What are the links between romance languages and music?

Matilda, Year 13, investigates the links between romance languages and music to discover whether the learning of one can help in the understanding of the other.

Music and language

It is often said that music is the ‘universal language of mankind’, due to its great expressive powers which have the ability to convey sentiments and emotions.

But what are the connections between music and languages?

A romance language is a language derived from Latin and this group of languages has many similarities in both grammar and vocabulary. The 5 most widely spoken romance languages are Spanish (with 470 million speakers), Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian.

There are 3 main connections between languages and music:

 

The first of these is the role of melody in recall:

There is a link between languages and music in remembering words. This is shown in a study where words were better recalled when learned as a song rather than a speech. This is because melody and rhythm give the memory cues to help recall information.[1]

Language, music, and emotion:

The British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist who specialises in primate behaviour, Robin Dunbar, says that music and language help to knit people together in social groups. This is because musicians process music as a language in their heads. Studies have shown the planum temporal in the brain is active in all people whilst listening to music.

However, in non-musicians, the right-hand side was the most active, meanwhile, in musicians, the left side dominated, this is the side believed to control language processing. This shows that musicians understand music as a language in their brain.

In another study, scientists analysed the Broca’s area, which is crucial in language and music comprehension. It is also responsible for our ability to use syntax. Research has shown the in the Broca’s area of the brain, musicians have a greater volume of grey matter, suggesting that it is responsible for both speech and music comprehension.

The relationship between music and languages:

Brain and Languages Both music and languages share the same building blocks as they are compositional. By this, I mean that they are both made of small parts that are meaningless alone but when combined can create something larger and meaningful.

For example, the words ‘I’, ‘love’ and ‘you,’ do not mean much individually, however, when they are constructed in a sentence, carry a deep sentimental value. This goes the same for music notes, which when combined can create a beautiful, purposeful meaning.

Musical training has been shown to improve language skills.[2] In a study carried out in 2011, developmental psychologists in Germany conducted a study to examine the relationship between development of music and language skills. In the experiment, they separated children aged 4 into 2 groups, 1 of these groups receiving musical training, and one did not.

Later on, they measured their phonological ability (the ability to use and manipulate language) and they discovered the children who had received music lessons were better at this. Therefore, this shows that learning and understanding language can go hand in hand with musical learning and ability.

References: 

[1] See https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2018/mar/14/sound-how-listening-music-hinders-learning-lessons-research
[2] See https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-athletes-way/201806/how-does-musical-training-improve-language-skills

Global partnerships

Claire Baty, Head of French, considers the importance of global links in education, with particular reference to a developing partnership with a school in India.

“Let us together create pathways for our children connecting local to global”
Rima C Ailawadi, Principal of GD Goenka Public School, Model Town, Delhi

One of the key aims of WHS is for ‘every girl to leave [the school] prepared to shape the society in which she lives and works’. However, we have another responsibility that I think goes hand in hand with this particular aim; helping our students to realise that society is not limited to the local community and that they can and should spread their wings much further afield.

An outstanding education must provide opportunities for students to experience the world beyond their doorstep. Arguably, cultural interaction has never been more important than it is today. Technology enables young people to explore the world from their bedroom but only a few actually experience it. Despite, or perhaps because of, the political uncertainty in Europe young people must go out into the world with the knowledge, skills and attitude needed to thrive in an ever-changing international environment. This means experiencing different cultures, faiths, religions and languages through meaningful and enjoyable collaboration with their peers in other countries.

As a French teacher, I am obviously aware of the fundamental role played by trips abroad in the development of language proficiency. Immersion in the target language and culture is the best way to develop communication skills. Yet, we must not forget that students also gain invaluable life skills from these visits; networking and communication skills, compassion, independence, open-mindedness, to name but a few. These skills empower young people and lead to a more tolerant and empathetic world.

Here at WHS we have embraced the idea of a truly international education, offering our students countless opportunities to experience the world in which they live. Curriculum teaching that immerses Y3 students in the culture of Africa, exchange and study visits to France, Germany, Spain and Japan, community projects in Sri Lanka and Ghana all inspire our girls to make social change on a global scale.

Following on from the success of our other partnerships, WHS is now reaping the benefits of an exciting new connection with GD Goenka Public school in New Delhi, India. This is exciting, not least because the students are able to make friends with someone from a completely different country and culture, but also because we are able to work together on areas of common interest. The students are sharing their ideas, asking questions, carrying out research on behalf of their partners in India and vice versa. The aim is to create some academically enriching presentations on topics such as cultural diversity, freedom of expression in art, the importance of festivals in both cultures, the role of women in Indian society, air pollution and environmental issues affecting Delhi and London, the impact of social media on teenagers in India and the UK, sustainable development. These are just some of the myriad of possible areas of research. That is why a partnership project like this is so exciting, the opportunity to challenge perspectives on global issues, to step outside the ‘Wimbledon Bubble’ and share ideas with young people growing up in a culturally and socially different country.

Global partnerships projects are all about building connections with others, communicating effectively, and learning about other people and from other people. Ultimately encouraging collaboration and understanding between nations. Exchanging intellectual ideas is important, but so too is getting to know those other people. We talk about connecting schools, but it is really about connecting people.[1]

Global partnerships allow students to examine the differences and similarities between different countries and communities; this in turn broadens their perspectives in the classroom. Being able to compare effectively also opens their mind to the world of metacognition. “Once you experience something that challenges your beliefs or defies what you are familiar with, you have the beautiful opportunity to re-evaluate the way you think about your own life as well as the world at large” [2] and that is why global connections should be an intrinsic part of school life.

[1] The British Council
[2] 8 life skills travelling teaches by Kay Rodriguez www.wanderingeducators.com

Learning another language: is it important?

Suzanne Stone, teacher of French at Wimbledon High School, considers the importance of learning a foreign language in the lead up to Brexit.

“Now more than ever, languages education matters. In a climate of political uncertainty and with the prospect of social fragmentation and economic instability, our ability and willingness to speak multiple languages and develop intercultural understanding increase in significance and value. Language skills and cultural agility connect us to our past, define our present and have the potential to transform our future.”

Bernardette Holmes MBE, Director of Speak to the Future, the National Campaign for Languages

***

Autumn term is a traditionally busy one for our Sixth Form linguists, with Year 13 considering their post-A level choices and Year 12 embarking on their post-GCSE courses. Elsewhere, negotiations are still underway as to the shape of this country’s post-Brexit future, with much discussion amongst language teachers, policy makers and industry figures as to its impact on language learning in our schools. As a language teacher at WHS, I strongly believe that language teaching is more important than ever for intercultural understanding and for employment prospects for our students after Brexit.

The removal of learning a foreign language from the compulsory curriculum in state schools in 2004 resulted in a national decline in the number of linguists schools produce, together with a reduction in the range of languages offered. Here at WHS, we continue to promote the joy and relevance of learning the languages we teach and consequently enjoy a growing MFL curriculum and buoyant numbers throughout the school. For our students, attitudes to learning foreign languages are positive and levels of motivation high, as the girls understand that operating in a language other than English is not just enjoyable in itself but a useful, and indeed, necessary skill in their preparation for life beyond WHS.

The British Council’s annual report, Language Trends 2018, details the negative impact that leaving the European Union is having on language learning in some schools, as seen through low student motivation levels and parental attitudes questioning the relevance of language learning in the current climate. Ironically, recent articles have discussed how the UK’s lack of language skills could in fact jeopardise our post-Brexit future. Indeed, the House of Lords debated earlier this year the need for MFL skills to be embedded in the Government’s white paper, Industrial Strategy – Building a Britain fit for the future. Within this context, the educational system needs to catch up with the idea that language skills are not only important but in fact crucial in this global marketplace and thus be offered and encouraged at every key stage.

The national decline in pupils taking languages at GCSE and A level is a worrying trend. Language Trends 2018 also reports that the proportion taking a GCSE language dropped from 76% in 2002, to 49% in 2014 and most recently to 47% in 2017. For A level, entries for some modern languages have seen a decline in numbers, but popularity for post-16 language study for our WHS students remains steady. The separation of AS from A level has enabled some students to continue with a foreign language to complement their existing A level choices. Interestingly, current AS students include those wishing to apply for dentistry, PPE, psychology and economics next year. The versatility of A level language subjects is such that, post A level, our students can continue pure language study to degree level or jointly with other disciplines such as Law, Science, Maths and Engineering, as well as more traditional combinations of Geography, History and English.

Reducing foreign language learning to a minority, optional subject particularly at KS4 will have a worrying impact on the quantity and calibre of linguists entering not only our profession but others too, at a time when, as a nation, we are going to need a greater number of English speakers with competence in foreign languages. Luckily, here at WHS our access to and participation in learning languages are bucking these national trends. Prospective parents are impressed by our language offer throughout the school, student involvement in our many and varied trips is high, and our numbers at both AS and A level are healthy. Perhaps the language teachers of tomorrow can be found enjoying French, German, Spanish, Mandarin or Italian here in our modern language classrooms today.

Further reading:

https://www.britishcouncil.org/research/language-trends-2018

https://stories.swns.com/news/uks-lack-language-skills-jeopardise-post-brexit-future-94504/

https://www.globalvoices.co.uk/languages/how-will-brexit-affect-the-need-for-languages-in-the-uk/

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/03/the-guardian-view-on-languages-and-the-british-brexit-and-an-anglosphere-prison

https://parliamentlive.tv/event/index/7399d414-80f4-49cc-80a3-e114064735e0?in=17:45:48&out=17:55:20

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/industrial-strategy-building-a-britain-fit-for-the-future

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/21/european-language-brexit-britain

The value of spontaneous speech

Claire Baty, Head of French at Wimbledon High School, considers the importance of spontaneous speech in the Modern Foreign Language classroom.

Like many a Modern Foreign Language teacher at this time of year, I have spent the last few weeks    conducting oral exams. I like this opportunity to work with my students individually. I see oral exams as the chance to shine, to show off all the hard-work done during the year. It’s the only exam that the student is in control of, that they can steer down their path of choice. So why then, do the students have such opposing views? They hate oral exams. Clearly nerves are natural, let’s face it, no one relishes being put on the spot and being recorded at the same time. But the problem goes deeper than simply being nervous about an exam. There is often a big discrepancy between the quality of written work compared to the quality of spoken work. A student who can write at length using a range of subordinate clauses and move comfortably between time frames, reverts to simplistic sentences or one-word utterances when asked to speak spontaneously. Many a time has a parent expressed frustration at their daughter’s inability or unwillingness to speak in the target language when on holiday, despite their excellent grades in MFL at school.

Why is any of this important, you might ask. If the students are getting good results, then does it matter? I would argue that yes, it matters a lot. As a French teacher it is my job to enable my students to communicate, and true communication is not about writing an essay, learning it off by heart and reciting it under exam conditions. True communication is the desire to share experiences and ideas with others. In the words of Nelson Mandela “If you talk to a man in a language he understands that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart”.  Only by speaking to someone in their own language can we truly begin to understand them, their identity and culture.

 

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands that goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, that goes to his heart”.

 

Moreover, speaking another language enables you to experience different attitudes to life, relationships, food and environment. Adam Jacot de Boinod makes this point succinctly in the books “The meaning of Tingo” and “Toujours Tingo”. He states that words change the way we see the world. Take for example that in Hawaiian kapau’u means ‘to drive fish into the waiting net by striking the water with a leafy branch’. In Inuit, pukajaw means ‘firm snow that is easy to cut and provides warm shelter’. Jacot de Boinod realised that sometimes a dictionary can tell you more about a culture than a guidebook. (The meaning of Tingo, Adam Jacot de Boinod, p.ix, Penguin Books 2005). My students know this; they want to travel the world and be international citizens. They can see the importance of linguistic knowledge and cultural awareness in the workplace, and it is our job to guide them towards a more spontaneous approach to communication.

Whilst teenage anxiety plays a part in making students reluctant to speak in the target language, it is by no means the only cause. Confident, able students resist our advice to move away from pre-learnt speeches. There is a notable disjuncture between the language needed for a speaking exam in Key Stage 4 and the phrases that would be helpful as a tourist in the country. Whilst the new GCSE specifications go some way towards addressing this, the lack of requirement for transactional language means our students can converse at length about their holiday plans or environmental problems in their local area, but struggle if someone stops them in the street and asks for the time, they panic if the waiter in the café doesn’t stick to his side of the role play when ordering a chocolat chaud! Infrequent lessons in an artificial classroom environment further compound this difficulty, not at all helped by the fact that when the students do muster up the courage to speak in French, the French have a tendency to reply in English.

Guy Claxton, an academic, a cognitive scientist and leading educationalist specialising in well-founded ways of enhancing intelligence, spoke to us recently about The Learning Power Approach and the importance of teaching learners to teach themselves. He made a number of points that resonated with me in terms of their pertinence in this discussion. Firstly, that it is our job as language teachers to equip the girls with the traits and skills to cope outside of the classroom, to be independent enough to flourish. Secondly, if we want students to be able to do something, then we have to coach it, build it up gradually by providing them with structured opportunities to speak spontaneously:

  • Key phrases on the wall and learning mats to help build complexity into spontaneity
  • The use of listening exercises to model the language we want the students to use rather than just to assess their understanding of a topic
  • Effective vocabulary Focussing on verbs to enable responses in complete sentences.
  • Scaffolding is necessary in Y7 and 8 to build confidence.
  • Target language use needs to be built into classroom routines and bravery must be rewarded.
  • Support should be gradually withdrawn in Y9 so that by Y11 spontaneity is more likely.

These practices are essential to good language teaching, they are the bones of our lesson plans. But whilst they might encourage pupils to talk, do they encourage spontaneous speech? Gianfranco Conti, PhD and co-author of ‘The Language Teacher toolkit’, winner of the 2015 TES best resource contributor award and founder of www.language-gym.com would argue that true spontaneous speech is without prompts. “[speaking tips] refer but to the very embryonal stage of spontaneous talk, what […] I refer to as the ‘imitative’ stage. However, in order to bring our learners from the ability to ‘parrot’ phrases on the wall or on writing mats to what applied linguists call ‘autonomous speaking competence’ it takes way more”. We need to expose our students to native speakers, whether that be through trips, language assistants, other bilingual students or simply authentic audio and visual material such as radio, music and films. We need to encourage peer to peer interaction and exercises that focus on the communication of a message and less on the accuracy. Cloze exercises, speed dating conversations and dictagloss should be prioritised.

Here at WHS, Modern Foreign Languages are hugely popular. Students enjoy the variety of an MFL lesson and the satisfaction gained from learning something brand new. French, German and Spanish continue to be popular choices at GCSE and A Level. Speaking exams will always be nerve-wracking but I would like my students to feel proud when they can confidently develop their answers. I would like them to experience a sense of joy at being completely understood when speaking French in France. I want to enable them to speak with the same enthusiasm and conviction with which they express ideas in their mother-tongue. Above all I would like my pupils to want to communicate at every given opportunity. Ce n’est pas la mer à boire, non?