Music in the World Language Classroom

Improving Language Acquistion & Learning via Music

Tips for using music in the world language classroom.

April 8, 2014

To many people across the globe, music is an important part of everyday life. Whether Flamenco in Sevilla, opera in Milan, techno in Munich or American pop in Los Angeles, music brings people together and helps define unique cultures.

In addition to its cultural importance, many studies have found that music plays a key role in early language acquisition and can also help boost language learning. Neurologists have found that musical and language processing occurs in the same area of the brain, and there appear to be parallels in how musical and linguistic syntax are processed (Maess & Koelsch, 2001).

Inside the classroom, music can be a great way to motivate students of all levels to learn new world languages and help them practice grammar, retain vocabulary and improve pronunciation.

The benefits of using music as a tool for second language acquisition are extensive. First and foremost, songs teach linguistic elements, such as vocabulary, grammar and syntax. Through learning lyrics, students’ vocabulary can quickly become more advanced, and singing phrases can lead to better vocabulary recall. Songs can also prove helpful in learning paralinguistic and extra linguistic elements, including accents and tones, helping to improve pronunciation and comprehension of the language.

Most importantly, music helps connect students with new cultures and opens up a whole new world, just one of the reasons why songs are an important element of teaching world languages. They are an infinite number of songs that discuss culturally relevant topics, such as human relations, ethics, customs, history and humor, as well as regional and cultural differences. These songs can help teach language and culture simultaneously.

Here are just a few ways music can benefit your students in world language learning:

  • Songs often use a conversational tone, including day-to-day vocabulary and lots of personal pronouns
  • Lyrics are often repetitive, which help students understand the global comprehension of the oral text
  • The rhythm, as well as the repetition in songs, help reinforce vocabulary, as well as some grammatical structures, without rote memorization
  • Songs are open to discussion and to several interpretations, which can serve as conversation-starters (in language of course!)
  • Rhythmic elements could help reinforce the prosody of the target language

How do you select the right song?

Below is a list of criteria to help you select the perfect song for your lesson:

  • The lyrics should be clear and loud, not overpowered by the instrumental music.  This aids in auditory memorization.
  • The lyric vocabulary should be appropriate to the proficiency level. For example, Amadou et Mariam’s “ Pauvre type” is perfect for the beginners because of its repetition and simple vocabulary. On the other hand, any song by Grand Corps Malade with its fast pace and lack of repetition could prove troublesome for novice students.
  • All songs should be pre-screened for potentially problematic content including explicit language, references to violence, etc. A good rule of thumb is to refer to the Parental Advisory notifications

How should you plan your activities with a given song?

Whether experts agree on the Learning Pyramid’s benefits (image below), one single fact remains true: the more involved a student is in his learning, the better he performs. Songs are the perfect vehicle for that. If a student “adopts a song”, he will bring it home, make it his own and share it with others.

Songs should be used more often in the foreign language classroom as they are a great vehicle to not only get students more engaged in their learning, but also motivate them to practice the language outside of the classroom.

In my next blog post, I will be compiling my favorite Francophone playlists for elementary school students, middle school classes and high school language learners, so be sure to check back often. In the meantime, here is a fun little questionnaire that can help you connect and kick-off the music conversation with your students.

  • Which popular R&B and hip-hop singer is from Senegal?
  • Which famous French producer and disc jockey has performed with Lady Gaga and Rihanna?
  • Which famous electronic French group just won a Grammy this year?

Photo courtesy of Johnny Lai

Barbara Sicot
A native French speaker, Barbara Sicot has been a member of the French faculty at Middlebury College's Language Schools for 16 years and now brings her expertise in world language curriculum development to Middlebury Interactive. She is an avid cook (madeleines and flamiche are her specialties!), passionate about teaching and, once-upon-a-time, was admitted to the Paris Ballet opera.
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