Learning English With Music

Summary: Using music and songs in teaching English as a second language or why people should sing to improve their language skills


Throughout the centuries, experts in different fields - philosophers, scientists, teachers and therapists have recognized the place of music for therapeutic and developmental functions. Over the last two decades, researches have made great advances in the theory of foreign language acquisition. Many find the didactic conjoining of language and music surprisingly convincing as there are numerous historical and developmental proofs of music's relationship with language learning. Language and music are the two ways that human beings use to communicate and express themselves through sound.

Studying profound and intense relations between language and music throughout history, we are bound arrive to the Greeks. Plato wrote that "musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul... making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful”. We should know that in the Ancient Greek culture, music implied language, Plato himself considering a tune without words a "sign of a want of true artistic taste." Language uniquely enabled the Greek listener to distinguish the exact character of the mood which the rhythm and tune is supposed to represent. Plato expected language in a musical context, but he did not write about the music inside language. For insight into this, one must look to the Greek myths. The word mousikas means "from the muses," and understanding the origins of the muses shows how they understood music's role in the development of linguistic genres, the three classical elements of mousikas being: melody (intonation), verse (words), and dance (body language). And in fact, today we recognize a meaningful communication as a multimodal construct, a large part of which is musical. In any oral interaction, only 15% of the information corresponds to verbal language, while 70% of the message is performed through body language and the final 15% belongs to intonation, the musical character of language. And because music and language share essential qualities of rhythm, pitch, timbre, and dynamics, methods for teaching each of them work surprisingly well together to teach them both.

Discourse intonation, the ordering of pitched sounds made by a human voice, is the first thing we learn when we are acquiring a language. Later on, it is through interaction that we learn the musicality of each language, necessary for successful communication.

A child can imitate the rhythm and musical contours of the language long before he can say the words. They notice the sound qualities of direction, frequency, intensity, duration, tempo, intonation, pitch, and rhythm. Musical aspects of language, tone, pauses, stress, and timbre are sonorous units into which phonemes, the consonant and vowel sounds of language, are later placed. Researchers have made several meaningful points regarding the competitive positions of language and music, in terms of brain structure and functioning. These abilities seem to be somewhat localized in the two temporal lobes, the left one being 90 percent better at recognizing words, and the right one about 20 percent better at recognizing melodic patterns. The terms right-brain and left-brain are regularly informally used to describe a continuum between tasks perceived as emotional and artistic and those understood as rational and scientific. It is possible however to create a link between the right brain’s processing of music and rhythm and the left brain’s processing of verbal information. High musical ability is common among multilingual individuals. Likewise, musical people have increased aptitude in foreign language learning due to an advanced ability in perceiving, processing, and closely reproducing accent. With this appreciation for the assistive place of music in the mind, we must acknowledge that music can more effectively awaken students to language learning and this has been proven by specific examples of ‘musical language teaching’. And here enters the musical-linguistic technique, which helps students develop intonation, rhythm, pitch and auditory memory and experience gains in comprehension of word stress, attention duration and anticipation of new text. To understand better how it works, one should recognize that to date eight distinct domains of intelligence have been discovered, including verbal-linguistic, mathematical-logical, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical-rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic. As we see, the linguistic and musical intelligences are separate, but if the two work together, the outcome is stronger because of the cooperation. In fact, language intonation relies heavily upon perception of musicality.

In the late 1970's, Suggestopedia, a method developed by Bulgarian psychotherapist G. Lozanov was in style in foreign language teaching. One of the primary activities was reading with music. Teachers would have their students listen and relax while they played music in the background and read from a foreign language text, using emphatic vocal articulation with Classical music such as Mozart, and normal articulation with Baroque music, such as J.S. Bach. Although this method was later almost abandoned and it significantly differs from the one we are suggesting here, it however shows that interconnections between the musical and linguistic areas enable music to assist in learning vocabulary and phrases, which tasks are governed by the linguistic intelligence. Music positively affects language accent, memory, and grammar as well as mood, enjoyment, and motivation. Language teachers and music therapists alike should encourage the conjoined study of these natural partners, because communicating through a musical medium benefits everyone. Thus, the musical-linguistic method opened new pathways in the brain, which provided a wider perception of incoming information, and even created more of a desire to communicate with and learn from others, specifically to improve communication. Using music in a language acquisition context generates interested students, but there are other effects, including higher vocabulary acquisition, a natural context for words, extra-linguistic clues to meaning and exaggerated prosody, all of which aid second language acquisition. Language teachers have much to gain from familiarizing themselves with the research literature related to educational uses of music and the effect of music on thought and behavior. Music's effect on language acquisition has also been proven in clinical studies by music therapists, who see similar results.

From my experience in teaching Music and in teaching English as a second language through music to children and to adults, I have reached certain conclusions which assist the further development of the method and its application in all levels of a foreign language teaching.


Working with children

Children are drawn to nursery rhymes, rhythmic activities, and songs as key texts in building concepts of reality. However, it seems that only enterprising teachers follow the methods suggested here in an institutional context. Certainly, the improvement of language teaching practice can be seen as the goal, in itself a substantive reason to explore and innovate.

Songs also promote the use of hand gestures, puppets, and rhythmic movement, and the format enables public performance. All of these encourage abilities that are not addressed in more traditional language teaching methods. In fact, this differs considerably from the current teaching practices used in most contexts, which insists that language is best taught through instruction in vocabulary and the rules to combine them. The efficacy of such instruction, though well thought of by most teachers because it is textbook driven and relatively easy to administer, is not very high. The musical method focuses on having fun with the language and letting words come in a more natural way, and as such has more in common with communicative language learning methodology, which utilizes social interaction, small groups, and peer discussion. Music can be integrated into a more true-to-life way of learning language. It assists learners not only with acquisition of vocabulary, but also mastery of language-relevant information. Benefits of using music in the early childhood language classroom are the result of the natural affinity of music to language. General classroom music activities that include singing and rhythm help enhance the development of auditory discrimination skills, including integration of letter sounds, syllabification, and pronunciation of words. Children pay close attention to subtle variations in tone and timing, which enables them to learn their language accent flawlessly.

Songs amplify important stress and duration elements, and intensify normal vocal contours in speech. In this way, music reproduces the way caregivers speak to their children, which has been shown to increase their understanding and acquisition of language. For this to work correctly, the phrase structure and musical structure must coincide, which does not always happen. It is thus important to choose well to songs to be used in the classroom. I have used some of the traditional children songs in English language, accompanied by illustrations and/or musical cartoon videos; others I’ve written and composed myself, in accordance with learning unit’s exigencies. As a basis for the compatibility of music and language - the 4-beat division of most songs coincides well with the linguistic foundation of binary alteration, or stressed and unstressed syllables. This matching of foundation units helps to increase memory for words and phrases when sung. Naturally, I always use very simple musical forms, which are easily learned by young children. Pairing words and rhythm properly helps to hold songs together, and to improve the ability of the mind to recall it. A small change in the alignment of words and music can make the difference between a memorable and a forgettable song, and determine the success or failure of learning and memorizing new linguistic information. Following the mnemonic principles, it is always good to use a song that rhymes. Using rhythm, rhyme, and categories to organize the information may simplify the learning of any new linguistic unit. Story-songs are also valuable because they use different words and phrase structures than standard speech, thus facilitating the memorization and illustrations or cartoons help to make these words comprehensible. It is very easy to prove. I have conducted an experiment, dividing the class into two groups, one group heard a story sung; another had it told to them. All of the participants reported enjoying song stories more than regular stories and only the ones in the “singing” group were able to reconstruct the story and remembered the words used. A lesson in which two groups of children learned a grammatical concept in English, one group using traditional methods and the other using songs, reported the same results. After 2 months, only the children who learned through song could remember the grammar rule. The singing children clearly continued to sing the song after the initial class, which repetition deep-rooted the concept along with the lyrics and melody.

Songs also give children knowledge of culture, improve their sensory awareness, encourage turn taking, and increase improvisation skills and the sociality of the group rises. Singing, chanting, or clapping in groups helps to reduce a child’s anxiety and increase their self-confidence. With these results, the musical enrichment of language teaching content becomes not an option, but a compelling next step in effectiveness. Music and language should be used together in the EFL (English as a Foreign Language) classroom. Verbal practice associated to musical information seems to be more memorable, foreign sounds paired with music are stored in long-term musical memory and accessible for mental rehearsal and memorization. Repetition is one of the basic ways the brain remembers material. This is why using a melodic approach works. Music and the musicality of language teaching provide a rich environment of sound and remove other auditory distractions. The musical-linguistic method enhances the learner's awareness of sounds, rhythms, pauses, and intonations and develops linguistic fluency through imitation and repetition.

Working with adults

Most young adults/adults who follow the EFL lessons are not complete beginners, meaning that they already have some prior knowledge of the language, whether they have acquired it through regular school education or through personal experience. Usually, adults begin the course either to prepare for exams in their regular school/university or for career progression, sometimes just for personal reasons. Most of the difficulties that students meet in the study of English are a consequence of the degree to which their native language differs from English, leading them to often produce errors of syntax and pronunciation or to assign grammatical patterns of their native language to English, pronounce certain sounds incorrectly or with difficulty and to confuse items of vocabulary known as false friends. Also, cultural differences in communication styles and preferences are significant. Naturally, students who do not excel with traditional delivery methods need to be addressed differently, but the proper nature of that instruction, whether it is musical, logical, or some other means may depend more upon the teacher’s individual abilities than student needs.

Music makes cultural ideas accessible to all students and increases the capacity of the working memory, while providing a structured context for long-term recall of words and phrases. It also creates good atmosphere in the classroom thus increasing the motivation. Students relate to songs and find learning vocabulary through songs interesting and amusing rather than tedious. Likewise, language students that lack familiarity with a target culture and have trouble expressing themselves can connect through the freeing influence of music. This is true especially with pop songs which are part of youth culture. These songs also tend to deal with problems interesting to students as they identify with the singers and want to understand the words. Didactically songs are also useful in teaching the rhythm and the musicality of the language and the atmosphere created by the music enhances the ability of the students to remember vocabulary words and thus shortens the study period. Folk music should also be considered worthwhile because, unlike all modern music, it always matches the prosody of the language. In order to experience a culture's unique heritage and identity in depth, this type of immersive environment is very healthy for language learning.

Of course, not everything is so simple. The major problems that teachers have with using songs in the classroom is the non-standard grammar in many of the songs and the ‘non-serious’ image of the pop songs. The first problem is that the non-standard grammar will confuse the foreign language students. The answer to this in current research is that not all songs are suitable for foreign language classes. It is thus crucial to do the research and to choose songs suitable for learners and using appropriate grammar patterns. However, we have to admit that non-standard grammar is fairly common in daily usage of most languages and the students also have to learn to deal with it in a language they learn. In the communicative method of language acquisition, students are encouraged to work into grammar intuitively, not by memorizing rules. Grammar drills have been discredited, and most teachers understand that the "structure of the day" methodology seldom teaches what it intends, because all students are at different levels of competence. This method seems to work well, however in certain cases, combining this method with the direct instruction in the patterns of the grammar is in order. Songs can be used as an introduction for the drill, or perhaps in place of the drill and students would have opportunity to learn patterns through memorizing the lyrics, perhaps without even noticing it. This hesitancy to abandon drills is one of the enigmas in language teaching even though they are proven to have poor results. In an interesting example of the issue, songs have actually helped pass grammar tests in class because students were able to easily recall passages from songs that demonstrated the correct answer. This method of auditory recall is crucial to language learning, and can be used to reinforce grammar concepts too complex for adult language learners to grasp in a few lessons.

Regarding the second problem, the teachers worry that their students will enjoy the music, but will actually learn less than by more traditional methods. This worry has been refuted by all the research done on the issue, dealing with different languages, different student populations and different levels of classes. The common agreement is that students learn the same amount of material by both methods. The main difference is that the students report the material learned through songs as much more memorable and long-lasting! Not to mention more enjoyable, as it enhances the motivation for learning.

Songs also help to establish the prosody of the language and to enable repetition of phrases in the classroom singing mode to further practice vocabulary. Students enjoyed the singing, and they were quite likely to rehearse it residually, adding to the language acquisition phenomenon, the involuntary rehearsal in a learner's mind of previously heard foreign language talk. The repeating of a song in one's head, usually occurring when audition is followed by relative quiet, enables involuntary inner vocalization of linguistic content, which then has the effect of deepening the memory traces of this content in the mind. Songs aid in all four major language-learning areas – in listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Presenting a new song to my class, a teacher should first play the song as students listen silently look at the words, then have students repeat the words without singing them. More advanced learners may listen without looking at words to later discuss what they have heard and understood. The teacher should then point out new vocabulary, idioms, grammar items, and give, if needed, pronunciation cues. Then play the song again, letting the students join in when they feel confident about singing along. The following step is to take students into a question-answer session with the teacher or other students, encouraging imitation, improving memory, and negotiating meaning. The advanced level requires students to write out a text with a musical representation of its rhythm, and perform it.

The results are astounding: all of the students report enjoying the lessons and being highly motivated for learning; music helps expand significantly the vocabulary in a short period of time and learn typical phrases, necessary for a meaningful communication; listening to songs and singing actually reduces the foreign-sounding accent; grammar patterns are more easily remembered and put to use; and students learn more about the sentence rhythm, pronunciation, tones and beat of the English language than they ever would if studying only by traditional methods. Furthermore, they can take the music with them and learn and practice it on the move. And it helps improve the mood!



Prof. Nina Feric

Castelraimondo (MC), Italy

Copyright © 2012

Written by Nina Feric for UsingEnglish.com

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