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Languages and music: natural partners in education

By Stephen Crabbe - posted Thursday, 29 May 2008

Of course students in Australian schools should be learning languages other than English (LOTE). Other writers have presented a number of excellent reasons for making it mandatory. But it seems that nobody has raised another crucial point: languages (including English) should be studied together with music.

As I have argued elsewhere, music should urgently be slotted into the national curriculum and adequately funded. This applies especially in primary schools. One reason music education is so essential is that it is a powerful facilitator of language development. Advocates for languages in education should combine with their music counterparts to campaign for both to be taught to all students in Australian schools. This would give the Rudd Government’s “revolution in education” some real punch.

Language as music

In antiquity music held a much more important place in public life than it does today. In ancient Greece, for instance, it was integrated with all important occasions to the extent that the language had no word just for music. The concept of mousike (literally the business of the Muses) united melody, language and dance. Furthermore, the nine Muses used their music to inspire spoken language in poetry, comedy, tragedy, and history, as well as knowledge of astronomy and choral song and dance. Perhaps, unlike contemporary humans, the Ancient Greeks understood the fundamental symbiosis of language and music.


Language development of infants depends on music

In the pre-natal environment the fetus hears the mother’s voice but not the consonants. Her body and amniotic fluid allow only perception of the vowel sounds with all their ordered intonations. In early post-natal life the child, without saying any words, reproduces these tonal variations as well as the rhythm, stress, phrasing and timbre of language. Into these essentially musical aspects the infant later learns to embed the phonemes that comprise speech. So crucial is the pre-linguistic “singing” of the infant that analysis of it can indicate the likelihood of speech pathology.

Music, language and the brain

Scans tracing the flow of blood through the brain have led to confirmation that, more than any other combination of cognitive capacities, music and language work closely together.

While pitch and phonemes are processed by separate parts of the brain, these two regions collaborate intimately. This allows children to learn precisely the musical component of their mother tongue - subtle changes in tone and rhythm - and to know without instruction when someone else’s speech has a foreign accent. By the same token, people with musical training are better able to learn a new language through a heightened ability to process its musical components.

Popular use of right-brain and left-brain classification of learning and thinking is over-simplified. Music is not a right-brain activity as often asserted. In a complex way the processing of music occurs in both the left and right brain. Both hemispheres combine. Thus music can be such a powerful medium for learning language, enabling gains in such areas as comprehension of word stress, attention span and memory.

Music as mnemonic

Singing the alphabet to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” is generally accepted as a highly successful way to retain a sequence of letters. Why do we not apply the technique more widely? Some teachers do so very effectively. They have latched onto the well-known but ignored power of singing to hugely increase retention of language and information.

When you’ve been singing a song, or even just listening to it repeatedly, it can continue to echo in your mind long afterward. This phenomenon of involuntary sub-vocal rehearsal after a lesson has been responsible for much effective learning. So sing with students what you want them to learn and maybe they’ll do their homework without your setting it! Why is singing sidelined in nearly all Australian classrooms?


Music induces readiness for language-learning

When a class regularly sings together with the teacher the children become more relaxed and receptive to learning. The sense of security, support and belonging that results is like the family environment in which the infant or toddler learns a first language so readily. The result is higher motivation, comprehension and retention in language-learning, whether in English or LOTE.

The potential of Orff-Schulwerk methodology

The two most influential methods in Australian music education, founded respectively by Kodaly and Orff, strongly advocate the singing of folk songs as a pathway to learning the language of a culture.

Folk music has deep roots in the cultural heritage of which language is a key part. The Orff-Schulwerk approach offers special scope for language teaching. With speech and body-movement at its heart, the methodology can give students deeply satisfying experience in music-making while also acquiring aspects of a language like oral and written vocabulary, articulation, stress, and syntax.

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About the Author

Stephen Crabbe is a teacher, writer, musician and practising member of the Anglican Church. He has had many years of active involvement in community and political issues.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Stephen Crabbe
Related Links
Loewy: Integrating Music, Language and the Voice
Music Council of Australia
Stansell: Use of Music for Learning Languages

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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