Finding Friends in Many Languages, Thanks to John Taylor
In 1991, I was very fortunate to become one of a small cadre of professional performing artists in California to be hired as a teaching artist into an amazing program for bringing the arts into preschools. The program originated in Virginia with the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning Through the Arts. As their website describes, this flagship education program of Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts “supports over 100,000 children and early childhood educators across the nation and around the world.”
Through Wolf Trap, I taught in a variety of low-income preschools that otherwise would not have had the resources to bring in such a program. In addition to sending artists to teach across the country, Wolf Trap would fly all the teaching artists from around the country to Virginia for a weekend conference. It was here that I learned a simple song that has been with me ever since:
Friends, Friends 1-2-3
All my friends are here with me
You’re my friend, you’re my friend,
You’re my friend, you’re my friend
Friends, Friends 1-2-3
All my friends are here with me
Unfortunately, the California Wolf Trap program closed a couple years after I joined it. For years, I had no idea who had created the song.
Then in the fall of 2018, I finally learned it was a man named John “Kinderman” Taylor. Based in Baltimore, Taylor entertained
thousands of children over his long career with a unique blend of song, movement, storytelling, and games; he won three local Emmy Awards
for co-producing and hosting WMAR’s It’s Kindertime and The Kinderman Show. I actually made the connection only because someone on the CMN Forum wrote that Taylor had just passed away, and someone else mentioned a song he wrote called “Friends 1-2-3”! After connecting with the person who sent that post, I verified that this was indeed the same song that I’ve been using all these years. I also did more research about John Taylor and discovered that he too had taught with Wolf Trap in Virginia. For all I know, I might have learned it directly from him.
But why was this such an important discovery? Because in the past twenty-eight years I have not only been using this as the closing
song in all my pre-K through grade-two classes but I have collected translations of it in over thirty languages!
Spanish was the first version that I learned, while still with Wolf Trap. Since I had studied French, I was able to work out that
translation easily. After that, each time I began teaching a new class, I would inquire what languages were spoken by the students and
their families. Sometimes a teacher who spoke these other languages would help me. Other times, I would send a letter
home to parents with the English words for the song, explaining that I was hoping they could give me a translation. Parents have always been so appreciative of my caring enough to help them share their language. Often, though, they were afraid they didn’t know how to do it. I would ask them to come to class, then I would work with them and write down the translation so that I could pronounce the words as they did.
Sadly, I have never had a good facility for learning languages, though I have studied at least three. But as a singer, I have sung in a variety of languages, and being a musician, I’ve always been very good at picking up accents, which I’ve called “the music of the language.” These things seemed to make it very easy for me to hear what my translators were saying and write it down so that I could sing it close to the proper pronunciation. I admit, I’m always amazed when I sing it back to people who speak that language and they tell me I sound like I know it.
Years ago, I arrived at one of the many schools where I taught once a week. In my first class, I met a four-year-old girl who had just started school that day. She was from Egypt and spoke no English. She sat with a blank face through the entire thirty-minute session. When I got to the end of class, we all sang the “Friends” song, using the sign language we always did as well. I had not done many other languages with this group yet, but I did have an Arabic translation of it, and thinking perhaps she might speak Arabic, I took a chance. I pulled out my cheat sheet (I know many by heart, but not all of them): Arabic was alphabetically right at the top. I took a deep breath and did my best to sing “Friends” correctly in Arabic.
AAZ-DI-KAA-EE, AAZ-DI-KAA-EE, Waa-hed, Ith-naan, The-laa-tha
I-kul aaz-di-kaa-ee hoo-naa aan-dee in-dee
In-too aaz-di-kaa-ee (4x)
This little girl who had been looking at the ground with a sad, bored face suddenly looked up, and when she saw me looking at her and singing she got a very sheepish grin on her face. That is why I do this. It was my first connection with her and, I was told, the first major connection she had made with anyone that first day.
I have seen this exact scene repeated many times in many schools. One time was a first day for a three-year-old boy who only spoke Chinese.
He couldn’t sit still and was wandering around the outside of the circle where all the other children sat. His grandmother sat away
from him, watching. As soon as I began “Pongyo, pongyo, ee er san,” he froze in place, looked at me, and then looked
at his grandmother for reassurance that he was hearing correctly. I smiled. Another connection made! This was at a school where I was
working full time, so we became very good friends from that moment on.
PUNG-YOH, PUNG-YOH, Ee, Ur, Saan
Waa-der pung-yoh doh hur-waa tsigh ee chee
Nee shur wa-duh pung-yoh (4x)
Another time, there was a little boy who had recently come from Kenya and only spoke Swahili. Before I even had a chance to connect with the family, it was spring vacation, and I happened to be going to visit my relatives in Florida. My husband and I decided it was the perfect time to take our kids to Disney World. As we wandered around Epcot, we came to the African exhibit and discovered a wonderful musician playing drums out in front. His sign said he was from Kenya. When there was a break in the music, I went over to him and said how much I enjoyed his playing . . . and asked if he spoke Swahili. I of course explained that I was a music teacher and had a Kenyan student in one of my classes. He was more than happy to translate “Friends” into Swahili!
RAA-FEEK, RAA-FEEK, Moh-jaa, Beelee, Taatoo
Raa-feek waatay haapaa naamee
Way-way rafeekee, rafeekee, rafeekee, (say this line 2x only)
That was only one of the many times that this simple children’s song enabled me to make friends and share stories with people from so many places—and get another translation of the song. People appreciate it when you make an honest attempt to learn their language.
Here is my worksheet containing translations of the song FRIENDS 1-2-3 into 30 languages.
Each has been written out according to BBC Phonetic Respelling.
If you feel that there has been any error in the pronunciation of your native language, please feel free to contact me
Sometimes I’m not even looking for a new translation. Sometimes I meet someone from another country and we are doing our
best to communicate with each other. I will often burst into song in their language, and the surprise on their face (and the relief on mine!)
is wonderfully exciting. The first question I ask afterwards is, “Did you understand what I just sang?” Nine times out of ten,
they do. From there we start to talk about culture, music, and children. It’s a great way to connect with people, though I must admit, early on, my husband and daughters were often embarrassed to see me do it. But having seen the results, well, they just let me do it all I want now!
After finally identifying the song’s source, I wanted to learn more about John Taylor, also known as “the Kinderman,” and was fortunate to reconnect with another former Wolf Trap teaching artist here in California who had not only known Taylor but had been mentored by him. Danny Giray, or Danny G, as he is known professionally, is a very talented dancer, choreographer, and teacher. He has worked with students from the age of three up to adults. Danny says that Taylor’s energy was so contagious, engaging, and addictive. You couldn’t walk away without a rhythm in your body and a smile on your face. After Taylor started teaching his “Friends” song, “it became an anthem, and a rallying cry for what Taylor felt children needed to do and learn,” namely, not to be afraid to befriend someone different from you. All colors, all faiths, all backgrounds, all abilities—we can all be friends.
Danny also mentioned that Taylor often spoke about his “ABCs”:
A - You Accept, B - You Belong, C - You Care
As for me, I am sorry I never really knew John “Kinderman” Taylor, but I feel that in my many years of collecting translations and meeting new people and making new friends, his song has guided me as he had hoped it would. I know it has done the same for my students: when we get to the end of a class they all want to sing it, and always ask for another language. I especially love when a child who is shy about asking for their language doesn’t need to worry because there is always a friend in class who is excited to request it. If you can speak someone else’s language, it opens doors for both of you!