When I started volunteering to teach English as a Second Language and literacy skills at the Aguilar branch of the New York Public Library in 2004, I soon began using songs in my lessons. In part, I wanted to enable my students to practice with authentic English language materials outside of class in an enjoyable way. But I also thought songs might help them better hear the pronunciation, rhythm and stress patterns of English, which they often struggled with when speaking. Based on my observations over time, singing English songs did seem to help. This experience inspired me to pursue this question further and in 2005 I went to the University of Edinburgh to conduct research on the effects of listening to songs and singing in foreign language learning.
Of course, many teachers believe that listening to songs in a new language can support a range of linguistic skills, but at present there isn’t a great deal of strong research evidence to support the many claims that have been put forward. A few reasons to include songs in the foreign language classroom include cognitive effects, such as improved long-term recognition and recall, which has been shown for verbal memory in the native language (Tillmann and Dowling, 2007; Calvert and Tart, 1993), as well as positive effects on mood (Schön et al., 2008) and potential overlaps in the neural processing of music and language (Patel, 2011).
What do we know about whether singing songs can improve pronunciation in a new language? Research has shown that musical training leads to better imitation of phrases in a new language (Christiner and Reiterer, 2013; Pastuszek-Lipinska, 2008) and that people who have stronger musical skills also tend to have more native-like pronunciation abilities in their non-native languages, as shown by Slevc and Miyake (2006) for learners of English.
Moving beyond studies showing correlations between musical skills and foreign language skills, how does hearing new words and phrases through songs affect the language learning process? One interesting conference paper (Fomina, 2000) reported the finding that adult English learners who were taught songs over a period of several weeks tended to transfer the melody of the song lyrics they had heard to their spoken intonation of the same phrases. My own recent paper with Fernanda Ferreira and Katie Overy showed that a “listen-and-repeat” singing method to learn Hungarian phrases was more effective than a “listen-and-repeat” speaking or rhythmic speaking method, particularly for performance on tasks that required learners to say entire phrases in the new language. Another study (Milovanov et al., 2010) investigated Finnish adults’ English pronunciation skills and found that those with musical training (choir members) had improved English phoneme production compared to a non-musical and an English specialist group, but perceptual discrimination abilities were similar for all three groups.
Although imitation is an important aspect of learning a new language, it can be difficult to directly transfer the sounds you hear in a listening comprehension task to your speaking skills. If you try to learn a spoken dialogue through a listen-and-repeat method and read the words at the same time as attempting to say them, it may change the way in which you listen to the pronunciation and imitate it. The reason is that, when reading, there’s a natural tendency to pronounce new sounds in a way similar to your native pronunciation, or to use an intermediate vowel or consonant sound that falls in between your native and non-native languages, which can lead to having a noticeable “accent” in the new language. For example, for the Spanish word le – even if you’re hearing /le/ spoken at the same time, reading the spelling of that word might result in an English speaker approximating the sound more like [leɪ] or [lε].
For this reason, some music teachers and choir directors will teach a foreign language song using a call-and-response technique, rather than hand out the written words, until the group is able to sing it through with correct pronunciation. Otherwise, there’s a danger that the written words will be encoded into memory more like the group’s native language sounds, rather than as they should be sung in that language.
In the language classroom, songs can provide an excellent opportunity to practice pronunciation, intonation, and fluent, connected speech. Song lyrics generally present words at half the pace of spoken material (Murphey, 1990). Combining this slower pace with the fact that many song melodies follow the natural intonation pattern of the language, well chosen songs can teach foreign language prosody and pronunciation without any “repeat after me” drills.
For the purposes of pronunciation practice, I believe it’s important to choose songs which do not have a very difficult melody or rhythm and in which the lyrics aren’t presented too quickly. While it can be a fun challenge to sing a more complex or linguistically advanced song with certain groups of students, it’s important not to choose songs that are so difficult they cause frustration. Start with easy songs and build up to more challenging materials if the group is enthusiastic. Some students (especially younger learners) may enjoy moving and dancing to the song, and some teachers have found it helpful to coordinate movements and gestures with the words of a song or story. If learners are particularly keen, small groups can be asked to create a simple song-and-dance routine for homework, which they can present to the class or even teach to the rest of the students. In addition, Wendy Maxwell has created a method called AIM Language Learning, after she found that coordinating gestures with words in a song or story dramatically improved her students’ memory for the words and their ability to express themselves in the new language.
If you’re curious about this topic, these online resources and books have more information.
Karen M. Ludke is currently working at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, as a Postdoctoral Fellow on the Advancing Interdisciplinary Research in Singing collaboration led by Annabel J. Cohen. You can follow her on Twitter @KarenMLudke, to hear about other upcoming articles about singing and language learning, or visit her website for educational resources that are available for download.
© Karen M. Ludke 2014
Next post: Translators and multilinguals. Saturday 31st May 2014.