Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Learning a Second Language through Music

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Learning a Second Language through Music

Article excerpt


Music offers students a unique and exciting opportunity both to explore the language and culture of a foreign country and to cultivate their listening skills. Songs remain, however, an irregular feature of most foreign language courses and, when included in the syllabus, fail to appear on a regular basis. This article discusses the theoretical and practical reasons for making music a weekly, or preferably daily, feature of foreign language teaching. The author provides ten tips for successfully integrating music into the classroom and outlines a series of sample activities for the study of a song.


To this day, I can hear the warm voice of a young South-American singer resonating in my head: "ojala," he sings, "ojala que llueva cafe" (how I wish, how I wish it would rain coffee). I vividly recall the melody, although I heard it only three times in a classroom. And because of that song, I will never forget that "ojala," in Spanish, must be followed by the subjunctive. Every time I think of the subjunctive, the voice of the singer is there, cheery, enticing, brimming with enthusiasm. I cannot remember who he is, yet I will be forever grateful to him. Thanks to his song, I associate a complex grammatical structure, feared by many students, with upbeat music and the smell of roasting coffee beans. Furthermore, the song taught me how the coffee bean trade for years formed the basis of the economy of many South-American countries. The lyrics of the song resonate with the desire and hope for a better world, a better life--a place where coffee beans rain down like manna on the plains, or, for the more material-minded (as one student in the class pointed out), like dollar bills and nuggets of gold. Suffice to say that coffee has never looked the same.

Yet despite the profound impact of that song on my own language learning, music was never a regular feature of the many language (French, Spanish, German or Japanese) courses I took in school. Indeed, songs rarely appeared in the curriculum, especially after the first year. My own very positive memories of those rare occasions have since led me actively to include songs in my own first- and second-year college French courses. In this article, I take both a theoretical and practical approach to the process of learning a foreign language through music. I first provide a brief summary of pedagogical reasons for including songs as a regular part of second-language (L2) acquisition. The second part of the discussion is given over to some caveats for making the most of music in the classroom. I conclude by outlining some sample activities for the study of a song.

Reasons for Integrating Music into L2 Courses

There are many reasons for making music a regular feature of L2 courses. Recent research has shown that adults spend 40-50% of their time listening, compared to 1116% of their time reading (Iskold 86). Although producing meaningful speech is a central aspect of L2 acquisition, learning actively to listen is an equally essential and closely-related skill to be encouraged in all students of foreign languages (Rivers 196, Omaggio Hadley 5-6, Lund 201). This is especially true of methods centered on a communicative or proficiency-based form of instruction (Canale and Swain 10).

K. J. Fickert pointed out many years ago that a German or French language course must not be a "how-to-speak" workshop (159-60). Despite the healthy growth of study-abroad programs and the development of the international travel industry, still a large percentage of students pursuing the language requirement will encounter the foreign language rarely, if at all, once the classroom is left behind. And even for those who do, "French for travel" cannot be the leading goal of the college classroom (nor should it be). Foreign languages figure in core curricula across the United States for more compelling reasons: they provide students with an opportunity to confront a world that is other. …

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