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Music and Mandarin: The perfect combination

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Have you ever heard a child rattling off a list of vocabulary words? Probably not. On the other hand, have you ever heard a child singing a song? Most definitely — a resounding, “Yes!”

From the very beginning, we teach children their ABCs through a song. We speak rhymes and sing lullabies in our everyday rhythm. So why do language programs approach the task of learning a new language with the use of dry, repeated vocabulary lists?

Through research-based studies, an extensive music background, and professional, firsthand, early childhood development music teaching coupled with personal experience raising a bilingual child, I understand how music truly helps a child learn language.

My 3-year-old daughter is bilingual in English and Mandarin Chinese, completely at ease in either setting of native speakers. She switches effortlessly between the two languages, oftentimes translating for those who don’t understand the other language.

It is amazing to see how her brain dives immediately from one language to the other, obvious that the synapses in her brain have direct links to each language, rather than having to travel through one language to access the other. The brain undergoes amazing, rapid development between the ages of newborn and age 7, a prime time to expose one’s child to a new language.

I decided the moment that our daughter was born that I would speak only Mandarin with her and that my husband (who does not speak Chinese) would speak only English with her. I understood how important it would be for her to be bilingual in our global society.

It definitely took strict dedication on my part to speak only Mandarin with our daughter since I speak only English with my husband. Even though he does not speak Chinese, he had to be 100 percent supportive of what we had chosen since he would not understand what we were conversing about on a daily basis. Not only is he fully supportive, but also since our daughter’s familiarity with Mandarin has soared, he has been inspired to start learning Mandarin as well.

We followed the One Parent-One Language method (one parent speaks one language and the other parent speaks another), and it certainly works as I can testify from firsthand experience! It has been a wonderful experience to develop a strong relationship with our daughter in Mandarin. With the birth of our second child, it has been magical to see our daughter and son begin to develop strong sibling ties in Mandarin as well.

We sing songs daily — it’s a natural part of everything we do. Built into our everyday rhythms, music is like another language. It doesn’t take effort — it’s fun. We sing songs when washing our hands, taking a stroll with a steady beat, saying “Hello” to all our stuffed animals, and cleaning up. My daughter can accurately match pitch and makes up tunes all the time, adding her own words or silly sounds. Is this exceptionally unique? Not at all. All children are musical. They respond receptively to music and movement. Why? It’s simple: music activates many parts of the brain. When language information is condensed into a compact unit, such as a song, the brain is able to receive more, and as a result, process more. I say, “Sing songs — learn Chinese!”

An educator, author, and mother, Laura Lee is an expert in early childhood development. She has a double degree in music and molecular cell biology from UC Berkeley. As an educator, she has been teaching music to children since 2003 and runs a piano studio. She is the author of the award-winning children’s book “Little Laura and the Birthday Surprise,” a bilingual English and Mandarin musical storybook series. Lee can be reached at littlelauramusic@gmail.com.


• Earlychildhood News: “Music and Movement”

• Ethnologue, 16th Edition

• Music Together: Research and Development

• ScienceDaily: “Music And Language Are Processed by the Same Brain Systems”

• UC Irvine Study: Mandarin Language Is Music to the Brain

Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, the trade magazine for homeschool families. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

Updated 4:54 pm, July 9, 2018
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