There are many things I am grateful for to my mother and music and language exposure is definitely one of them. Although I did not grow up in a bilingual family myself and started with my first language at the age of 9, I always had an easy time picking up languages and mimicking accents. I moved to the US after finishing my Master’s degree and even then the vast majority of native speakers had a hard time placing my country of origin (Russia). I attribute that to early music exposure.
In Russia nursery school and kindergarten are very affordable. A large number of families use them, and if both parents work and no family member can stay at home with the baby, the child tends to go to the nursery school as an infant. 5,5 million children go to nursery school or kindergarten (includes pre-school in Russia).
A video of a Russian Kindergarten
In my case I was 11 months old when I started in my first nursery school. I was very happy there until the age of 7, when I started in the first grade. Music education begins already at the nursery school. There are weekly classes where kids learn basic famous kid songs, rhymes and learn to move and coordinate their moves with others. As you get to the end of kindergarten, all kids are usually exposed to singing and dancing. There is a strong tradition of semi-annual performances (New Year’s and end of the school year) and sometimes some other major holiday performances too. The children learn simple songs and choreography and then perform in front of the parents. Most of the times costumes are involved.
A video of a New Year themed performance in junior kindergarten.
Once you go to school you might not have music in the elementary school, but usually a once weekly music class is present in middle school. No music is generally taught in High school.
A video of a music lesson in an elementary school.
As you can see there is a significant exposure to music at early ages but it decreases once you enter school. If the child wants to pursue music, dance or a particular sport – it’s all done outside of school hours as an extracurricular activity. Usually school will be over about 2-3 pm and then you will go to a completely different building, sometimes 15-30 minutes away to enroll in a class of your interest.
A video of a performance at the end of the 1st grade in a music school.
I went to the school of arts, where you could learn to play a variety of instruments, dance, singing, and later on they also offered English classes for children. Usually the enrollment begins at the age of 7 (1st grade). There are entrance exams and depending on how popular and busy a particular department is, it would affect how hard or easy it is to get in.
At the age of 8 I went to take my entrance exams for dance. I went to a dance studio near my house for a year and my mom (who was a dancer and very passionate about dance) was ready to take me to this better school that was about a 20 minute bus ride from home.
Unfortunately I did not pass, but they asked me if I wanted to try out for the choir singing department, and I went (without any prep work) and was accepted. That’s how I became part of a fenomenal children’s choir. I got to sing in many languages (English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, French, German, Old Russian, Japanese, Hebrew, Italian and probably others that I do not remember now). It was a beautiful experience that developed both my ears, my vocal control and my soul – the exposure to the variety of world music in the USSR where everything foreign was mostly forbidden, was a great gift. My first trip abroad at the age of 14 was also with my choir. As we won a cross-Russia competition we were representing Russia in Germany, and had a performance at a beautiful Wartburg castle in Eisenach.
A video of a children’s choir performance in Kazakhstan.
Foreign Language Education
Foreign language education begins very early. When I was a child we started in the third grade, age 9, but nowadays it’s usually first grade (7 years old) or even earlier. Foreign language (predominantly English these days) is taught starting junior kindergarten through the end of college.
A video of an English lesson at an elementary school.
Everyone takes foreign language classes. There are schools that would allow students to take two or three, but that is more of an exception than a rule and usually means the school has an emphasis on humanities or languages. It does not mean that all Russians are fluent in a foreign language. The level of instruction varies a lot and while some teachers are brilliant, other foreign language teachers do not even speak the language fluently. The system is usually to divide a class of 30 in two groups and each group of about 15 kids gets an average of two 45 minute classes a week.
A video of an English lesson at a junoir high school.
I have never had a native speaker of English teach me in Russia (my trip to the US at the age of 20 was my first exposure to the native speakers and the American accent), all my teachers were Russians with various levels of exposure to travelling abroad. My tutor who worked with me through high school had never been to an English speaking country in her life. It did not really matter – I had some amazing teachers, with wonderful a broad knowledge of the language, who spoke beautiful British English (that’s what the children predominantly learn in Russia) and instilled the love of the language in me.
When people compliment me on my accent (or lack thereof), I always remember how grateful I am to many people in my life:
- my mother, for spending years taking me to the school of arts and tutoring classes across Moscow;
- my choir teacher, whose eternal patience and persistence with a group of 40 kids paid off every time we performed;
- my high school English tutor, who was the first teacher to never scolded or reprimanded, but taught to enjoy, value and the respect to the work that goes into learning a language and to appreciate the hard labour of being an effective and inspiring teacher.
I truly believe that music and languages are both what helped me develop the love of diversity, inclusion, compassion and hard work. Learning is work, it can be fun and enjoyable, but it’s time and effort that you put into it that brings the results. And it’s hard work not just for the child but for the teachers and the parents.
Now with my kids I realize even more how hard it was for my mother to juggle all the classes and travel that came with extracurricular activities for me and my brother. How much my teachers gave me and how they inspired me. So I want to pay it forward: to my kids, to other parents and children who want to have these gifts in their lives.
However I should confess that at times I am in no mood to go to another dance or music class after a full day of work. Sometimes laboring with my partner on my Russian Step by Step books and spending evenings and weekends away from my family is draining. There are days when I have to push myself to speak Russian to my kids consistently, when switching into English would be so much easier on me. And there are definitely times when teaching them to read and write in Russian takes all my free time. There are also nights when I lie awake figuring out when and where they will take classes as they grow up and how I will get them there.
Still I keep doing it all. I remember how much I loved my classes as a child. I see how much they want to be there. And now much they enjoy learning with me. I keep reminding myself what a benefit it all would be for them in their lives. I am not looking to bring up professional musicians or linguists (although if that’s what they want – I will absolutely support them). I want my children to get the full benefit of language, music, arts, sports and develop the same appreciation for all of them. I hope for them to be well-rounded individuals who know the hard work and practice that goes into perfecting any of them.
The director of the ballet school at my daughter’s semi-annual ballet performance was announcing the grade averages for the high school students in their advanced ballet classes that meets 5-6 times a week for an hour or more. It was a 3.8 GPA (the highest grade you can usually get in the US is 4.0, and some studnets had so 4.2, so they took AP classes). She said something that resonated with me: a lot of people worry that by coming to the ballet school on a daily basis and spending 2 hours on dance (class, plus travel time) after school the children will surely get behind at school. And as practice shows it is actually the opposite – the children learn to better manage their time, to value the effort that goes into studying and have more time to enjoy the activities that they want to pursue.
I love music, arts, languages, sports and want my kids to be exposed to that too. I am fortunate enough to have had an early exposure to it in my life, and fortunate enough to have the means and opportunity to give this gift to my kids, but my wish is to have these wonderful experiences open and available to all children.
Here in the US you have lots of sports, language, art and music opportunities outside of school if you have the money and the ability to take the kids there. Then when they start school, if they have a music program in school, they have a chance to learn to play and/or sing at school. That varies greatly with the financing the school receives for such programs. (Below is the video of a popular Music Together song – a widespread parent and child classes for kids 5 and under).
Every country in the world seems to have their own strategies on music and language education, and I would love to learn more about your or your kids’ experiences and the system for such education in and out of school in other countries.
A wonderful MKB artist Dariya offers programs that help brings a variety of music to kids, especially those who do not have a ready access to it in their surroundings.
If you want to read more on music and languages, please check out these articles by fellow bloggers:
The Pri-Pri Lexicon offers information on Why Is Music Good for Language Learning
And this one presents 3 beautiful Portuguese Music Albums for kids:
This post by Mommy Maleta features some videos with songs in Spanish.
El Mundo de Pepita did a blog post compiling some of my followers favorite children’s songs for teaching Spanish:
Spanish Playground offers great music and language resources:
Also here is a link to a polyglot Susanna Zaraysky who emphasises the link between languages and music.
Latest posts by Anna Watt (see all)
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- Language and Music: Paying It Forward - August 6, 2015