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How the Power of Music Nurtures Bilingual Ability

The Power of MusicI grew up in a musical family. My mother is a piano teacher and a church organist; my father is a banjo-playing folk singer; and my brother is a successful composer.

I didn’t pursue music as seriously—I was known mostly for honking on an oboe—but music has been an important influence in my life and I’ve wanted my own children to be touched by the power of music, too.

And when it comes to nurturing the bilingual ability of my kids, music has been a mainstay of my efforts.

Easy language exposure

From the time Lulu and Roy were born, I’ve relied on a clunky CD player and a modest collection of CDs to provide our home with a steady stream of background music—lullabies, folk songs, children’s tunes, movie and TV soundtracks, musicals, classical music, jazz, pop, rock, country, world music, and Christmas carols.

One goal, naturally, is my desire to foster an appreciation for music of all kinds. At the same time, I believe emphasizing music in the minority language has played an important role in laying a firm foundation for their English ability.

And it’s so easy! All you need is a CD player and some CDs (or any sort of music-making device) and a commitment to playing music regularly in the background while your children are within earshot. (Please note that “regularly” doesn’t mean “relentlessly”—time for peace and quiet is essential, too!)

Making use of music in this way is something any parent who’s determined to increase the odds of raising a child with good bilingual ability can implement with little expense or effort. And for the most part, you don’t even need to be present, particularly when the child is a bit older and playing on his own. Just keep up that steady stream of music and the positive impact of this exposure—hundreds, even thousands of hours of additional language exposure—will occur quietly and incrementally over time.

To further put the odds in your favor, I would also suggest that you limit the amount of music you play in the majority language. In our case, for example, 95% of our CDs are music in English; we have very few CDs of Japanese music. Your circumstances may be different, and demand a different sort of balance, but since Lulu and Roy get plenty of Japanese in their lives throughout the day in Japanese schools (and from their mother and friends), I need to place a stronger emphasis on English wherever I can find the opportunity.

Here’s the tricky part

When it comes to children’s music, the tricky part involves making suitable choices—and by suitable, I mean music that satisfies these three conditions:

  1. The language is clear and can be absorbed by the child, whether the listening is done actively or passively.
  2. The child will enjoy hearing it—or at least won’t stage a protest when you play it.
  3. The parents will enjoy hearing it, too—or at least won’t be driven to tearing out tufts of hair when it’s played over and over and over again.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no expert when it comes to children’s music—and that I’ve lost a significant amount of hair over the years as a result. (That darn “Barney” CD!) So perhaps this is an opportunity for me to expand my own knowledge of this field, while my kids are still pretty small, and be of some help to other parents in the same boat.

Over the next week or so, I’ll set out to compile a handy list of popular artists of children’s music, with links that include listening samples of their songs. I’ll then share these findings in a follow-up to this post, along with some of the better-than-Barney music I’ve been using at home.

How about you? Do you play music in the background to help promote the bilingual ability of your children?


7 Responses

  1. I have a set of CDs called Super Simple Songs and I highly recommend them. The language is clear and simple, with lots of familiar songs made easy. Though the thing I like about it is that I can listen to it, sing along, and it doesn’t make me want to pull my hair out!

  2. I’m a great believer in having lots of music around. I tend to sing a lot around the house as well, and we often find ourselves putting silly words to known tunes and stuff like that, which really helps hone language skills in a fun way (looking for rhymes, feeling the rhythm of the words, making puns, etc.) It’s not something that I consciously decided to do, but because I enjoy it, the kids do too.

    We are a German-English family, by the way. We live in Germany so English is our minority language. Our kids are 10, 8 and 6. I came to your site via the biling-fam newsletter and I really like what I’ve seen here so far.

    1. Jane, thank you for your comment and your kind words. It sounds like music is a fun, effective part of your efforts with your children. The timing of your comment is perfect, actually, because just yesterday we watched a TV show where the characters were bursting into song, singing their communication to one another. Since then, the kids and I have been doing that around the house. It’s good, silly fun!

  3. I believe so much in the power of music, that I actually compose songs with my kids to introduce their friends to Spanish during Story Time and Spanish Club at their school. I can’t imagine teaching a language without music and movement. Now I am introducing Portuguese to my children and I do it by adding little by little short and fun songs to our playlist. Playing music in the car is great to introduce a new language and increase the exposure to it!

    1. Ana Maria, thank you for your comment. I loudly applaud your creativity and I’m really impressed with the work that you’re doing at Spanish Plus Me. I’m sure your fun, musical approach can be helpful for many parents out there! I wish you all the best, both personally and professionally!

      1. Thank you very much Adam! Raising bilingual kids is an adventure and a daily challenge, but is worth it! I never imagined I was going to compose songs or even try to teach Spanish until I decided I was going to do all I can to give my kids the gift of bilingualism. I love setting the example to help them to feel proud of being bilingual.

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Welcome to Bilingual Monkeys!

I’m Adam Beck, the founder of this blog and The Bilingual Zoo, a lively worldwide forum for parents raising bilingual or multilingual kids. I’m also the author of the popular books Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and Bilingual Success Stories Around the World. I’ve been an educator and writer in this field for 25 years as well as the parent of two bilingual children, now 19 and 16. I hope my work can help empower the success of your bilingual journey.

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