Using Music to Enhance Second Language Learning

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5/12/16 Education Reference this

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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.


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 and 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.

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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.


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.

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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.


Medina’s (1991) previously-mentioned investigation has definite implications for educators. In 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.

Teachers use music and songs in Foreign Language classes for several reasons. The main reason is the good atmosphere it creates in the classroom. Students relate to songs as part of entertainment rather than work and find learning vocabulary through songs amusing rather than tedious. This is true especially with pop songs which are part of youth culture. Better familiarity with these songs improves students’ status within the peer group and therefore stimulates learning. These songs also tend to deal with problems interesting to young people and the students identify with the singers and want to understand the words. Didactically songs are also useful in teaching the rhythm of the language and informing the students about the culture of that language’s speakers. The other issue is that even just playing music without words creates a relaxed atmosphere that enhances learning. The best example for this is the Suggestophobia method of Georgii Lozanov in which foreign texts are read dramatically with the background of several carefully chosen works of classical music. Lozanov claims that the atmosphere created by the music enhances the ability of the students to remember vocabulary words and thus shortens the study period of the foreign language.

The major problems that teachers have with using songs in the classroom is the non-standard grammar in many of the songs and the ‘non-serious’ image of the pop songs. The first problem is that the non-standard grammar will confuse the foreign language students. The answer to this in current research is that not all songs are suitable for foreign language classes. But students usually can deal with the non-standard grammar issue in most of the songs. On the contrary, the students find the exposure to the singers, as authentic foreign language speakers, useful. After all non-standard grammar is fairly common in daily usage of most languages and the students have to learn to deal with it in a language they learn. Indeed, the students prefer authentic foreign language songs to the songs created especially for foreign language classes. The second problem, that of the ‘non-serious’ image of pop music, was addressed by all the researchers working in the field. The teachers worry that their students will enjoy the music, but will actually learn less than by more traditional methods. This worry has been refuted by all the research done on the issue, dealing with different languages, different student populations and different levels of classes. The common agreement is that students learn the same amount of material by both methods. The main difference is that the students report learning through songs as much more enjoyable. This refutes several theories based on analysis of brain functioning, according to which music should considerably enhance the learning potential of the students. But it still encourages using the more enjoyable method in the classroom in order to enhance the motivation for learning. Since the results are roughly similar, this could help the teacher deal with the problem of creating a good learning atmosphere in the classroom, without compromising the level of learning.

The current research recommends using the students’ every day experience of foreign languages to enhance their learning. Pop music is an important component of that experience and makes learning a foreign language more fun. It encourages the students to take an active part in the learning process by contributing from their musical knowledge. Therefore, they become more confident in their learning ability and more motivated to continue learning the language.

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