Learning to talk and communicate well is one of your young child’s most important tasks. Children who lack communication skills of any kind (e.g. language, sign language or gesture) struggle to express their needs, understand their world and build happy relationships with the people around them. Just imagination the frustration of not being able to understand anything or make yourself
Most babies are still developing the capacity to communicate and we can certainly help them with this, by providing them with meaningful language experiences such as reading stories, singing songs and talking directly to them.
For toddlers who have a speech delay, a lack of language brings with it not just frustration, but further potential consequences for reading, writing, attention, and social skills down the line.
One of the most powerful ways to build your child’s communication is to use music. In this post, I will explore many of the benefits of music for early communication and interaction.
Just how Powerful is Music?
Music is one of the oldest forms of communication. We cannot know for certain, but it is plausible that, along with signs and gestures, music played a key role in the original development of human speech. Both music and sign remain powerful tools for teaching early language, interaction and communication.
Music is in fact a whole-brain and even whole-body experience, activating the cortex (the wrinkly outer layer of the brain responsible for language, thought, memory, reasoning, decision-making, emotion, intelligence and personality); the limbic system (involved in emotion, behaviour and long-term memory); the neuroendocrine system (regulating hormones, metabolism, growth and stress-response) and even the autonomic nervous system (which manages breathing, digestion and heart rate).
We can see from this that music can act as a powerful language development aid because it engages the whole brain. But precisely how does music benefit early language acquisition?
Music and Language Development in Babies
Babies can recognize and respond to music from a very young age. Singing lullabies and nursery rhymes to babies is almost instinctive and is actually a powerful way to help babies develop their early language skills. Through music, babies learn the rhythm and intonation of their first language(s), as well as learning and beginning to recognize words through their repetition and emphasis in songs.
Hickory dickory dock!
The mouse ran up the clock!
Tum-tah-tee, tum-tah-tee, tah!
Tah-tum, tah-tum, tah-tum
As you can see here, this simple nursery rhyme makes babies unconsciously aware that we stress some syllables in English words and do not stress others. English is a stress-timed language, meaning that we space out stressed syllables at equal intervals and fit the other unstressed syllables in between. This differs from syllable-timed languages like Spanish, French, Mandarin Chinese, etc. in which each syllable enjoys equal length and prominence.
Of course, we don’t consciously need to know this to learn English as a baby, but it does show how nursery rhymes emphasise the features of our language and make the whole process of language-learning much easier!
Rhyming words like “tock” and “dock” also make babies aware of the sounds of their language and which sounds can be exchanged with each other to create a change in word meaning. This is what linguists call the phonological system of a language.
The power of music for language learning goes beyond nursery rhymes. Indeed, many studies have shown that music lessons can improve language skills, including skills such as reading comprehension, picking out speech from background noise and rapid auditory processing or quickly being able to decode what you hear someone say.
Research from Middlesex University has also shown clear links between rhythm perception and the awareness of meaningful sounds, and also between melody perception and grammar acquisition! The study showed that even informal music-making at home such as singing songs, dancing and listening to music, had a positive impact on preschoolers’ language skills.
Music is an effective way to learn as it captures your child’s attention and helps them to focus. All the rhythm and repetition in music highlights new words and makes them memorable. The dopamine and endorphins released when we listen to music also make the learning experience feel even more fun!
The Benefits of Music for Interaction
Music is also a natural draw for both children and adults! Singing actually releases oxytocin, a powerful bonding hormone, which coincidentally also helps to release breastmilk! You can see why singing lullabies comes so naturally and helps us to bond with our babies in more ways than one. It has even been shown that babies prefer their mother’s singing to speech!
Furthermore, as our heart-rates synchronise with the music, we also synchronise with each other, which has a further powerful effect on bonding and attachment.
As toddlers get older, they naturally enjoy dancing and moving to music, and this simple but fun activity actually works powerfully to help them develop their balance, coordination, listening and attention skills, body awareness and language skills. Listening to music can also help older children with regulating their own behaviour.
Songs can be useful for helping toddlers transition from one activity to another. Transitions are something that lots of toddlers struggle with! How about making up your own “putting-on-our shoes” song, “having-a-bath” song or (if you … ahem … don’t mind singing in public), even a “leaving the playground” song to go along with your repertoire of bed-time lullabies? I can’t guarantee it will work every time, but musical cues are definitely a lot more fun than power struggles! You never know, your two-year-old might take over the singing for you! “I’m putting on my shoes, I’m putting on my shoes, ee-aye-the addio, I’m putting on my shoes…”
It is clear to see that music is a powerful tool not just for your baby’s language development but also for their early social and emotional development. It can help them bond with you; help them learn their first words and sounds; develop their listening and attention skills; help them manage their own behaviour, powerfully promote later reading and writing skills; develop their body awareness and co-ordination; help them manage transitions; and simply, b