Photo credit by Lower Columbia College
Learning a second language is a challenging and often frustrating experience. While countless studies have shown a link between music and language acquisition, many teachers still do not utilize music in the ESL classroom. Perhaps they believe something that sounds so fun cannot possibly be educational. However, there are many reasons to consider introducing music into a language learning course.
There's more to language than grammar and vocabulary. To truly understand and be understood, a student must master the flow, rhythm, accent, and intonation of a foreign language. Do these terms sound familiar? They also happen to be musical concepts. The study of music is very similar to language study: oral concepts are introduced first, including listening and audible performance, followed by reading and writing skills. Also, next to language, music is the best way to understand people and their culture.
But how can music help with language acquisition? To answer this, think about how many times you've had a catchy song stuck in your head, replaying over and over again. Music has been proven to reinforce both long-term and short-term memory. Why shouldn't students use it to increase their chances of remembering vocabulary or grammar rules?
Songs are fun way to reinforce pronunciation, as they are naturally repetitive (necessary in language acquisition) without droning. They are also great for introducing new vocabulary words, as well as reviewing old words in context. If a student can associate a new concept like pronunciation or sentence structure with a song, they are more likely to remember by association later. For those too intimidated by singing, even having specific instrumental music playing in the background during an activity consistently can help increase retention.
Opponents have pointed out that this could be detrimental, as songs are often filled with slang and bad grammar. Unfortunately, so is life! The goal of most language students isn't to write a grammatically perfect treatise...they want to communicate in real situations! Of course, this doesn't mean students shouldn't learn how to speak correctly. But speaking correctly does one little good when they can't understand the other half of the conversation. For the teacher, slang and grammatical errors in songs provides a fun and educational activity; have the students identify the slang and mistakes and discuss why they were made, and what they mean. This adds an authenticity to the lesson that is too often lost in institutionalized language study.
Listening skills are crucial in the study of both music and language, and mastering one will almost always benefit the other. For example, a music student must be able to listen to a note and hear whether or not it is in tune, or play in harmony with another instrument and use their ears to judge tonality and adjust accordingly. Likewise, a foreign language is always full of new sounds and subtle nuances that our native language doesn't use. A trained musical ear will undoubtedly pick up on these faster than others. Also, despite months of study, trying out a new language in real life can be intimidating. But public performances and evaluation are a regular part of music study. A student that has overcome this initial shyness thanks to music will be less inhibited speaking their second language outside of the classroom.
It has often been said that music is a universal language. Certainly, it will be familiar to any new foreign language student. Using music in the classroom as an aid for language acquisition will help students feel relaxed and comfortable, and in this state they will be more likely to grasp new concepts.