Just days after I posted How the Power of Music Nurtures Bilingual Ability—in which I proposed that regularly playing background music can have a beneficial impact on a child’s language development —I experienced clear proof of this with my own kids.
They were in our “play room,” the space with their toys and games—and our CD player—when I slipped past them to play another CD. This time I chose a Broadway musical called “Pippin,” which they had heard several times before. (I’m fond of musicals. )
As I left them to play, busily constructing some new creation from Lego, I heard them singing softly along to the opening number from this musical, a song called “Magic To Do”—and I had never taught them one word of it.
We’ve got magic to do, just for you…
If English is your target language, read on to find suggestions for great music—music that might make a little magic when it comes to your children’s bilingual development.
Some good discoveries
As I mentioned in How the Power of Music Nurtures Bilingual Ability, I’m no expert when it comes to suitable music for kids—music that will delight children but won’t derange their parents. (That “Barney” CD I bought long ago may have aided the English acquisition of my kids, but the songs have haunted me to this day.)
Since this was an area I clearly needed to learn more about—and maybe my findings would be useful to others with a similar need—I spent the past couple of weeks exploring the happy land of children’s music. Admittedly, I’m still a novice traveler, but I did make some good discoveries, and have already added a few of them to our modest collection. Along with brief descriptions of the artists and their work, I also link directly to listening samples, whenever possible, so you can hear the music yourself.
Children’s music (often available in both CD and MP3 formats)
Raffi is a Canadian singer-songwriter who has been popular with children and their parents for many years. (In 1992, the Washington Post called him “the most popular children’s singer in the English-speaking world.”) Raffi’s music is gentle and melodic, with simple arrangements. Sung in a warm, clear voice, his songs are especially good for babies and small children. (Raffi has been an important part of our own playlist.)
Overview : Raffi
Suggested CDs: The Singable Songs Collection ; Baby Beluga
Here’s Raffi, from years gone by, singing “Baby Beluga.”
Another good choice for babies and small children is the music of Hap Palmer, a longtime favorite in preschools. His homey melodies can be useful as background music, and are also, with their emphasis on early childhood skills (motor skills, language acquisition, etc.), well-suited to interaction between adult and child. (Personally, I find Raffi easier on the ears.)
Overview: Hap Palmer
Suggested CDs: So Big—Activity Songs for Little Ones ; Getting to Know Myself
Laurie Berkner is an American musician who plays peppy, humorous songs for young children. (“Pig On Her Head” is a good example.) I wish I had known about her music earlier—as my kids are probably past the intended audience at this point—but for preschool children and their parents, a Laurie Berkner CD would make a winning addition to your collection.
Overview: Laurie Berkner
Suggested CDs: Best of the Laurie Berkner Band ; Buzz Buzz
Dubbed “the world’s biggest preschool band,” the Wiggles are a worldwide phenomenon from Australia. Their bouncy, catchy music is great for toddlers and preschoolers, and fun for adults, too. (Lulu and Roy were rabid fans of the Wiggles a few years back.) They also have a number of lively DVDs.
Overview: The Wiggles
Suggested CDs: Hot Potatoes! (The Best of The Wiggles) ; Toot Toot
Greg & Steve
This pair has sold more than 4 million albums, making them the best-selling children’s music duo in the United States. Their energetic music is geared for children in preschool and early elementary school, and is especially suited to movement and dancing.
Overview: Greg & Steve
Suggested CDs: Kids in Motion ; We All Live Together (Volume 2)
John McCutcheon is a folk musician with many fine albums for adults, but has also made two terrific CDs for children. The songwriting and musicianship are very high, and the tone of his voice is warm and appealing. His album “Family Garden” is a regular in our rotation at home.
Overview: John McCutcheon
Suggested CDs: Family Garden ; Howjadoo
A Grammy-winning entertainer and storyteller, Bill Harley has been called “the Mark Twain of contemporary children’s music.” His work is an engaging mix of music and storytelling, and great for both children and adults. We love Bill Harley!
Overview: Bill Harley
Suggested CDs: One More Time ; Play It Again (Favorite Songs)
Elizabeth Mitchell creates lovely, distinctive music: gentle and folksy, sung in a pure, airy voice. I wish I had known about her work earlier—her songs would be perfect as background music for babies and small children. Parents would no doubt enjoy listening to them, too.
Overview: Elizabeth Mitchell
Suggested CDs: You Are My Little Bird ; You Are My Sunshine
A member of the popular 1980s band The Del Fuegos, Dan Zanes has since made a series of joyful, award-winning albums of children’s music. The songs are bluesy, folksy, and feature the contributions of many other notable musicians. This is children’s music at its finest.
Overview: Dan Zanes
Suggested CDs: Catch That Train! ; House Party
They Might Be Giants
An alternative rock band, known for its unconventional sound, They Might Be Giants has released several popular albums of quirky children’s music. The songs are clever and humorous, fun for both kids and adults.
Overview: They Might Be Giants
Suggested CDs: Here Come the ABCs ; Here Come the 123s
Another alternative rock band, Barenaked Ladies has made a hit album for children (and their parents) called “Snacktime!” The song “Crazy ABCs,” which uses words like “A” for “Aisle” and “C” for “Czar,” is a good example of the funny, offbeat tunes, covering a range of musical styles.
Overview: Barenaked Ladies
Suggested CD: Snacktime!
Son of the legend Bob Marley, Ziggy Marley has created a sweet, upbeat album of reggae-inflected songs titled “Family Time.” A cool, feel-good CD that can be enjoyed by all ages.
Overview: Ziggy Marley
Suggested CD: Family Time
Along with children’s music, pop music from Disney shows has long been a favorite of my kids—and I must admit, I’ve found it pretty catchy, too. Here are some suggestions:
High School Musical
Shake It Up
Austin & Ally
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, musicals have been another genre in our collection of CDs. (In a former life, I directed musicals with kids.) Here are a few worth considering:
The Lion King
West Side Story
Pippin (You can hear that song “Magic To Do”!)
Adam; Thanks for the suggestions. I like the fact that Amazon has samples of the songs for listening before buying, something missing on the Japan Amazon site. Just ordered the Ziggy Marley and Bill Harley CDs. We have had music on constantly in the background when my daughter was younger, and she still seems to enjoy them at times now and in fact I think she more fully understands the lyrics, but I have been interested in getting more challenging music; for her and us (Bingo is a great song but…). We are Reggae fans, always on in the car, so the Marley suggestion is very welcome. One interesting thing that has happened recently; my daughter is into Hula and we have hula music on quite a bit, some of it in Hawaiian language, and she is starting to sing along with some of the songs. Of course none of us know what they are saying. But it’s fun and is giving her an ear for alternative words and sounds.
Roger, thanks for your comment. “Bingo” is fun, but it’s the childhood equivalent of “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” I hope you and your daughter enjoy the new CDs! (And good luck with that hula dancing!)
Yeah, Raffi and the Wiggles are great, my kids have listened to them heaps over the years.
Also on Youtube, Eric Herman and the Learning Station are great too, and they have visual clues for the kids to follow along to and dance to.
And there is nothing wrong with Y.M.C.A and a few Queen songs.
Now that my kids are getting older, they are listening to One Direction, Katie Perry, and the toned down versions from Lady Gaga.
Music is not only a great way for the kids to learn English but also it increases their interest in the minority language too and gives them the sense that the minority language is important.
A lot of parents I know who haven’t managed to develop the minority language in their kids seem to always say that at a certain age the kids say, “I live in Japan and Japanese is everywhere so I don’t need English.”
Cameron, thanks for sharing your successes with music. (We were just listening to Queen this morning!)
As for the attitude of “I don’t need the minority language,” I think that can be avoided entirely if the target language is an integral part of the child’s world from the very start and simply becomes the fiber of daily life, not something felt as separate and unnecessary.
Great list with a variety of options! I have to admit, Raffi was not a winner in our home, but Dan Zanes was played often. If you have little pirates, check out “Captain Bogg and Salty”. In the Seattle area, 2 popular groups for kids music that parents also enjoy are “Recess Monkey” and “Caspar Babypants”.
Thea, thanks for adding these ideas! The names are certainly intriguing and I’ll definitely search them out!
I’d definitely add Patty Shukla to the list, and if you are a non-native speaker or you teach very young learners (like me), Super Simple Learning is a must. 🙂
Do you have any suggestions for Japanese music/CDs? That’s one thing I’m lacking in my house…
Kelly, off hand, I can’t really offer any recommendations. (My emphasis, of course, has always been on English resources so I’m largely unfamiliar with Japanese resources for kids.)
This would be a good question, though, for the friendly “keepers” at the Bilingual Zoo! Feel free to join our community and ask!
I was singing Tracy Chapman’s ‘Baby can I hold you tonight’ the other day when my daughter Chiara started singing along with me. I then showed her that song on youtube along with ‘fast cars’ and both my children sat there totally engrossed. It occurred to me that because the music is slow and her voice is clear, it’s great for comprehension skills!
I love music as a tool also for the rhythm, which can help language memory, syllable and sentence stress and it’s fun too. Throw in some dancing too! Viva la musica!
Also dreamenglish on youtube have some nice original songs for young children and as an English teacher I can recommend efl books for primary school children such as ‘Stardust’ by Oxford University Press or ‘Kids Box’ by Cambridge University Press. Although these books are not strictly for bilinguals, the songs are great in their own right for something beyond the usual nursery rhymes and songs.
Glenn, thanks for your helpful suggestions!
Thank you for inspiration once again. I started playing music in the background only recently and I’m delighted to report already that I have experienced a success of my 18-month old singing along to Polish music for kids CD I sneakily put on in the background as she was playing. She was only singing the chorus of the little classic nursery rhyme which is basically the sound that the stork makes in my language (kle kle kle). What surprised me even more was when she realized that the song had finished and another one was playing. She quickly located the remote for the CD player, ran over to me demanding “kle kle kle!”. Not once, not twice…let’s just say multiple times! 🙂 I’m just glad this song is part of a CD on which I love to listen to all of the songs and won’t be pulling hair anytime soon. My French husband loves the CD too, he was glad to find that lyrics were included and he was singing some stuff himself too! 🙂 Let me just say Double-Score for this Mama raising a trilingual family! 🙂
No, seriously, thank you, Adam!
Dominika, I’m glad to hear the use of background music is having such a positive impact on your daughter…and your whole family, really! Keep up these efforts, day by day, and I bet you’ll continue to experience this kind of success.
Thank you for letting me know about your happy development, Dominika. Feedback like this makes my day!
I love Jim Gill (very funny and catchy songs!) and Laurie Berkner.