There are lots of strategies for teaching your baby a foreign language and bringing up a bilingual or multilingual child. But whatever one you choose, be sure to make singing a part of it on a daily basis!
The universe is very clever. An infant can be born anywhere in the world, and from day one they possess the capacity to speak any language – they have all the building blocks to acquire any accent and make all speech sounds. But this takes up a lot of brain space, and by 12 months the baby will only retain those that are useful – the ones that s/he hears on a regular basis that are a part of their native language.
You can capitalise on this ability by exposing your baby to multiple languages from an early age, thereby guarding the capability to speak with a native accent in any language. So what’s the best way to do this?
In this article, I’ll share six good reasons to sing to your baby in other languages. I’ll then give strategies you can use to make this singing with your baby part of your everyday life.
6 Good Reasons to Sing to Your Baby in Another Language
Reason 1: Singing is a Form of “Motherese”
When the excited parents to be first hold their bundle of joy in their arms, many naturally gravitate towards speaking in a baby voice to their child. Others vow never to succumb to this sometimes cutesy, over-exaggerated form of speech commonly known as “motherese,” “fatherese” or “infant directed speech,” as it will be referred to here.
Rather than silly noises and nonsense words, infant directed speech is actually a special style of speech that is characterised by a higher pitched voice, more variations in pitch than usual (high and low tones), exaggerated emotional intonation and is spoken more slowly, using greater repetition and shorter, less complex phrases.
Whatever your view on the matter, science has shown that babies respond positively to infant directed speech. In a trial conducted by Robin Cooper and Richard Aslin, two day old infants turned their heads longer towards infant directed speech when compared to the response to adult directed speech. This demonstrates not only an infant’s preference for this style of speech, but also that it may be an innate preference. The use of infant directed speech can be found in many other languages besides English, including European, Indian, Asian, African and Middle Eastern languages.
A step up and moving on from infant directed speech yet closely related, nursery rhymes and songs include many of the same elements with short phrases, repetition, musicality, varying pitch range with highs and lows and emotional inflection. A study of six to ten month olds infants showed that not only could they differentiate between sung and spoken stimuli, but also that they preferred the singing.
Reason 2: Nursery Rhymes are a Global Tradition for Teaching Babies New Things
Nursery rhymes and songs are part of a longstanding oral tradition globally. Music is a universally recognized element of human existence.
In any language, nursery rhymes serve a variety of purposes. Lullabies can soothe a baby and help them to sleep. Some nursery rhymes are little singing games with a cue where the child learns to anticipate a resulting action, for example, a tickle. Many songs reinforce vocabulary through simple gestures and corresponding movements. Others help to teach numbers and counting, or use repetition to tell a story.
Reason 3: Nursery Rhymes Create a Bond Between Parent and Child
Nursery rhymes and songs are fun and engaging. They can quickly help forge a bond between a parent and child sharing the experience, increase social interaction and foster a sense of togetherness. They provide a common reference point when part of a group as a shared cultural experience.
In whatever language you choose, nursery rhymes and songs help to develop communication skills, social skills, and to learn new words. They introduce the concepts of rhyming, rhythm and repetition as well as allows for playing with sounds and exploring elements such as alliteration and onomatopoeia.
Reason 4: Learning Songs is a Similar Process to Learning a Language
Fluent in 3 Months founder Benny Lewis has previously pointed out that learning music and learning a language have similarities. Both are comprised of smaller units that come together – in music, you have a series of notes that form the melody and song and in speech you have a series of sounds (phonemes) that you string together to make words and sentences.
To take this concept further, researchers are now beginning to explore the idea that musical ability is actually essential to language acquisition and occurs at the same time, and in fact assists in the process of language learning. Yet another study showed that musical experience from as early as nine month of age improved infants’ ability to process both musical and speech rhythms.
Reason 5: Children Love to Play with Sound — And Songs Let Them Do That
Learning to speak is naturally a very musical process which includes experimenting and creatively playing with sound, intonation, rhythm and rhyme. Song is, essentially, a musical form of speech. And if you consider that nursery rhymes and songs form an integral part of a baby or young child’s language acquisition, then the link between language and music becomes even more apparent.
Songs and rhymes are a great way to help prepare a child for language before they learn to speak as they involve the ears, the voice and the brain. Singing to – and later, with – a child is a very powerful way to assist their ability to communicate.
Reason 6: Singing With You Kids Will Improve Your Own Language Skills
What if you don’t speak a second language? Having a baby is a good reason to start learning, and singing with them will help you pick up the language too.
Learning a few songs is a relatively easy language goal. It’s a fun and simple way to start you on your language learning journey, and it will be an experience that you can share with your child. If you already speak another language, it’s a way to keep using it and not only that but your vocabulary will increase.
As a non-native French speaker, words like “bib”, “pacifier” and “nappy” were never a part of my vocabulary until they became relevant when I had a baby! As my child has grown, my vocabulary has expanded further still.
So what are you waiting for? Pick a language and start singing! Here are my top tips to get you started:
5 Simple Ways to Sing to Your Baby in Your Target Language
1. Sign Up for a Foreign Language Music Class
Join a foreign language music group. Research has shown that babies respond better to humans rather than recorded music. So while recorded music can be used to enhance and support your baby’s learning at home, nothing beats the real human element of having a song sung to them.
For example, in South London I run a French language story and singing session for ages five and under called Les Petits Tigres. Our classes use puppets, props, sensory play, musical instruments, images, gestures and movement to engage with the children. I email lyrics to parents/carers after the sessions so they can sing the songs when they are home and continue with their learning. In my neighborhood you can also find singing classes for little ones in Chinese, Spanish and Russian so it is definitely worth having a look around you to see what’s out there.
To find a music class in your area, I’d recommend you take a look at family activity listing apps such as Hoop or Happity, local neighborhood online forums and listings, libraries and leisure centres, or Google search your target language + baby group. Larger cities often have language institutes (such as the Institut Français Royaume-Uni in London) that put on events for kids and families.
2. Make Friends With Other Parents Who Speak Your Target Language
For older toddlers who speak another language, the social aspect is incredibly important.
As a parent speaking another language to your child, if that’s the only input that they get in that language then then may well be wondering why mama or papa speaks that funny language. But expose them to other people speaking the target language, particularly other little people, and suddenly you have opened their eyes to the possibilities that exist in the larger world.
Making it accessible to them and showing them why it is useful is a hugely motivating factor. Spend time with other people with children in your area who speak the same language. It’s good for you to keep up your skills and great for them too. My son went to a French preschool where he had the opportunity to interact and socialise with others his own age in the target language, and he benefited by being able to play and speak with these other children in that language.
Depending on where you live and how far you’re willing to travel, you can find a class, Saturday school or playgroup in nearly any language. Or you can always start your own group – there’s a great post here to help show you how to do it.
3. Listen to Music in Your Target Language at Home – and Sing Along!
Supplement your at home learning with recorded music. Put the tracks on repeat, learn the words and sing along. Pretty soon you’ll be singing to your baby all the time without a need for the recording. Nothing is better for baby then mama or papa singing to them, in whatever language! Songs with actions and gestures are a fantastic way to really engage with your child and get them involved.
Mama Lisa’s World is a comprehensive website featuring nursery rhymes and songs in just about every language. Most of them have mp3 tracks so you can hear it as well as videos, lyrics in the target language and in english, sheet music, plus a brief history and description of the song and any corresponding actions or gestures that go along with it.
You can also find numerous channels on YouTube featuring children’s songs in many foreign languages. A lot of them feature the lyrics on screen to help you sing along.
4. Get Out Musical Instruments to Play With
Music isn’t limited to just singing and it can be as simple as shaking a rattle along in time or more complex such as playing the guitar.
Developing musical skills has a correlation with language acquisition, particularly as so many rhymes have a musical, rhythmic quality. This quality can be emphasised through playing along with the rhymes and songs.
Get your child involved and give them a shaker or drum to bang on – a pot with a wooden spoon works great. You can make your own simple shaker with a plastic bottle filled with dried pulses. You may also like to repeat the same song, playing with the tempo and learning about opposites, doing it again slowly then again very fast.
5. Read Nursery Rhymes and Simple Stories
Read target language nursery rhyme books. The illustrations will help your child with comprehension and reading aloud to your child is widely known as being a cornerstone of literacy development, contributing to listening comprehension skills.
Really engage with your child and make it interactive. For older children, encourage participation. Ask them what they think will happen. Talk about rhyming words and have them point them out to you. Make up your own alternative versions, substituting words – for example, Baa Baa Black Sheep may become red sheep, blue sheep, etc.
Puppets are an excellent prop for all ages. Websites such as Little Linguist (based in the UK, with international shipping available) have a lot of great books available in over 50 languages to support your bilingual baby as well as puppets and CDs.