Music: The instrument for language acquisition

By Deborah Espitia
@despitia
Instructional Strategist

Get your students jazzed about learning languages and motivate them with some rocking strategies by incorporating music into your instruction.

The benefits of using music in language instruction have long been known. From his work beginning in 1982, Principles and practice in second language acquisition, Stephen Krashen addressed the use of background music as a way to lower anxiety associated with learning a second language. Others in the field, such as Annette De Groot, in her 2006 article for Language Learning, “Effects of stimulus characteristics and background music on foreign language vocabulary learning and forgetting,” have addressed the increase in retention of target language vocabulary.  

More recently, Hi Jee Kang and Victoria Williamson (2014), along with Hye Young Cho (2015) have looked at how music improves performance on language learning tasks, such as writing in the target language. Language programs from elementary school to high school often make use of songs to teach vocabulary and language structures with everything from canciones infantiles (i.e., ¿Te gusta el helado de broccoli?, by Super Simple Español) to adaptations of rap songs (i.e., Bringing Conjugations Back). Even more powerful though is the context for learning the language across the culture provided by music that is authentic to the culture.

So, let’s enhance our use of songs to learn grammar structures and vocabulary by bringing authentic music into the world language classroom. Through the inclusion of music across cultures and genres, we can reinforce the theme, content, vocabulary, language structures, and cultures we are teaching and learning at any given moment.

Let’s take a look at a couple of ways to use music as the instrument for language acquisition with examples in Spanish. If you’re a teacher of a language other than Spanish, tune into the strategies shared so that you can apply them to a song, music video, or documentary in the language you teach.

In Unidad 1 of EntreCulturas 1 from Wayside Publishing’s Spanish series, we introduce the song, América, by Los Tigres del Norte, a well-known norteño band which plays a style of music that originated along the Texas border region and features the accordion. The Grammy-winning song demonstrates that “American” refers to anyone from the Americas—not just those from the United States.

Vocabulary in Context

Students, who are at the novice low level of proficiency are asked to identify the words they recognize in the song and the lyrics of América – namely, cognates. In addition, students can listen to a song or read lyrics to identify the words they hear or see by doing any of the following:

  • circling words in a word bank;
  • choosing the picture described;
  • labeling pictures;
  • writing the missing words;
  • completing the sentence with the words or phrases;
  • drawing pictures to represent the song.

Language Structures in Context

Using grammar in context is a more effective strategy than teaching about the grammar (ACTFL, 2016). Students in Unidad 1 of EntreCulturas 1 have been using the verb “to be,” ser, to talk about themselves. In the context of the song, they can identify the verb and then apply it in meaningful ways by doing any of the following:

  • Highlighting the instances in which the verb is used and identifying who the subject is in each case.
PersonaForma de serUso
Haber nacido en Américaescomo una bendición (simile/description)
Yosoyde América (origen)
  • Creating additional verses using the same pattern (i.e., Soy mexicano, guatemalteco, hondureño).
  • Asking and answering questions of classmates about themselves or about famous people. For example,
    • ¿De dónde eres? (–Soy de El Salvador.)
    • ¿Eres americano? (–Sí. Soy americano y salvadoreño.)
    • ¿De dónde es Drake? (–Es del Canadá.)
    • ¿Es americano? (–Sí. Es americano y canadiense.)

Culture/Interculturality

Ideas for integrating practices, products, and perspectives into the classroom through music include the following:

  • Locating countries mentioned in América on a map and then identifying which ones are Spanish-speaking.
  • Matching a set of photographs of peoples of the Americas to communities mentioned in the song (i.e., gaucho, charrúa, jíbaro, etc.).
  • Writing words and phrases from the song that support the perspective that Todos somos americanos.

As an extension, have students watch Latinoamérica by the Puerto Rican group, Calle 13. Have students note any comparisons between their music video and the song by Los Tigres del Norte. Then, play the MTV Unplugged video (also see above) of Los Tigres del Norte with René Pérez Joglar in which the artists combine their songs to present the oneness of the Americas. Cocoa Roots’ song, Somos, is another music video to share with students and have them compare the message of unity to that of América.

Ready to strike up your own band? Identify vocabulary, language structures, culture, and outcomes that you are working on in your final unit or that you want to review. Then select one or two songs that connect to those concepts and rock it out.

Deborah Espitia has been a world language educator for more than thirty years. She is a lead author on EntreCulturas 3 and she is is an Instructional Strategist at Wayside Publishing.

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