What’s the best way to learn a new language?

My first memory of learning French was in the car. And the sentence I learnt, though a little odd, gave me the confidence of speaking some French and has stayed with me 20 years on. I had learnt the odd word such as ‘Merci’ and ‘Bonjour’ but until this moment in the car, I wouldn’t have been able to string any words together. Okay, yes, I was 5 and yes, I was definitely still working on my English ability, but children’s minds are like sponges and I was keen to learn some French.

“Dad, how do you say, ‘Can I have’ in French?” I asked. I distinctly remember my dad replying: “Well, what do you want ‘to have’? There is no point learning how to say Can I have, if you don’t know what you want”. Logical I suppose Dad, but give your 5-year old budding linguist a break. “Okay” I replied, “How do you say, can I have a cow?”. (Oh how a child’s mind works!). “It’s “est-ce que je peux / avoir une vache?” my Dad answered in a distinct rhythm.

For the rest of the journey, I repeated this sentence with a rhythm that my Dad had taught me. He did not break the sentence down into each word. He didn’t explain each part of the sentence. He didn’t teach me the spelling. My Dad just taught me the functional question. And to this day, this sentence has helped with my confidence speaking French.

It got me thinking

I learnt French for 6 years at school and yet there are only certain phrases, and questions that I can say with ease, and without actually thinking about the direct translation.

Why is it that a lot of pupils can easily say numbers in a foreign language, or recite Frère Jacques the popular nursery rhyme? Why can I ask “quelle est la date de ton anniversaire?” (a birthday song I learnt in Year 7)? However, when I need to ask for directions in French, I stutter, mumble, and the whole sentence is a complete shambles?

Research suggest that pupils retain vocabulary more easily when foreign languages are taught through rhythm and song. But why? Well there are many theories and ideas to why rhythm and song make things easier to learn and retain. Here are a few…

Motor Memory

Some suggest it is to do with motor memory, the lyrics can become part of your motor pathway and thus become effortless, just like riding a bike or driving a car, it eventually becomes something we can do subconsciously.


Most people enjoy singing and it creates a more relaxed atmosphere and it can take away the fear of making a mistake, especially when sheltering within a group chorus. This can help people feel less anxious and more relaxed while speaking a different language, which means students can have a more confident approach to learning a language and are therefore more successful.


Music and rhythm is everywhere and it would be hard to go one day without hearing some sort of music, whether that be on the radio, TV or someone humming along to their favourite tune. This exposure to music and rhythm means that lyrics and rhythms are constantly being repeated to us in an identical fashion, so it’s easier for us to remember.

But is there more…?

Not only does rhythm and music help us learn languages, it also helps with pronunciation and fluency. As you sing or rap, you start to morph sounds together – ‘sound morphing’ and this improves pronunciation and fluency. Through sound morphing, words join together and it makes sentences sound more natural. Groups of words spoken in chunks or connected speech are an essential part of language acquisition. (Incidentally that’s why British children sometimes think it’s “a napple” and therefore “5 napples”)


While writing this blog, I read a quote that seems to sum it up all quite nicely – “speech is NOT a sequence of words, it’s a sequence of sounds.”

I think we need to look at the research and use it! The way we teach languages is outdated. We need to teach phrases and intonations. We need to teach questions and rhymes. Let’s take a page out of our foreign friends’ book. We need to immerse ourselves in different languages, by teaching foreign nursery rhymes, listening to foreign songs and watching foreign films. The grammar, the rules, the specific vocab can come later.

Who knew that teaching a 5-year-old how to say ‘Can I have a cow?’ in French would be so useful? Well my Dad did, and he just happens to be the best language teacher around – but I know I’m biased.

Daisy Shimwell

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