The Wonder of Language and Music

January 21, 2015, 2:20 PM · Our very first interactions with the smallest of our kind are so important, and yet they often go by without notice. When we speak to a baby, when a baby tries to speak back -- we send a message and we set a precedent about how much we are willing to tune in to each other.

It might be even more important than violin lessons.

See the moon!

Every child learns to speak. In fact, that was the entire premise of Shinichi Suzuki's "Mother Tongue" approach: every child learns to speak his or her native language, without fail (excepting situations like deafness or severe disability). German children run around speaking German, Japanese children run around speaking Japanese. Children soak it up from their environment, and by the time they're about five, they speak with proficiency. Replicate that patently obvious situation with music -- fill the environment with violin music and supportive parenting and community -- and they can learn to play the violin with the same kind of fluency as they learned to speak.

Except that it's not actually patently obvious to all parents, how to teach language to a child. And the outcomes, in terms of a child's vocabulary and ability to effectively communicate, differ greatly. A recent New Yorker article called The Talking Cure, by Margaret Talbot, made me think more deeply about this. Her article describes an effort to help low-income parents speak more to their children, to give them a better foundation for their education and life.

When I was taking Suzuki pedagogy classes some 18 years ago, I probably learned as much about teaching my own children to speak as I learned about teaching my students to play the violin. In fact, my two-semester Book 1-4 training at the University of Denver, with the excellent pedagogue James Maurer, coincided directly with my first pregnancy -- I had quite the large belly by the end of the school year, and my daughter was born in July.

When Mr. Maurer (I can't call him Jim, none of us can) enumerated the patently obvious ways in which parents support their children's language learning, a lot seemed completely obvious. But -- I would not have acknowledged it at the time -- I might not have actually instinctually known all of it. Here are some of those ideas about language-learning:

  1. A baby's environment is filled with language.
  2. Parents celebrate their baby's first words with affirmation and enthusiasm.
  3. Parents don't berate a small child for using the wrong word, they don't say, "No, you're wrong." They encourage the effort and suggest new words as well.
  4. Parents don't tell a child "Use your words!" when they don't have the words. They give them the words, saying it correctly for them, so the child learns.
  5. Children learn by imitation, a parent encourages this.
  6. Once a child learns a word, he or she repeats it over and over, and it becomes part of his or her vocabulary.
  7. Children also learn language by testing it out with one another.

I embraced all of these ideas about language learning, but in the back of my mind, I had the vague idea that not all parents do this. Hadn't I'd seen people talk in frustrated tones to their small children, for using the wrong word? Hadn't I witnessed parents withholding something from a child, saying, "Use your words!" The New Yorker article provides more such examples: berating a child, "Quit copying off of me," or discouraging a child who wanted to repeat a favorite word.

Perhaps an underrated component of Suzuki's genius was not just that he translated language learning to music learning, but that he recognized what it was that is actually effective, in teaching children to speak and communicate.

I've been a parent long enough to know that my children's successes are not mine to claim; they are an occasion to give thanks. But I still think Suzuki's ideas helped me do a better job of teaching my kids to speak. My daughter starting speaking when she was eight months old, and it was probably all that Suzuki training that allowed me to see her efforts as words and communication. I loved our interactions. When she pointed at the moon and said, "Ba!" I said, "Yes! It's round like a ball. It's the MOON!" Then her baby voice, "Mooo!" By the age of one, she was kind of the amazing talking baby. Not all kids will speak so early, but they all can be encouraged in the same way: nurtured by love.

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January 21, 2015 at 09:28 PM · I totally agree! Even though I was a Suzuki kid growing up I didn't realize the importance of the connection between learning language and learning music until I began to learn more about Suzuki's teachings as an adult. And I just took the Every Child Can course which illuminated this connection even more. And the idea that the music teacher and the parents are working together to develop ability and nurture. Truly inspirational as I'm a mom of 3 now as well.

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