Parallels Between Music Learning and
Language Acquisition: From Fluency to Literacy

The ACIE Newsletter, November 2004, Vol. 8, No. 1

By Nyssa Brown and Deborah Lamb, Music Specialists, Park Spanish Immersion, St. Louis Park, MN

Tonya Dexter, third grade bilingual teacher, reads a story to a group of her students

Lowell Milken, Chair of the Milken Foundation , Janet Pladson, Assistant Superintendent for Bloomington Public Schools, Rosey Grier, board member of Milken Foundation and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty congratulate teacher, Nyssa Brown, far right, on her award.

Editor’s note: Music teacher, Nyssa Brown,received a surprise this fall. Her principal, Ursina Swanson, of Park Spanish Immersion (PSI) in St. Louis Park, MN had secretly nominated her for the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award, and Nyssa won. The annual award was established to attract, develop, motivate and retain talented people to the challenge and adventure of teaching. Each award recipient is presented with a check for $25,000.00 during surprise ceremonies at his or her school. Ursina nominated Nyssa Brown for “her remarkable knowledge of content and superior teaching skills, as well as for the total engagement one sees in her classroom with students. She knows each of her students, both in terms of musical and vocal skills, but she also knows their personal interests. All her interactions with students and staff are based on deep respect for the individual. She consistently models the respectful attitudes and behaviors she expects of her students. Nyssa has a reputation for excellence in all her work. Most importantly, for our immersion setting,

Students enter our music room singing a traditional folk song filled with the rhythms they are about to learn. They have no idea that the game they will play while singing the song is preparing them to compare the beat and the rhythm, helping them learn to decode the new rhythmic concept. On the board, a music puzzle with a blank spot challenges them to fill in the mystery rhythm. One of us asks a series of questions to direct attention towards known concepts and the ways in which the mystery rhythm differs. After the students can perform, see, hear, and describe the new rhythm, it is named and practiced in improvisation, reading, writing, composition, part singing, and instrument playing. This is music teaching within the Kodály context and we find it works particularly well in a language immersion setting.

Zoltán Kodály was a Hungarian composer, ethnomusicologist, and educator whose vision was to make music available for every child, challenging the notion that music instruction should be the prerogative of the privileged elite. Dr. John Feierabend, an experienced Kodály music educator, parallels the learning of music with the learning of language in his book, Conversational Solfege, “One should learn with his/her ears before learning with his/her eyes. In learning one’s own language there are five or six years in which language skills are developed by ear before the reading and/or writing of language is introduced. This natural process enables one to instinctively communicate verbally with words and later, after learning to read, learn to write those thoughts down” (Feierabend, 1995, p. 9). Learning music is akin to learning language: we teach first for oral fluency and then move to reading and writing what we sing and play on instruments.

Further parallels between Kodály-inspired music teaching and immersion methodology are the deep valuing of tradition, culture, folklore, dance, and folk songs of the world’s people. As in immersion teaching, Kodály-inspired educators employ the aural, visual, and kinesthetic modalities of learning in each lesson. Learning is experiential and student-centered; students do first and then label what they have just performed or experienced, moving from the known to the unknown. Kodály-inspired teachers, like immersion educators, are also aware of child development. They play with content, skills, and lessons to ensure that learning is not only thorough but enjoyable.

Another example of the connection between Kodály-inspired music instruction and language learning involves training the ear to hear and produce nuances of sound whether they are musical or linguistic. Orchestra, band, and music teachers have noticed the ability their immersion students have to hear variations of sound that non-language learners do not even know exist.

Finally, as language acquisition must be sequential, building on what has been learned before, so is the Kindergarten through sixth grade music curriculum at Park Spanish Immersion School. Intentional planning for preparing, presenting and practicing concepts is essential to ongoing steady growth in the areas of rhythm, melody, musical expression, and dance. Engaging students through active participation is not only enjoyable, but gives children ownership of their learning.

One of the founders of Kodály-inspired music teaching in the United States, Lois Choksy, writes the following on the goals supported by the Kodály approach:

  • To develop to the fullest extent possible the innate musicality present in all children;
  • To develop musical literacy—the ability to think, read, write, and create with the traditional language of music;
  • To impart a sense of cultural identity through the use of the student’s own folk music heritage and to further understanding of other peoples and cultures through knowledge of their folk music;
  • To encourage the performance abilities of all students—to sing in classes and choirs, to participate in ensembles and orchestras—to use such participation in musical groups as a way of enriching their lives.
  • Recently, an ensemble of second and third graders was watching and listening to a field recording of a Norwegian song they were learning for a concert. Using the DVD as a model, they played with spoken and sung pronunciation. Earlier in the day we had been wondering how long it would take them to become comfortable with this new language and its markedly different pronunciation. We imagined it would take several weeks. To our amazement, after approximately ten minutes of listening and echoing the song over the space of two rehearsals, they were hooked. Upon dismissal students ran out singing major portions of the song! They showed their keen ability to listen and learn quickly.

It is our experience that immersion students are fascinated with the challenge of singing in any world language. When asked about their areas of interest, students inevitably request to sing in other languages. Instead of seeing language as a difficulty in learning music, immersion students are fascinated with the sounds and meanings of any song in another language. In folk music, the text and melody are inseparable, in fact they evolve simultaneously, and students respond with joy and animation to folk songs in world languages.


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