Can Music Really Improve Language Fluency? by Andrew Starck
It was near the end of a long school year and the beginning of a stifling tropical summer. The venue was Pingtung University and its beautiful campus which lies near the scenic southern tip of Taiwan. I was there to present a workshop with the rather prosaic title, Ideas for the use of songs in the language classroom. The audience comprised mainly of teachers ranging from elementary school all the way up to university level. I knew the material well, having had good results on several classes of my own students. I was well prepared with lots of handouts and activities for the audience to engage in. The music and videos ranging from Imagine by John Lennon to Smile by Lily Allen were on memory sticks ready to play. What could possibly go wrong? I soon found out nearly everything, as at first a complete lack of sound then as technicians were trying to fix that a glitch in the computers. All the preparation I’d put in seemed to be rapidly flowing down the drain.
I was expecting moans and complaints, instead the audience reaction completely took me aback; their enthusiastic response to the activities obviously bubbled over to their curiosity during question time: “Can you suggest songs to teach language in elementary school?” “Can songs be adapted for teaching literature?” “Do you use them for teaching other languages?” The quiz on the Beatles followed up by the race to piece together the lyrics of Imagine seemed to have gelled with them. It was in the middle of doing this that one of the teachers suggested I sing Imagine to them….so they could listen to the lyrics. A great idea, but he had never heard my singing voice; it did however give me the inspiration to break many a teachers’ rule of using smart phones in the classroom and mine had just enough volume for them all to hear. Despite what could have been a complete disaster I came away realizing not only how many teachers really knew so little about the variety of ways songs and music can be utilized in the language classroom but how much they enjoyed engaging with them and their enthusiastic desire to learn more.
As I began to wonder more about songs, music, their use and benefits, I remembered a very soft spoken but popular teacher I had worked with in a language school years before, who used to play a piece of music at the beginning of every class he taught, be it writing, reading, grammar or conversation. Thinking about the positive reactions he achieved, brought to mind the “Mozart effect”, where listening to Mozart is supposed to show clear improvements in intelligence and spatial awareness. Claudia Hammond writing for BBC future, questioned this hypothesis as it had originally only been tried out on a small group of adults. She cites a more recent study carried out in Britain involving eight thousand children. The children were broken up into groups, one listening to Mozart, one a discussion of the experiment and the third group listening to some contemporary pop songs. As Claudia Hammond’s response reveals, “but this time it wasn’t a Mozart effect, but a Blur effect. The children who listened to Mozart did well but with pop music they did even better…” Does this mean we should all become Blur fans? It could help, unless of course other contemporary bands are more to your liking.
Having spent half the summer with a seven year old nephew, whose obsession with Luis Fonsi’s Despacito was driving his twin sister up the wall, I soon realized Max had developed a perfect Spanish accent, something my struggles with the language over many years have yet to yield. It would be great to go back to being seven and start all over with language learning. If only! Feeling somewhat disconsolate, I was given hope for adult learning, when finding out I share a passion with Maureen Stimola who enthuses in, The Dynamic Duo: Music and Language Learning Join Forces “I boosted my Spanish to fluency by listening to Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony and Shakira at full blast.” And like so many things in life Maureen wishes, “If only I knew sooner just how scientific my off-key singing and salsa dancing actually is!”
In her article Stimola reveals the psychological research of Dr. Roediger who has devoted his life to the study of memory and music. He turns learning upside down with his point, “…that it isn’t getting information into your brain so much as it is getting information out.” This is where music comes to the fore as Maureen asks: “Have you ever spent a huge chunk of time cramming vocabulary or grammar, only to struggle with recalling what you just taught yourself?” We all know this can be a big frustration for most language learners. Dr. Roediger has proved music really does aid in this process. His research has even led to many medical professionals using music as therapy for elderly patients with Alzheimer’s dementia and other degenerative memory loss conditions. “Songs help them unlock long lost memories from damaged parts of the brain.”
So back to quantum physics and the underlying structure of matter, or the even more brain taxing task of second language acquisition, as it often appears to the exasperated learner or weary teacher. Don’t fret, further hope for adult learners is uncovered by Richard Gray, science correspondent for the Telegraph who relates, “Research from the University of Edinburgh found that adults who sang words or short phrases from a foreign language while learning were twice as good at speaking it later.” Gray’s article goes on to mention a further study in the Hungarian language. When the words were sung or spoken rhythmically the participants scored much higher in both short term and long term memory tests than those just listening to normal speech. One of the researchers Dr. Ludke said the findings could benefit those struggling to learn a foreign language and “It opens the door to future research in this area. One question is whether melody could provide an extra cue to jog people’s memory, helping them recall foreign words and phrases more easily.”
For over two years one of my favorite courses I taught was called, English Songs. Having long five month semesters I developed the course to cover a brief history of music from the early fifties when popular black music of the time was crossing the race barrier to be taken up by white audiences before it later became mainstream. It was fun teaching the different genres from Ska to Hip Hop, Blues to Soul and how modern R&B differs from that of the forties. I’m always taken aback by how few Taiwanese know of legends like Bob Marley, but also pleasantly surprised when they bring in their own favorites in presentations like Miss Ko, who’s talent traverses race, language and genres. It was sad when the course came to a sudden end. The powers to be didn’t seem to think it ranked as high in importance as formal courses like pronunciation, listening or grammar. What they failed to take into account is, it not only encompasses these individual skills but because of its universal appeal, participant enjoyment and as the research proves, far surpasses them.
The good news for all language learners is they don’t have to do the impossible and go back to being seven years old all over again. Depending on which language they are learning, or you are instructing, play Shakira, Blur, the Beatles or Miss Ko. If you want to really challenge their vocabulary, Where is the Love by the Black Eyed Peas or Bob Marley’s Redemption Song, will do the trick. Both can lead on to great discussions about respect, slavery or mental emancipation. I hope to bring a bit more mental emancipation into my students’ minds in the upcoming semester. I am going to take a leaf out of my ex-colleague’s book and incorporate much more music into my classes. If the Edinburgh University research is so accurate, before long my students who are listening and singing along to all the song lyrics will be twice as good as their peers at English. I just hope their singing voices are twice as good as their teacher’s.
First published in The Teacher magaznine no. 12(154)2017, pp. 17-19.