Using Music in the Foreign Language Classroom

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This post was originally published by Inside Higher Ed on November 22, 2015

One of the challenges I face teaching a daily language class is finding novel and creative ways to maintain student interest throughout my lessons. One of my favorite teaching “tricks” is using music to motivate learning, improve concentration, create a sense of community and help my students absorb material.

Music is a wonderful tool to integrate into your teaching repertoire, especially if you are a foreign language teacher. It has a way of capturing everything about a culture, its people and their language and it can inspire interest in a subject matter when other methods have failed. Not to mention that students love it and benefit from it intellectually and emotionally (even when they find your music taste questionable).

Fortunately, it’s not too hard to integrate music into the foreign language classroom, and the following are some effective ways to integrate music into your teaching:

 Use it to build community. Music is a way to share yourself as a teacher, and to offer your students a (little) peek into your soul, as well as an opportunity to learn about and from your students. Our music taste reveals how we think. It’s an expression of who we are on an emotional, social and cognitive level. But it’s also a way to connect to other people in a way that a lot of other means of communication (and teaching) cannot.

Use it to teach vocabulary. Arguably one of the most effective ways of using music in the foreign language classroom is through direct music activities. Yet when I’m teaching a Level 1 beginners class, it’s impossible to use music as a writing prompt or to analyze poetry, because students don’t have the vocabulary and grammatical knowledge to engage in complex tasks. One of my favorite activities for starters, however, is “fill in the blank.” For this activity, I provide students with the lyrics to a song after having removed certain vocab and replaced it with blanks. Then students listen to the song as they try to fill in the missing word. This is an easy and fun way to expose students to the target language and can be an effective memorization alternative to physical and online flashcards.

Use it to offer insights into a culture’s worldview and history. Language, culture and history are intertwined but oftentimes it’s difficult to offer meaningful insights into a language and its culture, while also striving to ensure the required grammar/vocab/structure for the day has been covered (and trust me, at my university, it’s a lot). I’ve found that music provides an excellent ground for raising historical, cultural and/or societal issues without overshadowing the linguistic component. The key is to not be too ambitious (unless of course you are teaching a language AND culture class) and to set realistic goals: one song one major point! I usually keep it to seven minutes max, which includes a song, a very short “lecture” and some time for student questions at the end.

Use it to change the mood. We often do drilling exercises in class to practice new structures and/or reinforce the content learnt. But drilling can be boring and tedious, causing the classroom mood to become lethargic and…darker. I have found that background music can dramatically reverse this effect and help students concentrate (you might have to experiment a bit with the volume). Another good strategy is to start the class by playing music, especially if you’re teaching an early morning class, where even the best-intentioned can be thwarted by fatigue. This can boost students’ mood and increase their interest in what is being taught.

Use it for home assignments. Student exposure to foreign music doesn’t have to be limited to classroom time. I once did a very fun project in one of my intermediate classes where I asked students to compile a short (German) playlist that describes their personality, explaining what it is about each song that speaks to them and/or that they identify with. To help them find songs, I provided a larger playlist to draw from (although they didn’t have to use it if they didn’t want to). We were learning personality traits at the time and students absolutely loved it, not to mention that many of them built a vocab that extended beyond what was covered in their textbook.

Use it (to boost creativity and) for extra credit. Throughout the quarter I offer my students multiple extra credit options but among my favorite are the ones that involve music. Some of the best bonding experiences in my classroom have taken place when a student performed a song for the rest of the class. In my more advanced classes I have even had students compose and write their own song (in German of course). Performing in a foreign language is not everyone’s cup of tea (hence it’s only one of the extra credit options), but it’s regularly contributed to creative outbursts and one of a kind bonding among students.

Be the performer. I haven’t done this as a teacher but I have been on the receiving end as a student and it was beautiful experience. When I was learning Turkish, our teacher brought her bağlama to class one day and she asked us to “help” her with the lyrics to a song she had been working on. To this day, I don’t know how how “genuine” her quest for help was, but it got us excited and engaged on a freezing and rather depressing London night.

In the end what it boils down to, I believe, is effective planning. One of the potential pitfalls of using music in any classroom, is making it all about fun and not much else. I’ve walked into a number of (undergraduate) classes at my school where the instructor is playing some song at the beginning of class or during a “break” without engaging with it or explaining it and it always feels like such a missed opportunity. Music can make magic happen, for sure, but I think the results are best when it’s aligned with a with a specific teaching goal.

[Image from Flickr user Miguel Santiago and used under Creative Commons license]


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