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Singing and language

Helping children to listen at storytime: with help from Bob Dylan & Johnny Cash, Kate Rusby and The Proclaimers!

Date posted: Saturday 21st September 2013

Und eff ah haver (Whaen ah haver),
Yeh, ah know ahm gonnie bee
Ahm gonnie bee tha mahn whuese haverin’ ta yue.

I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by The Proclaimers

Kate RusbyWhen I was at secondary school in Scotland my friends and I wanted to start a rock group. We split after two rehearsals: not because of ‘musical differences’, but because we couldn’t decide what to call the band. There were four name choices: Weaver’s Answer (Terry Weaver was to be our lead singer, but quit the band at lunchtime); Blasted Dawn (our drummer fancied a girl called Dawn, so that was a no brainer); Midnight’s Children (as I pointed out, Marc Bolan was briefly in a band called John’s Children, and there was no way I was going to be associated with a project that smelled like T Rex.) My suggestion, The Junkyard Angels was rejected out of hand because only bands from the early 60’s had names beginning with The. (This was a few years before Punk, with The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned etc.). Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and I can see now that we were doomed to failure from the outset, because we were asking the wrong questions about the group. Obviously we should have been thinking: ‘What accent are we going to sing in?’

It was 1973, and Elton John was just starting to be huge. Though he was from Watford, he sang as if he was from the Deep South (of the USA). Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin sang like he was from Wisconsin, though he was from the West Midlands. (I’ve often wondered how Stairway to Heaven would have sounded if he had kept his West Bromwich accent.) Only The Beatles could get away with singing in a UK regional accent. Even Mick Jagger: a posh southern grammar school boy who attended the London School of Economics, spoke like a Cockney but sang like a Yank. If we were going to make it big internationally then we would need to dump our Scottish accents and sing like Elvis, Alice Cooper, or even Johnny Cash. (In his duet with Bob Dylan on Girl From the North Country, inspired by a Yorkshire folk song, Dylan didn’t bother to sound like someone from a folk club from Harrogate: for the whole Nashville Skyline album he adopted a Country and Western twang!)

Johnny Cash & Bob Dylan: It don’t mean a thang if you don’t sang with a twang

It always amazes me how children pick up accents. Children as young as 18 months will automatically adopt the accent of those closest to them; and without their parents thinking about it either. It’s an amazing feat, and comes about through babies and toddlers ‘tuning in’ to the speech that they hear around them, and particularly from their parents. Children are amazing, and most learn to talk even though they are brought up in families, settings and schools that are full of background noise. As they mature, they seem to be able to filter out background sounds in the environment, and focus on what is important; i.e. what is being said to them.

This must have been how Kate Rusby picked up her beautiful Yorkshire accent, which you can just about hear in this clip, but really comes to the fore in her many fantastic songs.

Kate Rusby: The Barnsley Nightingale, singing like a real girl from the North Country.

However there is one situation where children just can’t cope with background noise: when sitting in a big group at storytime. I have been involved in so many group times when children have been unable to focus on me because of what is going on in the background: including adults talking, furniture being put away, adults sweeping up, the phone ringing, parents collecting their children, the Head popping her head round the door and trying to talk to me when I am in mid flow.

Any adult who has tried to hold the attention of young children at storytime will know that the environment has to be just right. The children need to be sitting comfortably; they need to be fresh and attentive; there should be no interruptions; and all the adults need to be sitting listening, so that they are acting as good role models.

On my course, Bring Storytime to Life! We spend time practicing using accents and funny voices, how to handle puppets, and how to get your young audience involved. But by far the most important part of the day is about how to organise all the adults in the setting so that they are all there with you, and how to make sure that there are absolutely no distractions. I liken storytime to prime time TV. You could have as many as 30 young children in front of you for 20 minutes. That’s a lot of minutes, and a lot of children, so each one of those children needs to be fully involved and enjoying themselves. If not, then it is a waste of their time, and a waste of yours.

The following pointers have been shown time and again to lead to improved storytimes for children and adults alike:

It’s not always easy to change the way that adults organise themselves, but If storytime is not working for you and the children you care for, then something’s gotta change. I would recommend beginning with all adults being present.

Imagine my surprise when a Scottish band made it big all over the world in the late 80’s by singing in Edinburgh accents and having a name beginning with The. Maybe if my friends had listened to me we could have been as huge as The Proclaimers. By the way, does anyone know what havering is?

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13 responses to “Helping children to listen at storytime: with help from Bob Dylan & Johnny Cash, Kate Rusby and The Proclaimers!”

  1. I am in the south of England and I work with a colleague who has a broad Scottish accent. Her husband is from these parts and they have a three year old who has no trace of a Scottish accent….her mum is very disappointed! The little girl has been at home with her mum and is only just beginning to spend more time with southern-speaking peers. Any thoughts about why she hasn’t picked up the accent? (We are speech & language therapists and we tend to talk about these things over lunch!)

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Patricia!
      That is quite fascinating, and you’d example has just blown a theory of mind totally out of the water!
      I had friends who were from Scotland (mum) and from Iran (dad). They have a son and a daughter. They lived in London where the children went to school. The daughter had a Scottish accent and the son a broad Iranian accent. I put this down to the girl identifying with mum and the boy with dad.
      Your example shows that it is more complex than that. Or maybe it is merely that all children are different in the way they develop accents.
      I worked with the Irish Travellers, who rarely went to Ireland, but spent nearly a their time with family who all have very broad accents. All children had broad Irish accents. I moved around the UK a lot as a child and picked up the local accent as quick as a flash. Sometimes this was unconscious, big as I got older it was through practice.
      I’m glad it’s not me who finds this a fascinating subject!!

  2. Sarah says:

    Accents and dialect interest me too – we sometimes forget the power of media and friendships even at a very young age……..the little girl would have spent time with friends at some time – Patricia, you said that your friend worked with you – so, was she look after at a Nursery, childminder or somewhere else? Also, even if TV was limited, she would have been exposed to other spoken language to a certain extent – radio, story tapes….videos?
    I have met young children through my work who when they enter school are already fluent in 3 or 4 languages. Young children’s brains are like sponges, absorbing everything.
    Some Scottish accents are very pronounced, others very subtle…….could it be something to do with that?
    Just some thoughts,

    • Hello Elly, Sarah and Maggie
      Thank you for your fascinating insights. I wonder if it is all down to individual differences in personality and listening skills?
      I am put in mind of a family I heard of who lived in Liverpool. Mother was from Ireland, while Dad had what you might call a ‘southern Received Pronunciation (RP; i.e. ‘Standard English’ accent. The two boys were 4 and a half and three. The older boy had a speech difficulty and was very shy, and his accent was a mixture of his Mum’s and Dad’s. His younger brother was more ‘outgoing’ and was broad Scouser.
      Neither child went to nursery, though there were always a lot of local visitors at home. Could it have been that the older boy was less ‘outgoing’ and therefore couldn’t identify with the visitors and therefore picked up the accent and vocabulary of his parents? The more outgoing younger boy was more confident/less intimidated by the visitors and therefor embraced their accent and vocabulary more readily?
      It’s possible that the younger child may have had ‘glue ear’, which would have led to the speech difficulty as well as reduced listening skills.

      I’m also thinking of Tony Blair, who seemed to change his accent depending in who he was talking to. If he wanted to sound ‘intelligent and convincing’ you could hear his Scots accent come to the fore, while when he was talking to someone ‘working class’ you could hear him use a kind of ‘Mockney’: where he would drop his ‘h’s and become very colloquial in his vocabulary.

      Some people (like me) are very aware of accents and am very susceptible to changing my accent without me noticing. That is very useful when you are learning another language. The ability to listen well may be the ‘magic ingredient’ that determines how well we are going to progress in second language learning.
      What do you think??

      • Michael said:
        ” I am put in mind of a family I heard of who lived in Liverpool. Mother was from Ireland, while Dad had a ‘Standard English’ accent. The two boys were 4 and a half and three. The older boy had a speech difficulty and was very shy, and his accent was a mixture of his Mum’s and Dad’s. His younger brother was more ‘outgoing’ and was broad Scouser. Neither child went to nursery, though there were always a lot of local visitors at home. Could it have been that the older boy was less ‘outgoing’ and therefore couldn’t identify with the visitors and therefore picked up the accent and vocabulary of his parents? The more outgoing younger boy was more confident/less intimidated by the visitors and therefore embraced their accent and vocabulary more readily?”

        I would suggest this is down to innate phonological awareness. Children with speech disorders often have very poor phonological awareness and cannot cope with different accents in the same way as other children – this is particularly noticeable if they have a new TA or teacher from a different part of the country. As they don’t have a well-organised internal phonological system themselves, they can’t quickly ‘update’ their system to accommodate the new accent, and differently pronounced words sound like a foreign language to them.

        So I’d suggest that the older son was learning new vocabulary and storing words as he heard them spoken by both parents (he probably had a lot of inconsistencies in his own speech), while the younger son was creating a phonological map and opting for the accent he heard the majority of people around him use.

  3. Maybe Mum has brought her up with lots of songs, singing along to audio-tapes etc. and has unconsciously done a Bob Dylan rather than a Proclaimers!
    And maybe Daddy always reads the bedtime story and as she drifts off to sleep it’s his accent that becomes hard-wired… (research project?!!)

    Or, as you say Michael, maybe it’s just that local accents are picked up very quickly and children have an incredible facility to recognise and store the dominant phonological pattern – immersion comes not just from parents and playmates but from neighbours, visitors to the house, shopkeepers and a myriad of other people in the community. Maybe this ‘community’ theory could explain why Irish Travellers retain their parents’ accent in the UK, whereas a child hearing only one regional accent does not?

  4. Elly Foster says:

    Hi Michael I too lived all over the place as a child. I was brought up in The Netherlands. Although I’ve lived in the UK for 38 years, I still have a trace of a Dutch accent. In The Netherlands we call it ‘tongue fall’, the way the tongue shapes itself as a child, it’s hard to alter that later. I listen to my grandaughter, 8 now, but she’s done this ever since she was tiny, putting on an American accent when she’s playing. I find the whole thing fascinating. Living in Wales now, I catch myself copying strong Welsh accents. My husband tells me off as he says it sounds as if I am taking the mickey. I can’t help it though.

  5. Rosa Pryke says:

    Although born in London my mother tongue is Spanish and I started Primary school with not one word of English. Each summer we would return to Spain for a month and I would “forget” English. Hey presto, within a week or two, on our return to London and school I would again be a fluent bilingual – (with a London accent in English).
    Why is it that now I speak Spanish with a strong English accent? It remains a mystery to me.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Rosa
      It’s a mystery to me too! I think that a lot of accent learning is about having a ‘good ear’ for language. My step daughter has always been brilliant at learning languages, and her pronunciation in particular is excellent. She is quite musical too, and she thinks the two things are related. I spent a lot of time on my speech therapy course listening to speech sounds, distinguishing the differences between them, making the sounds and then writing them down. I think that this ear training made me a better listener when learning foreign languages.

      My neighbour’s children had exactly the same upbringing as you, and they speak English like Londoners, but their Spanish is a mixture of Spanish and English pronunciation. Maybe if you lived in Spain you would soon drop your English pronunciation? I live in France now, and listening to the radio on long car journeys is helping my pronunciation, without me thinking about it too much.
      I’m fascinated by this subject, and wonder what you think?
      Best wishes

  6. Bob Dylan experimented with so many voices during his career with songs coming down his nose and all parts of his mouth, over the years.The ravages of age have narrowed his choices of vocal delivery severely now.
    For some reason it really is impressive when a singer sings in their own regional accent: It sort of broadly signals up credibility or believability in the song and the artist doesn’t it. Militant folkies believe you should only be singing songs about your home town which kind of narrows down your options as an artist.

    Somehow Jagger’s drawl kind of worked/works and has been instrumental in creating a unique British Blues /rock and roll tradition which is getting on for 50 years old. A good enough time for a music tradition I think.
    On the downside Mumford and Sons affected Irish singing voice has a powerefully oppostite effect on me…actually don’t get me started.
    Opera why does the vocal technique demand that ridiculous enunciation or Turbo RP? (cf don’t get me started).

    A phenomenon I have noticed on more than one occasion in young people with Autistic Spectrum condition is the affectation of an American or film/TV accent in much of their speech, especially the disaccociated bits.Theres acase study or paper or two there I think.

    Sometimes hoew you talk or sing is an individual choice, sometimes the cultural pressure to conform to an accent so as not to stand out must come into play.

    I recently watched “Evidently John Cooper Clarke” a fantastic documentary that I know you and anyone with an interest in language and words would love.

    Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys recounts in it that hearing Clarke perform was the single thing that enabled him to sing in his own accent.

    I’m kind of rambling or Ramblin or Ramblin awn
    Will get back to you on havering I suspect you might have done aclassic lyric mishear though

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Tim
      Wise words, as always. The post was meant to be a focus on children listening at storytime, but no one has picked up on that. The way that we pick up accents is fascinating for many people. As adults we can make a choice about what we do, but the process for children is significant, because it’s unconscious.
      Your comment about youngsters with ASD is very interesting. I have met several teenagers with Asperger syndrome who have such a ‘posh’ accent that they almost sound like Prince Charles, or at least someone affecting ‘The Oxford Voice’. (Incidentally, is Brian Sewell’s accent real, or a total affectation?)
      I had a friend from Surrey who went to study in Manchester, and after a term came home sounding like Liam Gallagher! Looking back on it, she was so excited about being in Manchester that she decided to embrace the accent too. She stopped it in her second year when she saw Freshers from down south doing the same thing.
      There is a character in the comedy series ‘Community’ called Abed,who has Aspergers and who interprets human relationships and life in general as a TV programme or film, based on relationships and storylines from soaps and blockbusters. It’s a silly comedy, but makes the point that so much of our interaction is subconscious, and relationships often don’t make any sense, and certainly aren’t ‘logical’. If we can pick up an accent consciously, in order to try to ‘fit in’ with a group, or to show them that we identify with them, then it might be ‘logical’ to someone with ASD to put on an accent of their favourite TV character.
      Talking of accents, Gwyneth Paltrow has an impeccible Home Counties accent in Sliding Doors, and young Australian actress Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre not only has an excellent Yorkshire accent, but has bits of Gateshead as well, where Jane lived as a you child. They must have had amazing voice coaches!
      I will certainly follow up your John Cooper Clake reference.
      More soon

  7. Kirsty says:

    Ur just kidding on about havering right? I’m sure if u didn’t know, google would probably oblige speedily. Ur Scottish, and a language therapist, right? But anyway, just incase ur not kidding, havering is as far as i understand the proclaimers meant it, is like talking nonsense, waffling, babbling on…quite possibly as one might after consuming too much alcohol. Neither myself or my husband r from the west of Scotland but my son who’s always lived here has the accent. He changes register when not at home but the other day when copying out his spelling words, read ‘windy’ and without hesitation or question wrote down ‘window’ three times. Lucky I checked it! Lol! 😉 when I pointed it out to him, he casually mentioned that he didn’t think it made sense…I assume he thought his teacher must’ve forgotten to change register when she got to work that day and he’d help her out! Lol! 😉

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Kirsty
      I was brought up in Scotland from age 10 to 17. There was quite a lot of hostility in school towards English kids, so I developed a Scots accent super quick. However within Scotland there is a huge variation in accents and dialect. It’s fascinating.
      Your example is very very funny!
      My post was supposed to be about helping children listen, but everyone has focused on the accent aspect. I guess that accent and dialect are an important part of our identity, and mean a lot to us.
      I think Tony Blair recognised this, and tried to use it to subtly try and win arguments. He would vary between RP, Scots and Mockney: depending on what he wanted us to believe. So accent is powerful, whether we realise what we are doing or not.
      For adults, I think the use of dialect words, like teenagers using slang, is a conscious thing, and we do it to show that we are part of a group, to exclude other people, and just for the fun of it!!
      Great to hear from you. Next post is about sleep problems!

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