nursery rhymes

I like to read to my daughter. I like telling her nursery rhymes and stories. Especially stories, and especially when I’m telling them from memory and therefore have my hands free to add in actions and gestures to liven things up, and have a lot more freedom to adjust emphasis and tone of voice, and so on. She’s only six months old, so it’s highly doubtful she understands any of the words or the stories or anything beyond what would be “Daddy’s being funny again” if she had the language to express that thought. But it’s a lot of fun.

But I’ve been kind of working off the assumption that language input, no matter whether she understands it or not, is going to get language neurons firing and building up connections and setting up a base for later on when she does start speaking. Well, people all over the world talk to their babies, right? And the babies respond, even when that response is limited to facial expressions, gestures and a few random sounds. And eventually they start learning words, then stringing those words into simple sentences, then language… So it seems like a pretty solid hypothesis to me.

But then I got wondering about nursery rhymes. We have books of nursery rhymes in both English and Chinese (童谣/tóngyáo). I haven’t paid a huge amount of attention to the Chinese ones – that’s my wife’s job – but they seem to be pretty similar in structure and purpose to their English counterparts. Simple sentences with simple rhymes and rhythm, only a few lines long, frequently nonsensical. I also got her a few Dr Seuss books, which follow a very similar pattern – except that when Dr Seuss is nonsensical, he’s fun in a theatre of the absurd kind of way. Then I thought, simple words, simple sentences, rhythm and rhyme, could it be that nuresry rhymes help children acquire language? It would certainly seem that Dr Seuss’ work is about teaching kids to read, and nursery rhymes in a book certainly seem to be just as good. Indeed, the first two results and a few more further down the first page of this search  include either “reading” or “literacy” in their titles. But literacy isn’t what I’m interested in here*. I’m curious as to the role nursery rhymes and similar things (for want of a better word at this point, a prime example being Dr Seuss’ lower-level Blue Back Books (ABC, Hop on Pop)) in primary language acquisition, babies just learning to speak, with the books as nothing more than memory aid for the parents.

Maybe I’ve got the wrong search terms, or maybe probably I’m not patient enough, but I’m struggling to find much information along the lines I’m looking for. Well, this seems to just about maybe come close to almost touching on what I’m curious about. This seems related, but it’s very hard to tell from an abstract only, especially this rather vague abstract. Oh, but there are books, books and books and books on language acquisition, and I would love to read them, but I already have so many books on the go and so many more piled up waiting to be read. Oh, wait, wikipedia has a tiny, tiny hint of the educational use of nursery rhymes here. The references, however, are about literacy (again!) and the relationship between preschool music lessons and later maths skills (and in that well known academic journal The Chicago Tribune).

And so after a couple of hours stuffing around online, and lunch, and a nap, and some more stuffing around online, I’m none the wiser. Oh well, I did find the abstract of an article that looks quite relevant to another aspect of my daughter’s linguistic training… “Add to basket $30/£20″… yes, I’d be quite happy for people to randomly add $30 or £20 to my basket… oh.

So here’s my hypothesis:

Nursery rhymes are a tool for helping babies acquire their first language(s). The simple structures, rhythm and rhyme teach them the phonology and stress patterns of their first language(s).

I have not a shred of evidence to back this up, and I am currently involved in an experiment with a sample size of 1 (namely, my daughter) to see if there is any truth to the above. My experiment has no control group.

And then there was something else I noticed about nursery rhymes that I hadn’t noticed before – probably because the last time I read, recited, or listened to any was A Long Time Ago – a few of them seem to come with messages encoded. Not, perhaps, in the sense wikipedia discusses here, but quite possibly in the sense of assumed moral values. Consider this, on pages 10 and 11 of Richard Scarry’s Best Mother Goose Ever (Golden Books, 1964):

When I was a bachelor I lived by myself,

And all the bread and cheese I got I laid up on the shelf;

The rats and the mice, they made such a strife,

I had to go to London to buy me a wife.


The streets were so bad and the lanes were so narrow,

I was forced to bring my wife home in a wheelbarrow.

The wheelbarrow broke and my wife had a fall;

Down came wheelbarrow, little wife and all.

“To buy me a wife”? Wow, women as property of their men, that is feudal.

Or on pages 74 and 75 of the same book, Taffy was a Welshman, 6 verses in 3 pairs, the first two lines of the first verse being:

Taffy was a Welshman,

Taffy was a thief,

With the next two lines detailing what Taffy stole. Verses 3 and 5 follow the same pattern, but with “thief” replaced by “sham” and “cheat” respectively, and the thing Taffy stole changing to match the rhyme. Verses 2, 4 and 6 detail the revenge the narrator takes on Taffy for each specific theft, the last being:

I took a marrow bone

And beat him on the head.

So what’s a child supposed to take away from Taffy was a Welshman? An unfortunate ethnic stereotype and permission to take violent revenge when wronged? Not values I would like to teach my child.

Now, of course, most of the rhymes I’ve come across have been perfectly innocuous and lots of fun, or if there is some message or moral value encoded, its too opaque to be easily teased out (just what is Ring a ring of roses about? I’ve heard a variety of stories… ), but sometimes reading these rhymes to my daughter, like the above two, I’ve hit a what the hell was that all about? moment. Well, I suppose a fair bit could be explained by the age of the nursery rhymes. Of course, in our enlightened times, nobody would write any such thing and get away with it, would they? Well, I suspect a hundred years from now our descendents will be just as shocked by our superstition, ignorance and prejudice as we are by those of our ancestors.

*Well, I am very interested in literacy education/training/acquisition for a variety of reasons, but none of that is what I wanted to be exploring with this post.

About the Author


A Kiwi teaching English to oil workers in Beijing, studying Chinese in my spare time, married to a beautiful Beijing lass, consuming vast quantities of green tea (usually Xihu Longjing/西湖龙井, if that means anything to you), eating good food (except for when I cook), missing good Kiwi ale, breathing smog, generally living as best I can outside Godzone and having a good time of it.

2 thoughts on “nursery rhymes

  1. Interesting research question, so I poked around but couldn’t anything really good to explain “How do nursery rhymes contribute to infant language acquisition.” There were a few articles about that looked at nursery rhymes impact on blind, handicapped, and (sometimes in comparison) nonhandicapped infants regarding rhythm, word recognition, and lip reading. One article, “Picture-book reading by mothers and young children and its impact upon language development,” would appear to cover rhyming text as a key part of standard picture books. There’s also an article on how infants prefer “motherese,” the high-pitched, simplified, exaggerated “hoos a widdle pumpkin patch? You are!” sort of thing, which I hope is cited in a similar article about how people talk to pets.

    But the winner, which I think dovetails nicely with the end of your piece, is this:

    Head injuries in nursery rhymes: evidence of a dangerous subtext in children’s literature

  2. Oops, almost vanished your comment…

    Yep, I found the ones on picture books and “motherese”, too, and as I wrote in the post, plenty connected with literacy.

    And now all I can say is: I love the Canadian Medical Journal!

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