Learning Through Experience
Rebecca Gould, Head of Arts for British Council Wales, describes how the new curriculum in Wales, with its emphasis on learning through experience combined with the government’s drive to encourage more children to study modern foreign languages, created the starting point for their TDF project, Cerdd Iaith/ Listening to Language.
Cerdd Iaith / Listening to Language is led by British Council Wales in partnership with BBC National Orchestra of Wales, University of Wales Trinity Saint David and ERW (Education through Regional Working / Ein Rhanbarth ar Waith).
The project began in September 2016 in ten primary schools in Swansea, Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion (five English medium and five Welsh medium). The partners co-developed a programme that is based in music but that has a logical and innovative progression in terms of language acquisition and multilingualism, focusing on Spanish, Welsh and English. The project, now in its second year, explores new approaches to teaching language, using rhyme, rhythm and pitch, and centres on professional development for teachers.
The power of song
At the heart of Cerdd Iaith is the understanding that many cultures around the world use nursery rhymes to soothe, entertain and teach their young children. Simple, repetitive songs are often the first steps in learning language; their rhyming and rhythmic structure help not just babies, but children and adults too, to learn and retain words.
This also extends to music. As Professor Susan Hallam explains in ‘The Power of Music’:
There is now a substantial body of evidence which suggests that engagement with music plays a major role in developing aural perceptual processing systems which facilitate the encoding and identification of speech sounds and patterns.
Many language teachers already incorporate songs to help the learning process. But teachers taking part in Cerdd Iaith take this a step further by teaching languages using the inherent sound qualities of the languages themselves – the essential musicality of language.
The project has another important component: Patagonia. We have further integrated the learning of Spanish and Welsh with learning about the region of South America where a community of Welsh speakers still exists 150 years after settlers first arrived. Learning about Patagonia and its musical tradition helps students feel more connected emotionally to the language.
Our preliminary evidence suggests that both teachers and students have become more confident and interested in language learning by using this musical approach. They not only remembered and understood words and phrases in the three languages better, but were more willing to use and correctly pronounce them, were able to cross-refer between languages – and they seemed to be having fun doing it too.
Cerdd Iaith has been developed by the partners at an important time for education in Wales. Following the publication of Professor Graham Donaldson’s independent review of the curriculum in Wales, a radical redesign of the approach to teaching and learning in Welsh schools is underway. The boundaries between subject areas will become more blurred and a new importance will be placed on ‘learning through experience’ when the new curriculum is introduced. The arts-based approach being piloted in Cerdd Iaith can make an important contribution to this process.
A multi-lingual future
This is happening against a backdrop of continuing and alarming decline in the number of Welsh children choosing to study a modern foreign language at GCSE. The Welsh Government wants to reverse this and, as part of its Global Futures five year plan for modern foreign languages, has announced the ambition for Wales to become ‘bilingual + 1’ from year 5.
By creating professional development resources and pathways for non-language specialist teachers to introduce international languages, specifically at primary level, Cerdd Iaith can support ‘bilingual + 1’ and ensure an arts-based approach is central to an important national policy initiative.
 Hallam, S. (2015), The Power of Music, Great Britain: International Music Education Research Centre (iMerc), pp. 36-37.