Building a Bridge of Understanding: Bilingual Songs for Young Children

Building a Bridge of Understanding: Bilingual Songs for Young Children

Here is a powerful example of the ways that children benefit from experiencing songs and  stories in their home language.

"I was singing with students in a kindergarten classroom when I noticed a boy who was smiling expectantly at me. I returned his smile and began to converse with him in English. It quickly became apparent to me that he was not understanding my words but loved my songs. His teacher shared with me that he was new to their school and spoke Spanish in his home. His English language proficiency was very limited. He spent most of his day at school smiling instead of understanding what people said, what they expected of him, and what his friends were learning.

I took the Spanish version of my SING.PLAY.LOVE. Birdie in My Window book out of my bag and began to sing the simple song that comprises the text of the book. I pointed to key vocabulary included on each page and added signs for key vocabulary words to my song performance. My new friend’s smile was now communicating comprehension and comfort. He joyfully sang the Spanish words and glanced at his peers to make certain they could observe his success. I am not a fluent Spanish speaker, but the song was simple for me to share with the children.

I began to alternate Spanish and English versions of the Birdie song and book every time I visited the class. This routine provided a conceptual “language bridge” for all children by including signed words borrowed from American Sign Language for key vocabulary. The signs helped children pair the Spanish and English version of
each word. For example, we opened and closed our thumb and pointer in front of our mouths to sign both pájaro and bird."

There are many benefits to sharing songs performed in both Spanish and English with young children. Here are a few:

  • Singing songs in Spanish is an enjoyable way to promote bilingual language learning. Young children are neurologically “pre-wired” to learn multiple languages. Early experiences in both Spanish and English has been shown to help youngsters improve cognitive skills, such as problem-solving, creativity, and memory.
  • When children with different home languages sing together, they are sharing their sense of cultural identity. Bilingual stories, games and songs help children develop positive attitudes towards other people and to be more tolerant of diversity.
  • Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world, so teaching young children basic Spanish will give them a significant advantage in life. Additionally, Spanish is a relatively easy language to learn for English speakers, so it is a good choice for a second language for young children.

Here are a few tips for maximizing the language learning benefits of songs shared in two languages with your kids.

  • Early exposure. The earlier children are exposed to two languages, the easier it will be for them to learn both. Birth to six years of age is a perfect window of opportunity for optimizing bilingual language learning, whether at school or home. Shared songs are a great way to introduce vocabulary and grammar in both languages, as you expand with other planned learning experiences.
  • Be consistent. Try to sing and teach key vocabulary words and grammar to children in both languages on a regular basis.
  • Make it fun! Signing key vocabulary words amplifies a child’s enjoyment and mastery of the songs. Young children can typically participate by imitating your motor motions for signed words before they can sing them. Given opportunities to practice, they will likely be singing along in both languages in record time! Expand on your musical language learning by adding games and bilingual picture books.
  • Finally, be patient. It takes time to learn a new language. Focus on the musical enjoyment of the song in either language, and continue to include the signed words as a part of your performances in English as well as Spanish. Children usually learn to understand before they express. Listen for children to sing single words as they learn to perform the entire song.

In the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” In the words of this author, “Focus on fun and inclusivity!” Offering opportunities to sing in both languages allows every child access to the songs and the social interaction music makes possible. Your shared songs make belongingness and connection possible for young children, whether they speak English or Spanish in the home.

Story CreditBethany Main | Instagram: @mrsmainsmusicians

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