BlogTango Group

Mererid Hopwood and Siân Brooks put their best foot forward during a new project linking language, music and dance…

It all started with a ‘balanceo’, the rhythmic swaying to check your partner’s position, and then we were off for an Argentine Tango lesson – this was a training event like none we had ever experienced.

The two-day CPLD course was offered for primary teachers from schools in the ERW consortium involved in the Cerdd Iaith/ Listening to Language project.

This work explores potential links between music and language-learning by considering what happens when teachers introduce not one, or indeed two, but three languages simultaneously to primary school children by specifically drawing attention to what we might loosely call ‘the prosody’ of the languages in question, i.e. the musical dimensions of the spoken phrase.

The trilingual arts-based project began in September 2016 as a partnership between the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, British Council, Wales, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, ERW and UWTSD.

In the early sessions, individual Spanish, Welsh and English words were chosen for having the same meaning across the three languages but a different rhythmic value. A good example might be ‘País de Gales’/ ‘Cymru’/ ‘Wales’.

Working with year 5 and 6 pupils, the differences between the words were emphasised by attributing a tone to each syllable along with the rhythmic value, thus creating a small unit of music. On every occasion, the words in the three languages were displayed and heard side by side.

As the project developed, pupils were introduced to more complex units that progressed from words to whole phrases. These were common phrases that have a different musical shape (in terms of rhythm, stress and intonation) across the three languages, and that cannot be translated word for word.

For example, Spanish renders ‘I’m hungry’ (which in English combines the first person singular present tense conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ with an adjective, ‘hungry’) with ‘tengo hambre’ – which combines the first person singular present tense conjugation of the irregular verb ‘to have’ with a noun, ‘hunger’.

Welsh renders the same phrase with ‘mae eisiau bwyd arnaf i’ – which combines the third person singular present tense conjugation of the irregular verb ‘to be’ with the noun ‘need/want’, followed by the noun ‘food’, followed by an inflected preposition ‘upon’ and ending with the first person singular direct object pronoun ‘me’…

Put like that, it sounds complicated! Can learning them altogether and concentrating on rhythm really help?

While structured observational sessions are yet to take place, preliminary and anecdotal evidence suggests that disrupting the conventional sequence and patterns of second and third language learning in this way has brought positive results; not only in terms of remembering and understanding words and phrases in the three languages, but also in terms of willingness to use and correctly pronounce the words and phrases, both from the teachers’ and the pupils’ point of view.

The project seems also to have displayed how an arts-based approach is removing the barriers that traditionally hinder teachers from becoming confident leaders of language learning; barriers such as:

  • Fear of making mistakes (i.e. not conveying the ‘correct’ match between the foreign and the familiar);
  • Resistance to ambiguity of meaning;
  • A lack of appreciation of the importance of deep listening;
  • The need to create a right environment to encourage risk-taking as participants try out new sound patterns.

In Wales, as we move to think about the curriculum in terms of ‘Areas of Learning and Experience’, the project is of particular interest. It has given teachers and pupils an opportunity to ‘experience’ a second and third language in an emotional and physical way.

It has further significance as European educational policy is becoming more aware of the link between the teaching of multiple languages and the promotion of ‘social inclusion, social cohesion, equity and respect for diversity’.

Preparing for the second year of the project, the course was held at the wonderful Wales Millennium Centre. As well as the Argentine Tango lesson, we were taught some Tai Chi by professional voice coach, Gareth Evans.

This helped us with breathing techniques before we learnt lively vocal warm-ups to use with the pupils. We were now prepared to tackle the key songs of the project, written by celebrated composer Gareth Glyn. Tango’r Tengo had us all on our feet and left us hungry for the Tapas evening and ready to try out some Spanish conversations.

The following day, we explored the resources on the website that has been developed for the project, and our ears were opened to the rhythm of language in exhilarating sessions with members of the BBC NOW and BBC Chorus.

In German, the word Ohrwurm (earworm) describes perfectly songs that are stuck in your head. We all left with lots of Ohrwürmer phrases from the trilingual songs we had practised and with a slight tango sway to our hips.

  • Professor Mererid Hopwood and Siân Brooks are experts in language, based at Yr Athrofa