If you have taught French or Spanish or English in a school setting, you no doubt have a handful of songs such as “Sur le pont d’Avignon,” “La Cucaracha,” or the “Hokey Pokey” that you like to use in your lessons. Variations of such songs exist in many languages and are widely used by language teachers around the world. What you may not know is that there is a growing body of research that suggests that activities such as singing, dancing and musical games are more than simply a pleasant way of learning vocabulary. In fact, they are a powerful cognitive tool in language learning, whether that language is French, English, Mandarin or Ojibway.
THE BIG PICTURE
Music and language are present in every culture in the world; in fact, language ability is one of the things that make us human, as is the ability and desire to make music. The details of evolutionary anthropology are still being debated, but one popular theory holds that humans first developed a sung form of communication which, over the millennia, developed into the more nuanced and complex form that we know of today as speech. As a result of this co-evolution, music and language today have a complex, overlapping relationship both in our brains and in our lives.
Given this ancient link, it is not surprising that music and language share many features. Both serve to convey a message and involve the production and comprehension of sounds. Their building blocks consist of intrinsic elements such as pitch, volume, timbre, stress and pauses. Moreover, both music and language are learned primarily through exposure and exchange with other humans.
“We learn a language through its song” – Wynton Marsalis
In our first language, this happens almost without effort. Human infants learn the musical aspects of their language long before they are able to produce them. Children, who have two years of active listening before they are expected to be able to speak, can be heard singing the language before they are able to connect vowels with consonants to form comprehensible words. In their early years, children use the musical quality of language to understand the adults around them, aided by their parents who speak to their babies in a modified form of speech characterized by higher pitch, more animated facial expressions, and physical interaction with the child. This child-directed speech known as “motherese” is present in all languages and is surprisingly similar across cultures.
MUSICAL SKILLS / LANGUAGE SKILLS
In an impressive work entitled “Music, Language and the Brain,” Aniruddh Patel lays out the deep and critical connections between music and language. He synthesizes current research by looking at shared features, including sound elements (pitch and timbre), rhythm (patterns of stress and timing), melody (intonation), and syntax (harmony). From this and other works exploring these connections, we learn that the skills required to be a musician overlap significantly with language-learning skills. Both endeavours require intensive listening, fine-tuned sound production, imitation, pattern recognition and improvisation. Moreover, they involve engagement in communal actions; both musicians and speakers engage with others who listen to or converse with them.
One factor not often recognized is the element of performance involved in language learning. Speaking a new language can be a terrifying prospect and can bring out the shy side of the most outgoing person. Someone learning to speak Tsimshian or Hindi must set aside the comfort that they have speaking their first language and embark on unsteady waters. Nobody wants to “look stupid,” but in order to learn, it is essential to take chances and to make errors. This is something that musicians deal with on an ongoing basis—how to work through mistakes, learn from them, and incorporate the new knowledge into their skill set. It is perhaps not surprising then, that musicians appear to have enhanced abilities in second language learning and that singers have been found to be better than instrumentalists at reproducing a learned accent.
PROSODY – THE MELODY OF LANGUAGE
Unique to each language and to local variants of that language is an ensemble of powerful rhythmic and melodic characteristics known as prosody. These include intonation, rhythm, phrasing and dynamics which, in combination, overlay the production of vowels and consonants. Far from being simply a pleasant addition to vocabulary and syntax, correct production of the prosody of the target language is essential to successful communication.
In our first language, these musical characteristics are easily learned, but are notoriously difficult to unlearn when moving on to second and subsequent languages. Most often, the prosodic habits of our first language follow us like a finger print, resulting in the accent that most second language learners retain for the rest of their lives. The learner’s challenge is first to detect the unique melody and rhythm of the target language and then to find a way to accurately reproduce it. It appears that musical skills and experience can be a big help in this regard.
MUSIC IN THE LANGUAGE CLASSROOM
According to a growing body of research in neuroscience, linguistics and education, teachers can be confident that there are solid linguistic, cognitive, cultural and affective reasons for using musical activities in the classroom. Songs are an ideal form of oral and written text—short, pleasant and culturally relevant—and they contain genuine language which offers an alternative to “teacher talk.” Songs lyrics can be found that are poetic, humorous, rude or whimsical in many different levels of formality. Sung lyrics are connected, reduced, rhythmic and accentuated in a manner similar to natural speech. When we sing, we learn in chunks, reproducing phrases orally even before they are completely understood, much the same way that infants do. As an added benefit, singing requires less cognitive energy to produce—since students don’t have to struggle to compose a message, they can relax and concentrate on producing the sounds along with the singer. Later, vocal facility gained through singing can be used as a template for communicative activities.
Repetition is an intrinsic part of music, making it particularly useful when learning a second language. Many songs have a verse-chorus form with rhyming patterns and a chorus which is repeated several times. Children love to sing songs over and over again, and this tendency does not disappear as we age. Teenagers are powerfully attracted to the current hits which they listen to “en boucle” and sing with their friends. The popularity of music channels such as “Hits of the 90s,” “Franco Rétro” and “Best of Bollywood” suggest that even adults like to hear songs that they recognize, often so that they can sing along.
Consider the following phrases from popular songs in English, French and Spanish:
‘Cuz I’m happy – from “Happy” by Pharrell Williams
Papa où t’es? – from “Papaoutai” by Stromae
Ya no puede caminar – from “La Cucaracha”
These are all phrases that could conceivably occur in natural language, but it is highly unlikely that any of them would appear in a traditional grammar lesson. It is even harder to imagine students repeating such phrases in the classroom often enough to fully internalize them. However, in the context of a song, it doesn’t feel like repetition. Carried away by an infectious rhythm, we happily sing along and probably end up dancing as well. Later, the song may become an earworm, repeating in our head for some more “free” practice. All of this repetition contributes to the retention of vocabulary and familiarization with idiomatic expressions. Further, through repeated listening and singing, we are unconsciously internalizing the rhythm of the language, which helps develop fluency and automaticity.
PLEASURE AND CULTURE
In addition to all of the linguistic and cognitive benefits already mentioned, music brings many non-linguistic side-benefits to second language learning. The well-known mood-altering effects of music can be exploited by the teacher to energize or calm down a class, to intrigue students or to challenge them to see the world in a new way. Music can be a playful tool in reducing the anxiety that language learners often feel, and the connection to students’ personal lives through their music can also provide added motivation. Further, music is a natural way to integrate cultural scenarios and to encourage students to feel a sense of connection to their new language.
Most of the children I have met over the years are happiest when they are moving, and research confirms this: kinesthetic teaching increases student engagement, focus and retention. Musical activities often incorporate movement through gestures, clapping to the music, playing an instrument or dancing. More specifically, gestures and other forms of enactment have been shown to contribute to greater vocabulary retention.
Last but certainly not least, music is pleasurable. People of all ages enjoy music and welcome it as a change from more traditional lessons. It feels good to sing, especially when the experience is non-judgmental and shared with others. Music can calm us, make us feel homesick, pensive or animated, and contribute to group cohesion. When learners are relaxed and smiling, they are more open to new information and are more willing to take risks.
As a life-long musician, I have always known first-hand the power of music, for my students, my audiences and for myself. As I work towards my own bilingualism, songs have been my constant companion and, I believe, have been integral to my growth as a fluent French speaker. As I am also someone with an academic curiosity, it is satisfying to have this confirmed by solid research. When we understand all that music and language have in common and the ways in which musical elements contribute to human communication, the idea of studying a language with the help of music and song begins to seem a logical and commendable way to approach second language learning.
Chobert, J., & Besson, M. (2013). Musical expertise and second language learning. Brain Sciences (2076-3425), 3(2), 923-940. doi: 10.3390/brainsci3020923
Christiner, M., & Reiterer, S. M. (2015). A Mozart is not a Pavarotti: singers outperform instrumentalists on foreign accent imitation. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 482. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00482
Hannaford, C. (2005). Smart moves : why learning is not all in your head. Salt Lake City, Utah: Great River Books.
Levitin, D. J. (2006). This is your brain on music. New York: N.Y. – Dutton
Macedonia, M., & Knosche, T. R. (2011). Body in Mind: How Gestures Empower Foreign Language Learning. Mind, Brain, and Education, 5(4), 196-211.
Patel, A. D. (2008). Music, language, and the brain. New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.
Proulx, M. D. (2014). Pourquoi la musique? Son importance dans la vie des enfants: Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Marian Rose is a musician, writer and folk dance specialist who completed an MA in linguistics in Quebec, researching the use of music to teach second languages. She recently published a bilingual resource for French immersion entitled Chantons, dansons : Songs, Games and Dances for Learners of French. This, along with her Step Lively dance series, is available on her website www.marianrose.com.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2018 issue.