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Young People and the Language of Music

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a group of children sing in a group
Photo credit: Music Action International

To celebrate European Day of Languages, we spoke to Youth Music funded partners that work with young people who have English as an additional language.

The European Day of Languages has been celebrated since 2001, with the aim of celebrating the diversity of languages in Europe; there are over 200 languages spoken by its citizens! The awareness day also encourages people to learn a new language, to increase plurilingualism (ability to speak more than one language and switch between them with ease) and intercultural understanding.

Recently, the 2021 Census for England and Wales reported that over 5 million people didn’t speak English as their main language. Youth Music’s funded partners are no exception to this, with 57% of projects in 2022/23 working with young people who had English as an additional language.

Though historically dominated by the English language, the UK music scene has seen non-English language music begin to take a hold in the mainstream. K-Pop has become a cultural phenomenon, with many of its biggest artists, such as BTS and BLACKPINK, having UK Top 40 albums.

Another example is Latin hip-hop star, Bad Bunny, who had success with their tracks 'MIA (feat. Drake)' and 'I Like It (with Cardi B and J Balvin)' reaching the UK Top 40 Singles chart.

We spoke to young people and our funded partners about out how they approach their multilingual (more than one language) work and how music can help every young person, whatever their background.

Music and the Welsh language

“We believe it's important, whenever possible, that participants get to speak in Welsh or English. It’s important they have that choice because a high percentage of our participants are first language Welsh” said Meinir Llwyd Roberts, Director at Youth Music funded partner, Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias (CGWM).

The 2021 Census estimated that 17.8% of people aged three or older in Wales were able to speak Welsh. This is then higher for young people (aged 0-25), with 24.8% able to speak Welsh. Providing music training and performance experience for young people of all ages, CGWM are based in Gwynedd, which has the highest concentration of Welsh speakers in Wales.

“We’re a bilingual organisation,” Meinir told us. “Our internal operating language is Welsh and then externally, totally bilingual. Our website, social media, general correspondence, is totally bilingual with the Welsh language first […] We’ve got a team of 46 freelancers across our one to one and community programmes. Around 85% of our tutors are confident in delivering activities through the medium of Welsh.”

With many Welsh speakers also being able to communicate in English, Meinir explained to us why she felt it was important to have that option. “I think it’s a person’s right,” she said. “It’s important [first language Welsh speakers] can use it freely because we’re all more confident speaking and expressing ourselves in our first language.”

The past few years has seen a rise in the popularity of Welsh language music scene. Recently, we spoke to Youth Music NextGen Fund creative, Owain Williams, about this trend.

“The Welsh music scene is always growing, always developing inner circles, and having a rich variety in both genre and sound is vital for any scene,” Owain told us. “As a whole, there’s a much wider representation and greater diversity within the Welsh music scene today, so seeing the likes of Dom Lloyd, Lloyd Lewis, and Sage Todz break new ground in Welsh music is amazing.”

SZWE performs at the Youth Music NextGen Community event in Cardiff / Photo credit: Mitchell Williams

Meinir shares in the excitement of the growing scene, hoping CGWM can be involved: “I'd like to see us as a music centre contribute more to the pop music and contemporary music scene moving forward. I’d like to do more of what we've done in the past where we work with some of the up and coming stars in the Welsh scene to influence and inspire the younger generation and encourage them to use their languages: Welsh, English and other languages.”

This is something that young people, themselves, are hoping to achieve with their work. Originally from Poland, Youth Music NextGen Fund artist, Pat, is a bilingual artist, rapping in both English and Polish. Like Meinir, Pat hopes his work will inspire the next generation of artists: “When I was growing up and starting off my musical journey, I sensed a real lack of representation of Polish people in the music industry and so I really wanna show others that there is space for us in the world of music.”

Working with children and young people who have been displaced

For many of the young people our funded partners work with, having English as an additional language is a consequence of other barriers they are facing. In 2022/23, 20% of Youth Music funded projects worked with refugees, while 17% worked with asylum seekers.

Sara Khoroosi is a creative music practitioner who works with Surrey Arts. Surrey Arts currently runs the Youth Music funded project, I Speak Music – Next Generation, which support in the integration and cross cultural learning between children who have been internationally displaced due to conflict and/or persecution with peers from their host community.

Sara’s work with displaced communities takes place in a range of settings including hotels, community centres and in schools and colleges. Some of the young people she works with already have refugee status whilst others are housed in hotels or foster care settings whilst their asylum claims are being processed.

“Many of the young people we encounter have very little or no English vocabulary and there’s a temptation to speak more loudly or more quietly but this isn’t really helpful” Sara told us. “As a team we’ve had lots of training in things like non-verbal communication and inclusive conducting and this has become a vital part of our approach.

When working with the young people, Sara not only thinks about potential language barriers but also the cultural differences. She said: “If we deliver our workshops in a traditional way and with content or teaching style that has a lot of English language then it’s not really engaging for participants. We also understand that some cultures have a different relationship to music which can result in gender barriers. We try to balance cultural respect whilst encouraging participation and equality. Simply observing can be a really significant form of participation.”

Sara is from Iran, which she finds enables her to better understand some of the young people she works with. Jim Pinchen, Project Lead and Inclusion Manager at Surrey Arts explained how this is one of the ways they approach their work: “We have a diverse team of practitioners, many of whom speak the same languages as our participants. I've seen regularly how our students immediately get a sense of relief, not only because they are being taught by someone they can identify with culturally, but because they can fall back on a language that is familiar to them, when so much of their new life is not.

two girls sing; one in front of a microphone
Photo credit: Music Action International

Ramsey Janini, Creative Producer at Music Action International, shared with us how his lived experience gives him an insight into the lives of the young people he works with. “I was displaced by war when I was younger, although I was raised with English as one of my of native languages, to use that term,” he told us. “I still found the dislocation within that disruption and tear from the culture that I was brought up in. I found music, arts and creativity more generally to be a home, a place from which I could feel connected to something that can't be taken from me.”

Music Action International’s music facilitators work with refugees, asylum seekers and Roma people, both in the UK and Internationally. They offer support to help reduce the effects of trauma, improve mental health, and help provide pathways in newly arrived countries.

Though they work with all age groups, there are some challenges faced by older young people (15+) who have been displaced without a parent or carer. “A lot of those young people have been trafficked over,” Ramsey explained. “So they’re within a system that has found them totally isolated, confined often within prison like conditions. By that age, they have had traumatic experiences which could include the death of a family member or certainly not know their [family’s] whereabouts.”

But through music, these young people can begin to surround themselves in a new community that is able to support them. “Through our creative music programme, it’s providing them with a community.”

Ramsey went on to say, “Taking one small step towards [good] mental health is having some sense of community and being able to express one’s emotions to another person.”

The language of music

For the people we spoke to, music had the potential to transcend any language barriers.

In 2017, the Welsh Government launched Cymraeg 2050: a million Welsh speakers, which outlined their strategy for increasing the number of Welsh speakers to one million (currently estimated to be 538,000) by 2050. Meinir outlined the role they think music will be able to play.

“I think music brings people together from different backgrounds, different languages – it's a language in itself!” she said. “When you're in a class and some speak Welsh and some don't, music is a common language, isn't it? And then, the children just absorb snippets of language without even realising it.”

Not only this, through music, many of the experiences the young people have faced in their lives can potentially be cut through.

“They've been through such an experience; so much trauma, so much noise,” said Sara. “And if you can find a tool like music, to cut through that noise, and just communicate with someone on that level of being a human being, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender, the lot: you have an extremely powerful tool at your hands.”

“If we create that safe space for them,” continued Sara. “That has huge impacts on health, including your mental, physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing – everything!”

Reflecting on his own experiences, Ramsey spoke of the “uniting principle of music as a universal language.”

For him, the role of music and wider creativity within the support mechanisms for displaced young people cannot be forgotten. “You have those organisations that are focused on the question of how to live, how to survive,” he outlined. “But I feel like the creative arts addresses the question of why to live […] It becomes essential, rather than a decoration, because it addresses those questions. That said, music and especially singing is proven to improve health and wellbeing through, for example, the reduction of stress hormones and regulation of the breath and heart rate.”

a young girl sings into a microphone
Photo from Music Action International


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