Using Music as a Matrix for English or Foreign Language Learning and Recall

Music to Soothe the "Savage" Learner

"Alex" leaned back in his seat, closed his eyes and let the sounds take him. At times he would hum softly. Other times his head would move in a distinct rhythmic pattern. No question about it, music was his life. It could also be a way to reach him and teach him English like almost nothing else could.

If you find that most of your learners have a high musical tolerance you're not alone. Not only that, but did you know that learners can be "programmed", so to speak, to improve their mental function in a classroom using a musical background environment?

Types of Music

You probably do not need me to tell you that all music is not created equal. That being the case, there are both "good" and "bad" types of music that can be employed in an EFL or foreign language teaching and learning setting. First, some "positive" music types useful in lowering learner Affective Filters (Krashen-Terrell, 1983).

o Classical – a cornucopia f musical selections by the likes of Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, et al can be very effective when used as background music for learners

o Instrumentals – with the obvious exception of heavy percussion, intensive trumpeting or marching music, instrumentals can be very useful in the language learning classroom

o Jazz – no matter how much they may pooh-pooh it at first, carefully selected Jazz instrumentals are not only highly effective, but the learners often like them as well The exclamation, "THAT? S jazz?" is a frequent one in some of my classes. Learners often do not realize the breadth and range of musical genres outside of their normal listening venues

o Foreign Language Vocals – another useful musical background venue is playing background music vocals in a language unknown to the learners. Try using Hindi vocals with European learners or Chinese ones with Latin American learners, Portuguese and French vocals can work well with North American, Asian and other language group learners too

Types to Avoid

However, in addition to music types which have proven to be useful, there are those which may tend at times to work against what you are trying to achieve. Some possibly "negative" music types tend to include:

o L1 vocal songs – the last thing you want in most cases, is to use music and songs in the learners' first language. Why? Because they'll simply code switch into their L1 without any effort at thinking or functioning in English or the foreign language you're trying to get them to work in

o English vocal songs – if you're using musical background, songs in English, even if you're teaching English, may at first be disorienting or confusing. You want to use an Affective Filter lowering matrix, not generate a sing-along

o Heavy Metal music, Hard Rock music, Trance – while music of these genres maybe pleasant or interesting to some of the learners, it is often not conducive to a positive learning environment. Not necessarily all of it is so, but a generous amount of screening may be called for to get a series of musical selections that are suitable for your purposes. The effort to screen lyrics and music are frequently not worth the hours I have to spend in advance to do it so I just avoid these genres in favor of easier ones to set up

o Reggae, Rap, Hip-Hop, etc. – Again, music from these genres may not help to produce the desired classroom effects with using music as a background matrix for English or foreign language learning. This though, may well depend on where you and your learners are

In the next segment of this theme, we'll consider some useful requisites for selecting music and genres that will promote foreign language acquisition in the English language learning environment. We'll examine the use of music and its effects and exactly how music effects the brain functions in language learning and acquisition.