Friday, August 16, 2013

Music as a Tool for Language Acquisition

Music is a powerful tool in a language class. It can act as an alternative to normal listening activities, it can create a cultural reference, and can increase understanding of intonation. Music is not only related to language, music is fundamental to the development of language skills. There are many ways to use music in the classroom, from ambient noise to focused learning activities, all of which will be highly beneficial to the language student.
The use of music for auditory activities in a language classroom should be selected based on the students need for vocabulary development, comprehension skills, “real use” language development, or rapid recall. Music addresses all of these areas of language development. Better learning from students can be achieved by selecting music based on students need, level, cultural familiarity, and musical preference. The song “Yesterday” by The Beatles is an excellent song for comparing past and present tense. Because “Yesterday” is well articulated, a natural tempo, short and repetitive students will not be overwhelmed, especially those new to past and present tense grammar. The grammar in “Yesterday” is very simple, and using the song will build students confidence for real world use.
Music is not only useful as a conscious activity, such as a transcription practice, studies have shown that by removing a student from associations to their native culture they become more adept at learning the foreign language (Yirka, 2013). Music is culturally specific, and so its use is beneficial in a classroom both as a planned activity, and as ambiance during other parts of a class.  Music unfamiliar to the student or music strongly associated with the culture of the target language should be used frequently in the classroom in order to establish a synthetic cultural association for the duration of class. Jazz, for example, is often culturally associated with America, so its use to establish an English language zone as the student enter the classroom is highly appropriate.
The use of music for achieving fluency in a foreign language is crucial. “In any oral interaction only 15% of the information corresponds to verbal language, while 70% of the message is performed through body language; the final 15% belongs to intonation, the musical character of language” (Mora 2000).  A person foreign to the target language will be able to gain an understanding of intonation both by contrast to the normal spoken intonation of the target language, and by contrast to musical intonation in the student’s mother tongue. Specific to Spanish speakers learning English will be the task of familiarizing them with the concept of rhyming in music in poetry. Pronunciation of rhyming sounds that have different spelling, such as through, few, flu, and blue, can be efficaciously addressed through music. Addressing the purpose and effect of rhyming words in English will help students understand the effect an author or writer is trying to achieve, and will allow the students to better understand the work.
Music and language are often said to develop through similar pathways in the brain. “Spoken language is a special type of music… Language is typically viewed as fundamental to human intelligence, and music is often treated as being dependent on or derived from language. But from a developmental perspective, we argue that music comes first and language arises from music" Anthony Brandt (Rice 2012). When learning a first language, an understanding of the tones, rhythm, and timbre is established before all other aspects of language, all of which are musical qualities of the language. Infants learn about their language well before being able to verbalize (Kopko). When developing skills in a second language this same principle applies, and can be reinforced throughout the learning period of a language through music. Students should be encouraged to listen to music in the target language during free time outside of class, especially if they are very new to the language because it will allow them to develop a more natural accent in the language (Singleton & Zesolt, 1995).
Language and music are deeply interconnected. Lyrics are useful for vocabulary, and real world usage. Lyrical lines are useful for sound units within words, intonation, and word flow. Melody and style are useful for cultural reference. Fluency in a foreign language requires an understanding of flow, intonation, articulation, and timbre, all of which are musical qualities of the language. Music is a crucial element of the language learning process for those that wish to achieve a mastery of their new language.

Kopko, K. (n.d.). Research sheds light on how babies learn and develop language. Department of Human Development, Cornell University, Retrieved from
Mora, C. (2000). Foreign language acquisition and melody singing . ELT Journal, 54(2), 146-152. doi:
Rice University (2012, September 18). Music underlies language acquisition, theorists propose. Science Daily. Retrieved August 9, 2013, from­ /releases/2012/09/120918185629.htm
Singleton, D., & Zesolt, L. (1995). The age factor in second language acquisition. Bristol, PA: Multilingual Matters.
Yirka, B. (2013). Study shows cultural images may hinder proficiency in second language skills. Medical Press, Retrieved from

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