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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: smedina@forefrontpublishers.com

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.

Krashen’s 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 learner’s 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 Krashen’s five hypotheses, the best known and frequently
referred to are the “Input ” and “Affective filter “ hypotheses. According to
Krashen’s 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 Krashen’s 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.

Krashen’s 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 learner’s “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.

Gardner’s 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 Gardner’s 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

Medina’s (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 mini-


dialogues 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 mini-


dialogue 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 mini-
dialogue (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 www.Geocities.com/ESLmusic. 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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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:
smedina@forefrontpublishers.com