and understand your culture

Date posted: Tuesday 1st January 2013

Mae hen wlad fy nhadau yn annwyl i mi.

If you speak Welsh then you will know that this is the first line of a famous Welsh song. My father is from South Wales, and we grew up in England at a time when Welsh rugby was going through a golden age. Dad had a repertoire of several Welsh songs that he would sing a lot to us, though he had only a vague idea of what the words meant. Consequently we had a very mangled exposure to very basic Welsh. In the 1960s and 70s Welsh was not generally spoken in South Wales, or taught in schools. There were few road signs in Welsh, though street names were often very long and all small towns seemed to begin with ‘Aber’ or ‘Ponty’. But when we visited our grandparents, in their terraced house in a small mining town up one of the valleys, we developed a very clear feel for the local coal mining culture and of ‘Welshness’. Because it was always a fun and exciting experience, I have very positive memories of Wales and of hearing the language.

Where is this leading? To a reflection on how children learn to talk, and how we can help bilingual parents and their children learn their mother tongue and hang onto their culture.

You see I have recently bought TIR: a CD of Welsh traditional songs, sung by Cerys Matthews. Sure enough, she sings a song beginning ‘Mae hen wlad fy nhadau yn annwyl i mi’ – ‘The land of my fathers is dear unto me’, the opening line of the Welsh national anthem. As I listened to the CD several times in the car, I was very surprised that I recognised quite a few words from my childhood, though I had no idea what they meant. Not only that, but I know when one word ends and another one begins, I can hear Cerys’ accent very strongly and can copy it, and when I repeat the words I find most of the sounds easy to pronounce.

I have, from somewhere in my memory, recalled all the foundations I need to go on to become a fluent Welsh speaker. If I wanted to, needed to, and if I lived in Wales and worked hard at it, in three years I would be a fluent speaker. I had heard these songs so many times as a child that they are stuck in my mind- in my consciousness- just like a catchy tune that you can’t get out of your head and end up humming all day.

Etsuko and her mother

This is very important. Recently a Japanese mother contacted me for advice. She lives in London and has a seven-month-old daughter, Etsuko. She is the only one in the family who speaks Japanese, and wanted to know how she can make sure that Etsuko speaks Japanese and develops an understanding of Japanese culture. Etsuko will go to English-speaking nursery and school, so it is likely that her only exposure to Japanese will be through mum.

My advice was very simple: “Sing, sing, sing in Japanese. Sing lullabies, play finger rhymes, action songs, counting songs and any songs you remember from your childhood. That way you will be laying down the foundations for Etsuko to learn Japanese when she is older- just like I did in Welsh. And, very importantly, teach Etsuko’s Dad the songs and rhymes, so he can learn some Japanese too. And one last thing… tell Etsuko you love her in Japanese and, if you must occasionally tell her off, do it in English!”

Singing with children, from the minute they are born, is the most important and easiest way to help them to learn their language and culture. It is a hugely powerful way to convey that you love your baby.

The power of repetition and the need for great-sounding CDs

This also applies to twenty-month-old Courtney. She is the apple of her seven-year-old sister Ruby’s eye, and Ruby is on a one-girl mission to teach her little sister how to talk. Courtney’s favourite song is ‘Sleeping Bunnies’. If Ruby has the time, she will sing this song with her little sister until they are both exhausted. And Courtney is learning to talk very very quickly. One week she seemed just to ‘la la’ along to the song and finish by saying ‘Stop’. But literally overnight she is singing the song with exactly the right cadence and all the words of the right length. OK, so ‘See the little bunnies sleeping until noon’ comes out as, ‘bee bu bibi bubi beebee bubi boo’ but you can see the progress she is making. She isn’t exactly sure what a ‘bunny’ is, and won’t understand the meaning of the word ‘noon’ until she is much older, but she is learning the foundations of English through singing.

But Ruby’s not happy, because the CD that her little sister has with ‘Sleeping Bunnies’ on it is really painful to listen to. (I think you will know exactly the type of CD I’m talking about, so let’s not name names.) The singing voices on the CD are so painful to listen to that Mum and Dad refuse to play it in the car. Courtney is running the risk of losing out on valuable fun singing and language learning time.

Enter Steve Grocott and his brilliant CD of songs for maths. Steve is not only a professional musician, but specialises in providing music training for early years practitioners. I had the pleasure of meeting Steve recently, and he gave me a copy of his CD. Steve has a great singing voice, and knows how to sing so that adults and children will want to join in. And in no time I had several of his tunes stuck in my head! His version of ‘Sleeping Bunnies’ is terrific, and Courtney’s parents approve of it and play the CD all the time in the car. Big sister is happy too, as she has learned a new firework song and has finally got the sequence of the months of the year sorted out. And most importantly, Courtney will have a huge repertoire of songs that she will sing with great pleasure in her pre-school, in school, and when she becomes a mum herself!

And if she marries a Japanese man and lives with her baby in Japan, she will know exactly what to do to make sure that her baby learns English…

To find out more about Steve Grocott, visit (Steve’s pages)

For in-depth information about bilingual learning, read ‘A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism’ by Colin Baker, published by Multilingual Matters.

For a discussion of bilingual learning in the early years visit

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20 responses to “Sing a song, learn a language and understand your culture”

  1. Mine says:

    Resonates with me, as a parent trying my best to raise my baby bilingually, without the support of a family network. Brilliant!

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thanks Mine.
      I think the message is that if children learn the very basics of a language and associate it with fun and affection then it will stick with them forever and they can use it in later life when they need to. This also applies to learning language in school. If it is taught well and children can enjoy the lessons and get a feel for the culture then this will be a perfect foundation. Teachers in Sweden and Germany and Holland understand this perfectly about teaching English. This explains why so many teenagers from those countries have such good English.
      Very best wishes

  2. Elly Foster says:

    Hi Michael, what a lovely thing to read this. As a Dutch person raising my three daughters in England, I gave up ‘teaching’ my children Dutch very quickly. The reason: the paediatrician said I was confusing my eldest daughter and hence she was behind in her speech. The poor love was then 15 months old! I never gave up singing Dutch nursery rhymes though and they can all three sing them today. They are 34, 33 and 28. Now I live in Wales and have struggled to become fluent in Welsh. I’ve been here 13 years and can get by but would not call myself fluent. The grandchildren on the other hand are pretty amazing. Two of them attend Welsh medium schools and they are definitely fluent. The thing nobody seems to have understood from the lesson you are giving us today is that adults need to be able to learn in the same way. I had the good fortune of having a retired primary head teacher for a few years to teach me and a few others Welsh. She sang nursery rhymes with us as if we were five year olds. We made fantastic progress. When she died I joined formal classes and had to sit through hours of grammar and the teacher speaking very rapidly, not writing things down and the whole thing just going over my head. She said we had to open our ears as that is the way little children learn. I disagreed completely with her. I explained that as a mother we repeat ourselves all the time, we lay emphasis on certain words and we sing and say nursery rhymes. I failed to make her see and left. Yes, I have a GCSE adult Welsh and I still get my grammar all wrong but like any five year old, I don’t care. Elly

    • Anna Brancazio says:

      Hi Michael, I grew up with both parents that were from italy
      we easily learned Italian and English, I have a friend she is portugues the dad is Italian, the children learned both languages and english coausing them no problem at all.
      In my nursery we have twins that hear French from mum and English from dad and school ,no problem ,they are as bright as buttons!

      • Michael Jones says:

        Hi Anna
        In most countries it is seen as a good thing for children to be involved with two languages. I think the difficulty is when there is negative reaction to the mother talking in her language. So it becomes essential that we celebrate all the languages that are spoken in our schools and nurseries, and that staff make an effort to learn at least a few phrases and songs/rhymes in chldren’s languages.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Elly
      Thanks for your comments.
      I think/hope that attitudes and knowledge about the value of bilingualism have changed over the last 30 years.
      I’m learning French at the moment, and am finding that all of the things I learned at school are just popping back into my mind. This surprises me as I didn’t particularly enjoy the teaching and I can visualise some of the teachers actually telling me the words in the lessons!!
      I had a funny experience with Dutch recently, which illustrates the power of the sounds of words and how this can make them memorable. We were talking about the word ‘tasty’ in Dutch, which I believe is ‘smakkelijk’. How can you forget a word like that!!
      Best wishes

  3. Hi Michael, I am so pleased you wrote about this!
    I run a group for Preschool children whose mum or dad (or both) are German. For most of these children, German is their second language, and as soon as they start school, it gets pushed more and more into the background- which is such a shame…but a reality!
    But I have noticed (with my own children as well) that the pattern of language in the songs I teach gets imprinted in their memories and they can recall it without effort!
    Songs, rhymes and chants teach the basic pattern and the rhythm of language in a way that nothing else can.
    Although my children are not fluent in German now, they remember the songs…and my oldest is heading for an A* in his GCSE…he has a natural feel for the language.
    I sing all the time, in fact, my kids tease me that I know a song about everything!
    So I totally agree with you- even if you run out of songs and sing made-up ones or advertising jingels (last resort!), never stop singing!

    • Michael Jones says:

      HI Katja
      I think that singing, and especially ensemble singing with live instruments, can really reach children emotionally. I use backing CDs, as I don’t play an instrument, and find that children (and adults) respond more to this than with just voice on its own.

      Unfortunately I think that some home languages as seen as being more ‘important’ to promote than others. If a family are the only speakers of a language in a nursery or school then parents can soon feel that they shouldn’t promote their child learning it. It’s often an unspoken message, but children pick it up very quickly. Often older children from bilingual families in the UK will prefer to ‘drop’ their mother tongue for a while at home. This can cause a lot of annoyance and concern for parents.
      However I think that the message that ‘a language stays with you through life’ is a good one, as it helps everyone to relax and have fun talking: in whatever language.
      N’est-ce pas? D’accord? (I’m not sure how to say ‘Is that right? Do you agree?’ in German!!

  4. Thanks for this Michael. I love your description of the way language is emerging as Courtney joins in with the songs. The music/language link is deep indeed. Of course if it wasn’t we would all talk like robots.

    • Michael Jones says:

      HI Steve
      Your CD rocks! The ‘live’ songs are particularly catchy and fun for the children to join in with. I imagine you get a great buzz out of singing and playing live music with young children.
      Best wishes

      • Judith Stevens (Dancer) says:


        Totally agree with you Michael – I would totally endorse Steve Grocott’s great work in early years which has developed over many years.

  5. Laura Henry says:

    Great blog, Michael thank you so much for sharing and writing!

    My parents who are from St. Lucia speak a French dialect and spoke 100% English at home, because they wanted us to fit in! My parents regret this now, as they feel that we were denied a second language. Due to their views on what ‘others’ thought of their language and culture. But, mindful, this was 1960’s Britain.

    Therefore, on my travels I encourage parents to speak their first language and indeed, sing, sing away on their mother tongue.

    Thanks again, Michael.

  6. Debbie Brace says:

    I am a HUGE Steve Grocott “Bright Sparks” fan and always highly recommend this CD to families and practitioners on my courses. Another fabulous CD is Celtic and Caribbean fun songs by Spud and Yam I have not as yet in 14 years of teaching found any two CD’s that top these smashers!!
    Steve Grocott is doing great things Linking letters and sounds with catch songs and rhymes for Early Years in Hounslow. Couldn’t agree with you more Michael!
    Debbie Brace

  7. Very interesting Michael. I had a bit of a headphone bop to the Drones music on your link. Any tips for a Granny wanting to help baby learn Shona?

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hello Margaret
      Do you know any Shona songs (lullabies in particular) or fun rhymes with actions? That should be a good start. Also encourage the parents to do the same!

  8. Renu Elston says:

    Hi Michael

    Great Blog: It is very interesting to read your views. I couldn’t agree with you more. I lived for the first 5 years of life in India. I still have very fond memories of singing numerous songs in Hindi (nursery and older songs. Music is a big part of the Indian way of life, on the radio, in films and even in serials on TV. I remember going to cinema and can still recall and sing the songs popular at the time. Numeracy was taught through songs as well. At 5 years age I could count in Hindi up to 100. Hence when my family moved to england they throughly enjoyed watching movies such: Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, Fiddler on a Roof and Grease. In essence my education simply continued but the foundation had been laid to speak and be fluent in more then one language.

    • Michael Jones says:

      HI Renu
      Do you think that your experience as a child has influenced the way you think about music and language with children?

      • Renu Elston says:

        Yes I have taught my son through music. He picks up languages (Spanish) easily and he loves music (many varieties). Always playing music and plays a range of percussion instruments.

  9. By the way, other really popular and fun CDs are the Keeping the Beat set – as mentioned on the Fatherhood Institute website. Again, male singers, including Steve Scott

    Advertised as Nursery Rhymes for Today’s children these are available at

    Enjoy as much as I do!


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