As the curtain comes down on another successful Royal National Mod, which celebrated Gaelic and its associated art forms, language practitioners are stressing how much more easily a second language can be learned when it is taught through music.
Native Gaelic speakers and learners alike came together in Lochaber for competitions in many areas of the arts, including traditional music, recitation and most famously song.
And as we all reflect on the success of Mod 2017, the team involved in teaching a new generation of Gaelic learners want to get the message across to all teachers and students that song should be used, whenever possible, to maximise the chances of getting that new language to ‘stick’.
Jackie Mullen is a consultant trainer for the Go!Gaelic programme being run by Gaelic educational resources organisation Stòrlann and has seen first hand the effectiveness of music as a learning tool.
The Go!Gaelic programme includes an online package of resources, found at www.go-gaelic.scot, which are used in primary schools across the country to teach some Gaelic to children who are in English Medium Education. But it also incorporates an 18-day training course specially for teachers who want to learn some Gaelic themselves to be able to teach it more confidently.
Jackie Mullen, who is also a member of trad band Folky MacFolk Face, plays a key part in delivering that training — and recent events in the classroom have reinforced her belief that using music and song improves the chances of language learning success for both adults and children.
She recalled day four of the 18-day programme, held recently, when a cohort of teachers were trying to learn introductory questions, such as ‘Where do you live?’ (Càit a bheil thu a’ fuireach?) and ‘How old are you?’ (Dè an aois a tha thu?)
They were being taught the questions in Gaelic and asked to recall them. They had no trouble remembering the questions they had been taught in song form — but struggled with the others.
The songs Jackie used in the training included Dè an t-ainm a th’ ort? (Where do you live?) which is one of the song sheets included in the Go!Gaelic programme. There are 20 of them altogether.
Jackie said: “Everything that I’d put into song, they remembered. They found it more difficult to remember the questions that hadn’t been delivered to them in song, in class.
“All of them had much easier access to the language if it was something that I’d delivered to them via music. It just proves the point of what I’m always saying… if you can sing it, you can say it.
“That’s become my mantra when I’m delivering a course to teach Gaelic.”
Jackie pointed out: “How many song lyrics can you recall, compared to how many poems you can recite? It’s so much easier to recall song lyrics and I’m sure that’s because of the music.”
She added: “When teachers are using Go!Gaelic as a resource, I’d really emphasise the importance of using the songs. Use the songs first and foremost. Don’t bypass them.
“Computers can go down and crash but if you’ve got a song in your head then you’re home and dry. Also, the phrases in the songs are part of the core language that needs to be taught.”
Of young learners, Jackie said: “It’s probably their favourite element of learning the language. Children love to sing, they’re always really happy when they sing, and while they’re doing it they are learning the language.”
One of the teachers on the 18-day training programme is Shona Henderson, depute head at
Chyrnside Primary in Glasgow. She said it was “amazing” to experience this difference in recall.
“It was clear that the questions they were actually managing to remember were the ones that we had done in song,” she said. “Music is really helping me to remember. It’s getting it in there.”
She added: “Because I don’t have a musical background, it wouldn’t have been something that I’d regularly use in my teaching but I would definitely use song now, if I could. I’ve even asked my daughter if I can borrow her ukulele to try and learn.”
The findings are borne out by research, including a study from California State University which found that music helps students acquire a second language for a number of reasons.
Mainly because it is enjoyable, music relaxes learners, lessens inhibitions and makes learners more attentive and receptive to learning a second language. The songs themselves usually contain authentic examples of the language and success in singing also boosts confidence.
Donald W Morrison, Stòrlann chief executive, shared a personal memory of how important song had been in his own language development.
He said: “My earliest mother tongue recollect is a snippet of a lullaby, often sung by my mother as she rocked me to sleep as an infant. This stark lullaby bemoaned the fact that Winter had swept all horses and cows off the land – not the most inspiring of stories – but the words, in their original order, have stayed with me for well over half a century!
“Gaelic language and its associated art forms of story and song make for a rich trove of material for learners. Many of the competitors at the Mod will have commenced on their own personal journey to Gaelic fluency through songs and music.
“Go!Gaelic uses the fun learning tool of the song to good advantage. A collection of 20 catchy little numbers carry the core vocabulary to the learner’s mind and, through the added rhythm and rhyme, it tends to stay there. In a sense, our young learners sing the language into their own heads and by so doing — in corridors, cars and kitchens — they pass the songs on.”
- Pictured are some of the cast from the Go!Gaelic Cafaidh Lilidh series (from left to right, Callum Nicolson, Katie MacInnes and Alex John Morrison), which uses song to help language learning.