Music and Languages

It is often said that music and languages have common features. Perhaps the most obvious is the need for practice. When learning an instrument, it can take years to acquire the subtle movements of hand or mouth needed to express a certain tone or emotion. Any musician will tell you that practising is still just as important for a performer at the top of their profession.

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If the instrument is voice, the requirements are no different. Singers must train their bodies, most particularly their mouths, to produce the required sound. Before every performance, they will perfect the work they are about to sing.

I was reminded of this last night when attending a Cymanfa Ganu in Cardiff. This is a Welsh tradition of community hymn-singing, born in the chapels of Wales but practised in pubs, on coaches, at rugby grounds or airports. It was heard yesterday when Wales played in the European football championships for the first time since 1958, and won their first match.  Anywhere a group of Welsh people get together, in fact, they might burst into song. The contrast between bass, tenor, alto and soprano voices creates a thrilling sound, but participating in the singing is even more exciting.

What marks it out is that four-part harmony sung, quite naturally, by anyone who has grown up in this culture. Young children were traditionally taught sol-fa before they could read music. Years of practice followed, in chapels, at competitions, in school and at home. This frequent repetition and genuine use of skills – singing for the sheer joy of singing – has resulted in a nation of songbirds.

But the soloists at the Cymanfa Ganu, Rhys Meirion and Rebecca Evans, had still clearly prepared their performances as meticulously as they would for La Scala. They appeared to feel every emotion in pieces they must have performed multiple times. The sign of a consummate professional is their willingness to engage completely, their total respect for each and every client or audience .

The same is true of speaking a language. Just as a pianist needs to acquire finger memory, an English learner needs to assimilate patterns and stylistic forms into the subconscious.

Commitment and practice are the keys to becoming a fluent speaker of another language. Take every opportunity to say aloud a word or phrase you’ve just met. Write it down in phrases or sentences that mean something to you. “I’m starting a new job tomorrow“. “I can’t stand football“. “It looks like rain“. “The pianist had forgotten his score so had to play from memory“. Then introduce those examples into your conversation (or write them in a real-life email or report) within 24 hours. Maximise the vocabulary and structures that are part of your active repertoire.

At the same time, keep increasing your passive language skills, your understanding of the spoken and written word. Using a variety of books and other resources will both increase the number of new words you meet and ensure that you meet the most important vocabulary again and again, thus fixing it in your brain. You’ll now have a secure command of these words. You’ll recognise and understand them.

By reading and listening extensively and regularly, you’ll come across those same terms time after time. They will gradually become part of your active repertoire. The more often you meet them, the faster they’ll move from passive to active. So if you’re waiting for a train, read. If you’re too tired to read, listen to something – anything – English.

If you’ve collapsed in front of the television at the end of the day and you can’t bear the thought of another Brexit debate, choose a British or American game show. You’ll pick up the language really quickly. The same phrases are repeated throughout the programme, the vocabulary tends to be relatively simple, presenters and competitors often speak slowly…and they’re fun! When you can answer a question that the native speakers can’t, you’ll feel super-confident.

Effective communication demands a certain degree of accuracy. This is where good old-fashioned grammar books, such as Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use, are helpful. Whether for revision and reinforcement, or for mastering unfamiliar structures, don’t be afraid to work through grammar exercises, writing out sentences in full then inventing some of your own.

Finally, after all this effort, don’t forget to maintain your skills. If a musician abandons an instrument for months, you can imagine the consequences. So find ways to use and enjoy English in your daily life. In the Welsh language we have a saying “Don’t put the violin in the attic”. Keep talking. Keep singing…..it’s a wonderful way of improving fluency.

As a reward for reading this far, here’s a link to the beautiful music of Anna Sutyagina. She has some fascinating views about the relationship between music and languages.

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