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Singing a powerful tool in language education

3 February 20140 comments

shutterstock_25480417-resizedSinging, rather than saying phrases, makes it easier to remember words when learning a new language, according to new research.

A study published in the journal Memory and Cognition found that adult students learning phrases in Hungarian were better able to match the words with their English equivalents when they learned the phrase by singing it.

Linguistics researcher Dr Karen Ludke first pondered whether singing could help in learning a language when she was teaching English as a second language in New York.

“I started using a lot of song and music in my lessons, so they could practise when I wasn’t around,” said Dr Ludke, of the University of Edinburgh.

“Then I started to doubt myself a little bit. I thought, ‘Is this scientific? Is this actually beneficial to use song to teach?’”

Dr Ludke used a computer program to determine how much relevant research existed and found evidence from teachers that it was a proven strategy in teaching second languages.

She identified a gap in the research about the effectiveness of teaching a second language using a spoken presentation as opposed to singing and made it the focus of a PHD study.

Dr Ludke split 60 participants learning Hungarian into three groups.

One group heard spoken English phrases, followed by a spoken Hungarian translation. Another heard the Hungarian phrases being sung, and a third group heard the Hungarian phrases being chanted to the same rhythm as the song.

The study showed that people who heard the Hungarian phrases being sung performed significantly better than the other groups.

Interestingly, when they heard the English phrases again they were better able to repeat the correct Hungarian phrase and they were also more likely to be able to translate the Hungarian phrase back into English.

Dr Ludke said Hungarian was chosen as the test language because it was unfamiliar to most English speakers and was very different from both the Germanic and Romance languages such as French and Italian.

Eminent linguist Professor Michal Thaut, of Colorado State University, said the study demonstrated the idea that music is a powerful mnemonic device.

Dr Ludke said more research was needed to answer the questions her study has thrown up.

A University of California ESL school is using hip-hop music to help students understand English slang.

According to a report by Southern California Public Radio, teacher Stephen Mayeux has incorporated the 1990s rap hit “Straight Outta Compton” in his lessons.

While some other educators and teaching peers have expressed criticism of his lessons, Mr Mayeux – who has studied linguistics – finds value in the language of hip-hop.

“You have to treat every form or variety of the language as if it’s equally complex and valid,” he said.

“So the English that a rapper or hip-hop artist uses is no better or worse than what a university professor is using. There is value also in helping people interact seamlessly with native American English speakers. Pop culture is constantly referenced in conversation, and as many older people may know, fluency in English does not equal fluency in pop culture”.

“They do experience a little bit of alienation,” Mayeux said of some of his close friends from other countries.

“They feel like they can’t be fully part of the group because they’re not speaking the same lingo. Just as legal or medical jargon can often sound like a foreign language, pop-culture slang can be necessary when interacting with peers,” Mr Mayeux said.