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Learning a second language through music.


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. The study of a language offers a unique chance to learn about the people, books and culture of a foreign country. As such, language-acquisition is also culture-acquisition (Savignon and Sysoyev 508-09).

Pedagogical activities involving music offer many possibilities for integrating culture, content, and communication during the language-learning process (Siek-Piskozub 1). Listening skills are cultivated, while grammar and vocabulary can be explored within a unique and aurally stimulating context (Fonseca Mora 146-52). Like poems, songs are relatively short and can be readily integrated into a fifty minute lesson plan. But in addition to all of those things, when carefully selected, songs can motivate and inspire students--who often define themselves, within their own culture(s), by the music they enjoy--thereby providing language learners with a unique entry point into the evolving mentality and traditions of a foreign country (Lacorte 49).

Making the Most of Music in the Classroom

When songs find their way into L2 classrooms, they are often as an irregular and infrequent part of the curriculum. A song typically becomes the focus of an entire class period. Within fifty minutes, students are expected effectively to engage in a wide array of tasks: making out the lyrics, familiarizing themselves with the instrumentation, learning new vocabulary, processing and speaking about the cultural impact of the song and, finally, comparing it to their own country's music. Typically, the students leave the classroom and never hear the song again. A reworking of the common saying might apply to this case scenario: out of ear, out of mind.

To get the most out of music in the classroom, the professor and linguist must begin by taking music seriously, as both a form of expression and as a cultural manifestation. Moreover, the student must be confronted with music on a regular basis. When first introduced to a foreign song, students are at the same time shocked and intrigued. They do not know what to do and do not understand the words. Yet, over time, they learn to process the information, tuning their ears to the exercise and learning how to get the most out of the listening experience. In sum, with steady practice, students can become active instead of passive listeners. The following guidelines will assist instructors in integrating music into their language courses with success:

1. Begin the semester by selecting a modern song, with which the students can connect, preferably something popular among their age group(s) in the country or regions where the target language is spoken. When the students have found a point of connection with the musical traditions of the foreign place, they will be more eager to get acquainted with other genres and more traditional songs.

2. Music should become a regular feature of the course. This goal can readily be achieved by playing a "song of the month" as the students enter the classroom, inviting them to step immediately into the foreign language space. By spending a few minutes before the official beginning of the lesson by listening to the song, students become more familiar with the music and its words. After a short period of time, students often begin to sing along or hum the tune. (This form of daily interaction with music involves little official class time.)

3. Less is more. A foreign song cannot be successfully taught in one session. We rarely remember the lyrics of songs performed in our native tongue or analyze the depths of a new song by our favorite artist the first time we hear it. Instructors should allow their students time to familiarize themselves with the music by planning a series of short activities for successive class meetings. (See below for examples.)

4. Make the song available to students outside of class. Deposit a copy in the language laboratory or, after following the proper channels, request that an electronic copy be made available to registered course users through the library or an online course portal such as Blackboard. Many foreign singers have agreed to promote their country's music and language by releasing songs (and in most cases videos) of their work for use by L2 teachers. (The materials are often available, free of charge, from the local consulate.)

5. Ask students to research vocabulary and grammar. Students will significantly increase their vocabulary base by researching the meaning of key terms assigned by the instructor. This activity also provides an opportunity for instructors to invite students to reflect upon the singer's choice of words and phrasing. Analyzing songs--especially carefully selected ones--allows students to develop the same group of skills that are required during the analysis of poems, short stories and even novels. Such exercises not only increase the L2 student's lexical and grammatical abilities, but also cultivate skills required for pursuing the foreign language, and a study of its literature, at more advanced levels.

6. Work on pronunciation. As students listen to the song outside of class, they become familiar with the pronunciation and, even more importantly, the "rhythm" or "accent" of the foreign language (Graham 159). In addition, by actively working on the pronunciation of lyrics in class, students are provided with an opportunity to discuss the differences between the target language in its oral (or often colloquial) and written forms.

7. Explore the cultural dimensions of the song. By participating in large and small group discussions about the foreign culture as it is presented through the song, students cultivate their conversational skills and increase their cultural awareness. At the most rudimentary level, students might compare the music (and instrumentation) to the form of music practiced by their own favorite artists. As a more advanced activity, students can prepare and lead a class discussion about the song's major theme(s).

8. Ask students to research and make presentations about foreign music. As the semester progresses, students might research an artist of their choosing and present a song or music video to the class. At the end of term, instructors may elect to play the selections during a class or departmental get-together.

9. Make music a regular part of examinations and self-evaluations. If learning a foreign language through song is to be an important and serious feature of the L2 classroom, then the songs must figure in the instructor's assessment of the students. Lyrics can provide the basis for dictation exercises on an exam, or students may be required to reflect upon a singer's way of looking at the world in a short essay question. Students will also benefit from reflecting upon their own engagement with music during the learning experience. Questions for discussion, or for written preparation, might include: (1) What was the most challenging aspect of this song? (2) How did studying this song help you make progress in understanding the foreign language? (3) How did studying this song help you make progress in speaking the foreign language? (4) What did this song teach you about e.g., French culture? (5) What did this song teach you about life?

10. Be dynamic and believe in music! Teachers can encourage their class actively to participate in musical activities by singing along with the students (or without them) and by sharing their personal reasons for selecting the song. Students will follow the lead of the instructor.

Sample Activities for the Study of a Song

The following activities were implemented during the first month of a fourth semester French course at Baylor University. Students met for one and one half hours, twice a week. The "song of the month" approach, outlined above, was adopted. I selected Patrick Bruel's "Place des grands hommes" because it is popular amongst 18 to 25 year-olds in France today and also because the lyrics are challenging and thought provoking. The instrumentation is upbeat and students have difficulty following the lyrics during the first listening exercise. Thus they immediately learn to adapt to listening to words they do not necessarily understand. During the first month of classes, the song was used during six class sessions.

1. Day One. "Place des grands hommes" was played constantly during the ten minutes preceding class. When all the students had arrived, I introduced myself and told them that music would form an integral part of our course this semester. (This proved to be an amazing attention-getting device.) Students were then asked to listen to the song once more, and to think about the instrumentation and the words they could recognize. By the end of the first ten minutes of class, the students had been able to determine, as a group, the title of the song. We then discussed the importance of that choice. What makes us "great men"? That concluded the first activity on the song and we proceeded with a conversational exercise. (15 minutes, excluding follow-up activity)

2. Day Two. "Place des grands hommes" was played as the students came into class. Already, several students began tapping along to the music or humming the tune. Students were provided with a short fill-in-the-blank handout of the chorus of the song and were asked to fill in the words. The musical activity was followed up with a conversational exercise about a topic closely related to the lyrics and allowing for a review of the future tense: "Imagine where you will be in ten years. What will have changed? What about you will have remained the same?" (10 minutes)

3. Day Three. In preparation for class, students were required to listen to the song and complete a fill-in-the-blanks lyrics sheet for the first third of the song. Students were also asked to prepare an explanation for ten key vocabulary words. Bruel's song was played as the students entered the classroom. The session began with a review of the preparation and work on pronunciation. As a follow-up activity, students discussed the significance of the author's choice of words and related their understanding of the lyrics to the instrumentation of the song. (15 minutes, excluding follow-up)

4. Day Four. Same preparation and activities as day three for the second third of the song. (Students were invited to sing along to the first third of the song as they listened.)

5. Day Five. Same preparation and activities as days three and four for the final third of the song. (Students were invited to sing along to the first two thirds of the song as they listened.)

6. Day Six. Students sang along to the entire song. Thirty minutes of the class period were then given over to small group discussions about cultural topics relating to the song.

The possibilities are endless and will vary according to the time instructors wish to devote to music in their classrooms. As the above activities suggest, careful planning and sustained work on a song, over an extended period of time, is the most important key to successfully teaching a foreign language (and the culture related to its study) through music.


Music: it's everywhere. On the radio, on the television, on the MP3 players of our students as they work out in the campus gym. Today, for better or for worse, university and high school students tend to own more CDs than they do books. American tunes resound across the globe, dominating the market. Yet music can provide L2 students with a unique and exciting opportunity both to explore the language and culture of a foreign country and to cultivate their listening skills. I have been encouraged, and often amazed, at the progress students make in speaking, understanding and even writing French through the study and discussion of music. Songs provide us with a window into a world that is not our own, a world that we glimpse and remember thanks to the power of music. Still today, as I sip on a latte at the coffee house, I think fondly of my own experiences in the classroom--first as a student, and now, as a teacher: "ojala que llueva cafe."


Canale, M., and M. Swain. "Theoretical Bases of Communicative Approaches to Second Language Teaching and Testing." Applied Linguistics 1 (1995): 1-47.

Fickert, K. J. "Who Wants to Speak a Foreign Language?" The German Quarterly 27.3 (1954): 159-62.

Fonseca Mora, C. "Foreign Language Acquisition and Melody Singing." ELT Journal 54.2 (2000): 146-52.

Graham, R. S. "The Music of Language and the Foreign Accent." French Review 42.3 (1969): 159-62.

Iskold, L. V. "Watching Video in the Language Classroom." Academic Exchange Quarterly 8.3 (2004): 86-91.

Lacorte, M. "Music in the Foreign Language Classroom: Developing Linguistic and Cultural Proficiency." NECTFL Review 49 (2001): 49-53.

Lund, R. J. "A Comparison of Second Language Listening and Reading Comprehension." The Modern Language Journal 75 (1991): 196-204.

Omaggio Hadley, A. "Research in Language Learning: Toward Communication and Synthesis." Research in Language Learning: Principles, Processes and Prospects. Lincolnwood, IL: National Textbook Company, 1993. v-vii.

Rivers, Wilga M. "Comprehension and Production in Interactive Language Learning." The Modern Language Journal 70.1 (1986): 1-7.

Savignon, S. J., and P. V. Sysoyev. "Sociocultural Strategies for a Dialogue of Cultures." The Modern Language Journal 86.4 (2002): 508-524

Siek-Piskozub, T. "Reasons for Including Music and Songs in the Foreign Language Classroom." FIPLV World News 43 (1998): 1-2.

K. Sarah-Jane Murray, Baylor University

Murray, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Medieval Literature and French in the Baylor University Honors College.
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Author:Murray, K. Sarah-Jane
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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