Be a Child in a Language before You Are an Adult: Music and Movement as Tools for the Communicative Method

By Lisa Li Urbonya

It is one thing to ask a group of primary school children to jump around the room, making pointy ears next to the sides of their heads while singing a silly limerick about a rabbit. But what to make of a room full of adults with advanced degrees and successful professional careers doing the same thing? Active, multi-sensory musical teaching methods are known to be effective in teaching second languages to children but what I have learned is that they are surprisingly even more successful with adults and high school students.

Why is that? I believe there is a deep-seated need for language learners of all ages to spend time immersed in a structured but de-pressurized learning environment that mimics the way young children learn their first language. While it might bit a bit much to build an entire high school curriculum or university classes around a hop, skip and a jump, it is a mistake to underestimate the efficacy of these sometimes farcical, yet deceptively effective methods as a catalyst for beginning to intermediate learners of all ages.

Music, combined with movement, is one of the most powerful tools for learning language and promotes the communicative method in the Chinese language classroom.

In the process of developing a music and movement based curriculum for learning Mandarin as a second language, I discovered that what was originally designed for a K-2 classroom works remarkably well with learners of all ages. Singing to music helps with second language fluency and also singing songs provides repetition which brings confidence in newly acquired learning and joy that goes along with learning through melodies.

As a former speech/language pathologist, I was constantly observing my children’s adult-to-child, teenager-to-teenager and child-to-child linguistic interactions while they were being raised in China. I had the benefit of vicariously learning language just as a child would because I was with my children while those chatting with them repeated words, exaggerated expressions, manipulated objects during play, tried to feed them, and talked kid talk. I also was with them at the hospital, store, Chinese preschool and elementary school, in the taxi, on the bus, at the market, etc. It was authentic kid language at its purest.

If we consider the current thinking on language development theory, it makes sense that those over 14-years-old at the beginning through intermediate levels should also learn a language (at least half of each formal class) through active methods. It is important to be a child in a language before you are an adult. Haven’t we done that in our native language? Part of this is because we cannot jump into a new language and be our “mature” self. We don’t have the vocabulary, grammar and cultural skills. However, we feel less inhibited if we are given permission to be a child again and we can just let our curiosity run wild. Children usually spontaneously use language without being afraid to make a mistake. For adults, creating this type of atmosphere can be liberating to point of being therapeutic.

Children of all ages want to let their child self come out through play and laughter. Let’s face it - life after childhood is a load of obligations and responsibilities. Everyone needs an opportunity to let go. Learning a second language through active, multi-sensory and musical methods may be traditionally reserved for children. However, I believe it can promote the communicative method in a very effective way.

Lisa Li Urbonya is president of Action Language Learning, a company that promotes the learning of languages, particularly Mandarin, through music and movement. Lisa is also Chinese language director of Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy, Pomona, Calif. site. For more information