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Using Music to Enhance Second Language Acquisition: From Theory to Practice

This article appeared in Lalas, J. & Lee, S. (2002). Language, Literacy, and Academic Development for English language Learners. Pearson Educational Publishing. Suzanne L. Medina, Ph.D. Professor of Graduate Education California State University, Dominguez Hills E-Mail: Music is frequently used by teachers to help second language learners acquire a second language. This is not surprising since the literature abounds with the positive statements regarding the efficacy of music as a vehicle for first and second language acquisition. It has been reported to help second language learners acquire vocabulary and grammar, improve spelling and develop the linguistic skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening (Jalongo and Bromley, 1984, McCarthey, 1985; Martin, 1983, Mitchell, 1983, Jolly, 1975). According to educators of second language learners, music is advantageous for still other reasons. First, for most students, singing songs and listening to music are enjoyable experiences. The experience is so pleasurable that it is not uncommon for students to pester their teacher so that they can sing again and again. Also, as students repeatedly sing songs, their confidence level rises. Furthermore, by engaging in a pleasurable experience, learners are relaxed and their inhibitions about acquiring a second language are lessened. Yet, while they are more relaxed, they are also more attentive than usual, and therefore, more receptive to learning. Through songs, students are exposed to authentic examples of the second language. Furthermore, target vocabulary, grammar, routines and patterns are modeled in context. These are but a few of the benefits associated with music use in the second language classroom.

THEORETICAL SUPPORT FOR THE USE OF MUSIC IN THE SECOND LANGUAGE CLASSROOM There is theoretical support for its use in the second language classroom as well. In this section we will discuss two theories which are most directly related to music and second language learning. These come from the fields of linguistics an psychology respectively. Krashens Second Language Hypotheses One linguistic theoretical orientation, nativism explains second language in purely biological terms. According to this perspective, human beings biologically pre-wired to process and therefore acquire language, be it first or second language. Noam Chomsky (1965), most widely known nativist, claims that a learners input from the environment is insufficient to account for the speed with which individuals acquire language. Instead, he posits that humans are born with knowledge which predisposes them to acquire language. This knowledge is what allows the learner to structure any language and acquire it. Following in the nativist tradition is the work of Stephen Krashen (1982) . Of Krashens five hypotheses, the best known and frequently referred to are the Input and Affective filter hypotheses. According to Krashens Input Hypothesis, new, unfamiliar vocabulary is acquired when its significance is made clear to the learner. Meaning is conveyed by providing extralinguistic support such as illustrations, actions, photos, and realia. This in turn results in what Krashen refers to as "comprehensible input" since the linguistic input is made comprehensible to the second language learner. Krashen further claims that the amount of comprehensible input is proportionate to the amount of vocabulary acquired. Thus, according to Krashen (1989), vocabulary is incidentally acquired through stories because (1) familiar vocabulary and syntax contained in the stories provide meaning to less familiar vocabulary, and (2) picture illustrations clarify the meaning of unfamiliar words. There is evidence that picture illustrations succeed at supporting the reading process by clarifying the meaning of incoming verbal information (Hudson, 1982; Omaggio, 1979; Mueller, 1980; Bradsford and Johnson, 1972). In short, meaning is critical to the acquisition of second language vocabulary.

Music use in the second language classroom is consistent with both of Krashens hypotheses. When second language learners hear story songs that is, stories which have been set to music, it is possible to similarly acquire vocabulary. As in the case of orally-read stories, story songs which are presented with picture illustrations, photos or gestures provide the necessary extralinguistic support which results in language acquisition. Furthermore, because of the positive effects which music has upon second language learners, story songs may motivate and captivates the attention of second language learners in ways that oral stories cannot. Krashens second hypothesis, the Affective Filter hypothesis, is also tied to music use in the second language classroom. According to this hypothesis, the extent to which linguistic input is received from the environment depends largely upon the learners affect, that is his inner feelings and attitude. Negative emotions, functioning much like a filter, can prevent the learner from making total use of the linguistic input from his environment. Therefore, if he is anxious, unmotivated, or simply lacks confidence, language acquisition will be limited It is therefore, in the interest of the second language teacher to provide an environment which evokes positive emotions. Music does precisely that. Whether learners simply listen to instrumental music, vocals in the target language, or sing in unison, it is a pleasurable experience. Furthermore, as reported in the literature, singing songs in unison produces a sense of community and increases student confidence in the second language. Thus, music, however it is used in the classroom, evokes positive emotions which can lower the affective filter and bring about language acquisition. Gardners Theory of Multiple Intelligences Music use in the second language classroom is supported by the work of still another theorist, Howard Gardner (1993). According to this psychologist, there exist eight distinct intelligences; musical, spatial, logical, linguistic (verbal) logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic (movement), interpersonal (understanding others) and intrapersonal (understanding self) and naturalist (observing and understanding natural and human-made patterns and systems). Brain research supports the notion that these distinct abilities appear to be independent of one another. That is, patients experiencing difficulties in one location in the brain do not generally experience problems in other portions. To him, all humans are born with a propensity to excel in all of these areas, yet their ability to actualize these is largely dependent upon the influences of culture, motivation level and experiences (1998). As a result, most individuals tend to excel in only one or two of these areas.

There are several implications for educators. First, Gardner believes that it is the responsibility of educational institutions to cultivate these intelligences. Also, educators need to be reminded that historically schools have focused on the development of only two of these intelligences: linguistic and logical/mathematical skills. Such a perspective is narrow since humans possess a greater number of intelligences, according to Gardner. Given this, schools need to acknowledge and foster a broader range of intelligences. Therefore, teachers need to instruct in ways that tap a wide variety of intelligences. Although it is impossible to tap all intelligences at all times, teachers need to incorporate a variety of strategies so that they reach and are successful with more students than they have been in the past (Campbell, Campbell & Dickinson, 1996). Using music as a vehicle for second language learning is consistent with Gardners theory of multiple intelligences. Music can be used in any number of ways to instruct the second language to second language learners. Students may listen to instrumental background music while writing an essay. To elicit verbal responses, students may be asked to listen to classical or jazz music. In order to acquire new vocabulary, students may listen to a story song while the teacher points to picture illustrations of key vocabulary words. Or students may learn to sing songs with lyrics containing key target language structures. Clearly, there are numerous ways in which music can be used to instruct the second language. In so doing, students will cultivate the musical intelligence which Gardner speaks of. Furthermore, those students who are strongest in this musical intelligence will experience more successful instruction. RESEARCH SUPPORT FOR USING MUSIC IN THE LANGUAGE CLASSROOM Using music in the second language classroom is not only consistent with linguistic and psychological theory, but research as well. First, we will turn our attention to the psychological research before delving into the research on music and second language acquisition. Psychological Research on Music and Rote Memorization Much of the support for the use of music in the second language classroom comes from the area of psychology. The psychological literature is rich with research on music and rote memorization. Language acquisition and rote memorization represent two distinct types of verbal learning. Yet, although they are not synonymous, they are related:

Language acquisition subsumes memorization. The ability to memorize is critical to the language acquisition process, since it would be virtually impossible to acquire language without memory. Music reportedly enhances rote memorization. In fact, some studies point to the bond which exists between music and verbal learning (Deutch, 1972; Palermo, 1978; Serafina, Crowder, Repp, 1984; Borchgrevink, 1982). Music and its subcomponent, rhythm, have been shown to benefit the rote memorization process. When various types of verbal information (e.g., multiplication tables, spelling lists) was presented simultaneously with music, memorization was enhanced (Gfeller, 1983; Schuster and Mouzon, 1982). Research which focced only on the effectiveness of rhythm, a subcomponent of music, has been equally favorable (Staples, 1968; Ryan, 1969; Weener, 1971; Shepard and Ascher, 1972; Milman, 1974). The psychology literature also indicates that the retentive effects of rhythm can be maximized when the targeted verbal information carries meaning. In several studies, a rhythmic presentation benefited memorization when the items were both meaningful and meaningless (i.e., nonsense syllables). Yet, the impact of rhythm was greatest when the verbal information to be memorized was more meaningful (Weener, 1971; Shepard and Ascher, 1971; Glazner, 1976). The psychological literature offers evidence of the positive relationship between music and rote memorization, a related yet distinct type of verbal learning. Yet, can music promote second language acquisition as well? Can music, when coupled with the targeted second language, promote language acquisition. Acquiring Second Language Vocabulary Through Music The positive effects of music upon rote memorization are well documented, and while there is good reason to believe that music could similarly benefit second language acquisition, there is a dearth of empirical support for music as a vehicle for second language acquisition is lacking. However, there was an investigation which has dealt with this topic. Medina (1993) studied the effects of music upon the acquisition of English vocabulary in a group of 48 second grade limited-English-proficient children. A Pretest-Posttest Control Group Design with Matching and Repeated measures was selected for this investigation. The main independent variable, medium (Music/No-Music) was crossed with a

second variable, extralinguistic support (Illustrations/No-Illustrations), producing four treatment groups. No-Music group subjects listened to an oral story while Music subjects heard a sung version of the same story. Illustration group subjects were shown pictures of target vocabulary words while listening to the story. No-Illustration subjects listened to the story without the benefit of pictures. The findings support past positive claims. The same amount of vocabulary was acquired from listening to a song as listening to a story. More words were acquired when they were sung rather than spoken. Similarly, presenting illustrations which communicated word meaning resulted in greater vocabulary acquisition. Yet the greatest vocabulary was acquired when stories were both sung and illustrated. Therefore, the combination of Music and Illustrations resulted in the largest vocabulary acquisition gains. CLASSROOM ESL-MUSIC STRATEGIES Medinas (1991) previously-mentioned investigation has definite implications for educators. I n this study, the greatest amount of vocabulary was acquired through music when the experimenter also used the pedagogically-sound practice of communicating meaning through pictures. Therefore, when using music with second language learners, educators need to make certain that the meaning of target vocabulary is clearly being conveyed. Second, even when music is being used, teachers still need to be mindful of the important role played by sound pedagogical practices. That is, they need to fuse sound instructional strategies with music use. Many educators mistakenly abandon successful teaching strategies when using music. Unfortunately, when educators fail to combine music and pedagogy in the E.S.L. classroom, second language learners do not fully benefit from the potentially powerful effects which music can have upon language acquisition. Therefore, in order to maximize the effects of music, and bring about the largest amount of second language acquisition, care needs to be taken to infuse successful instructional practices with music. Simply teaching students songs in second language songs, though enjoyable, will not succeed at helping students acquire the second language. Keeping these two principles in mine, we have created nearly one hundred activities that can be used to support the second language acquisition process. The following section contains a sampling of these activities. Beneath the title of the activity is a brief description followed by its pedagogical purpose. Each has an instructional purpose which is based on a knowledge and understanding of language acquisition and human

learning. Step-by-step instructions for the E.S.L. teacher follow. Activities have been classified into one of three categories depending upon the point at which they support the language acquisition process: Before the song is learned, while the song is presented for the first time, or after it is learned. Depending upon the amount of support required, teachers may elect to engage students in one or more of each of the three types of activities. ESL-MUSIC ACTIVITIES Section 1- Activities To Do Before the Song is Learned DANCE TO THE MUSICDescription: Students dance to a song they will learn later on.Purpose: If students are presented with a song in which both melody and the song lyrics are new, students may suffer from cognitive overload. Therefore, the intent of this activity is to familiarize students with the new melody prior to hearing the lyrics for the first time. A second purpose is to allow "incidental learning" to occur. Often acquisition takes place in the absence of explicit instruction. Steps: a. Play music in the background while student teams discuss ways in which the song can be choreographed. Students should be encouraged to practice their routines. b. Have groups perform for the larger group. The class will vote for the best choreography. ANTICIPATIONDescription: Students learn the meaning of song vocabulary from one another in order to create a skit in which all vocabulary are used. Purpose: To learn the meaning of vocabulary words which students will hear in the song. By doing this, students will be able to comprehend the significance of the song's lyrics when they actually sing the song later on. Language acquisition cannot occur unless the second language is made comprehensible to the learner (Krashen, 1985).Steps:a. Make a short list of new vocabulary words which are found in the song's lyrics. b. Distribute a copy of this list to the students.c. Have groups of three or four students create a skit which incorporates the target vocabulary words. Students are encouraged to learn the meaning of these vocabulary by any and all means (e.g., each other, dictionaries).d. Ask student groups to perform their skits for the class. Use as many props and costumes as possible. Section 2- Activities Performed While the Song is Being Presented for the First Time MUSICAL DRAMADescription: While students hear the song for the first time, they observe their teacher(and/or aides) dramatize the song's lyrics. Purpose: To make the meaning of the song's lyrics clear to the learner.

This activitywill make the meaning of key vocabulary comprehensible to learners, thereby supporting second language acquisition.Steps: a. Gather props and costume items, realia, etc. for actors. If these are not available, have actors improvise by creating hand-drawn pictures on the blackboard or using classroom objects. For example, a lectern can function as a cash register.b. Have actors practice acting out the song lyrics as the music is played. They do not need to sing or "lip sync" the song lyrics, only act them out. c. Play the song for the class while the actors perform it. Section 3- Activities Performed After the Song Has Been Presented MUSICAL MINI-DIALOGUE MIXERSDescription: Students practice minidialogues containing specific "patterns" and/or "routines"* which the teacher has extracted from the song's lyrics. Purpose: It is not sufficient to simply sing the routines and patterns which are found in the song's lyrics. Learners must be able to "transfer" this knowledge to new and different contexts. This exercise allows learners the opportunity to generate original utterances using song patterns and routines in different contexts.Steps:a. Identify patterns and/or routines which are found in the song lyrics. For each pattern/routine, create a two-line mini-dialogue. For example, if the target pattern is "I would like for you to meet____." you might write the following mini-dialogue: George Washington: I would like for you to meet Martha.Mickey Mouse: Nice to meet you, Martha. Feel free to be creative with your mini-dialogues. b. Present one minidialogue at a time to the class. As you write each line on the board,go over its meaning. Have students repeat the mini-dialogue lines a few times. c. Model what they will do next. Perform one mini-dialogue with one other student. Use face and hand movements to dramatize as you speak. First you will play the role of person X. Then after a few rehearsals of the dialogue, you will switch roles with the other person and assume the role of person Y. Next, you and your partner will find new partners and repeat the process. d. Have students similarly practice the same mini-dialogues. Have student pairs stand about the room, facing each other as they would at a social gathering. e. Have student pairs practice each two-line minidialogue (preferably with actions) as you did previously. Circulate about the room making certain that students change partners several times. Once each mini-dialogue has been well-rehearsed, encourage students to vary their mini- dialogue lines slightly. This will promote "transfer" which is the primary purpose of this activity. f. After there has been adequate

practice of the first mini-dialogue, stop the students and introduce the next mini-dialogue in the same manner that you did previously. Repeat steps b through e for each mini-dialogue. * Note: Patterns are open-ended sentence or question constructions (e.g., I love to___.; Where do you ___?) Routines are closed questions or sentences which are frequently used by native speakers (e.g., How are you today?; Excuse me.) LIP SYNCING TALENT SHOWDescription: Students will "lip sync" the song before a group of student judges.Purpose: To provide additional opportunities for students to practice saying target vocabulary, routines and patterns which are embedded in the song lyrics. Also, by listening to the song and watching various groups communicate meaning, student observers are given additional opportunities to make the connection between meaning and symbol. This ultimately leads to language acquisition. Steps:a. Divide students into groups of fours.b. Have teams practice lip syncing to the song. Encourage them to synchronize their hand movements much like the singing groups of the '50s used to do. Gestures should communicate meaning whenever possible.c. Identify three students who will serve as judges of the lip sync talent show.d. Play the vocal version of the song so that each team can perform for the class.e. Ask the judges to announce the winner. Recognize the winner of the talent show in some way (e.g., a candy, applause). Educators should feel confident using music to facilitate the language acquisition process. Clearly, there are numerous benefits associated with it. Furthermore, is supported by linguistic and psychological theory and research. The activities above serve to illustrate the many ways in which educators can maximize the effects of music with their second language learners. Additional sources of music strategies and inspiration may be found on the ESL Through music website which can be found at These should serve as a spring board for educators as they continue to identify other ways of using music with their second language learners.


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Williams & Burden (1997). Psychology for Language Teachers: A social constructivist approach. Boston, Mass.: Cambridge University Press. Copyright 2002 Suzanne L. Medina. All rights reserved. No part of this document may be copied or reproduced in any form or by any means, photocopying or otherwise, without written permission. Exception: Teachers may duplicate these materials as long as the copyright symbol and statement appear on all copies made. Fax: (310) 514-0396. E-Mail:

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