The word ‘carol’ comes from the French word ‘caroller’ which means to dance around in a circle. Eventually, the word carol came to mean a joyful Christian song sung at Christmas time. In the 17th Century, Christmas carols were banned by Oliver Cromwell so many ancient carols have been lost, but they were made popular again in the Victorian era and have been a fundamental part of Western Christmas celebration ever since.
Songs are a great way to learn and practice your English and carols and Christmas songs are no different. Carols are almost always Christian, so I’ll include a few secular Christmas songs too. Remember that when singing in English, weak forms like ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’ are often less weak than in spoken English but connected speech is about the same. I’ll provide examples of this below as well as any unfamiliar words in the Glossary at the bottom of the page.
1. Silent Night
This carol is a good one to start with because it’s nice and slow. This carol was originally composed in German and sung by both sides during World War One as part of a Christmas ceasefire.
Silent night, Holy Night
The ə in ‘silent’ is still an uh sound, but longer than in spoken English.
AllÈis calm, allÈis bright.
ÈShows connected speech as in speaking.
Round yon virgin mother and child
Holy Èinfant so tenderÈand mild
‘and’ is longer and less weak than in speaking.
2. The 12 Days of Christmas
This carol is great fun for children and adults and there are loads of parts of English you can practice with it.
On the first dayÈof Christmas my true love sent to me
In each verse you’ll use an ordinal number (first, second etc) all the way up to twelfth
Also remember that Christmas is pronounced /krɪ́sməs/: no t in the middle!
A partridgeÈinÈa pear tree
There’s also a lot of alliteration (two or more words beginning with the same letter) in this carol
On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Two turtle dovesÈandÈa partridge inÈa pear tree
By the end you’ll list 12 things, great for your memory!
3. White Christmas
This extremely famous song was written by Irving Berlin in 1942 for the musical film Holiday Inn. The version sung by Bing Crosby is the world’s best selling single. This song is good for practicing your silent Ts.
I’m dreamingÈofÈa white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Drop the T in ‘just’ and connect to ‘like’, ‘to’ is less weak than in speaking
Where the treetops glistenÈand children listen
glɪsən and lɪsən
To hear sleighbellsÈin the snow
slɛ́j bɛ́lz and some more alliteration for you
4. I Saw Three Ships
This is a nice little carol too which is thought to be about the three 3 Magi who visit the baby Jesus after his birth. It’s lively has a syncopated (uneven) rhythm which means your pronunciation skills will be tested!
I saw three ships come sailingÈin
Be careful with your S TH and SH here!
On Christmas day, on Christmas day;
I saw three ships come sailingÈin
On Christmas dayÈin the morning.
5. We Wish you a Merry Christmas
This one is tricky because the chorus is so fast. Once you’ve finished singing, you should have the pronunciation of the title perfect because it’s repeated a lot!
We wish youÈa Merry Christmas (x3)
Make sure you do a nice long SH sound in ‘wish’. Don’t roll the R in ‘merry’ and no T in
AndÈa Happy New Year
Good tidings we bring to youÈand your kin
Secular /ˈsekjələ/: not religious
Ceasefire /ˈsiːs.faɪə/: a temporary pause in fighting during conflict
Yon/Yonder /ˈjɒndə/: that over there (this is an ancient word and not used in modern English)
Tender /ˈtɛndə/: (of a person) gentle, kind
Mild /mʌɪld/: (of a person) gentle, soft
Partridge /ˈpɑːtrɪdʒ/: a type of bird
Lively /ˈlʌɪvli/: (of a song) fast and happy, energetic
Syncopated /ˈsɪŋkəpeɪtɪd/: (of music) uneven rhythm
Tidings ˈtʌɪdɪŋz/: (ancient) news