Skip to main content

How much is learning to sing like learning a language?

If you think the answer to the above question is “not at all” bear with me a moment.

I am currently having a rest break during my barbershop chorus’s annual weekend retreat in York. We do some pretty technical work on singing, and in particularly singing in close harmony.

Our talented chorus director uses a mix of explanation and structured practice to help us sing better. Singing, like speaking and understanding a language, can be broken down into sub-skills or micro-skills. When you sing you need to apply a range of techniques: bodily alignment (good posture), breath support (the key to everything), maintaining pitch, being aware of the “rhythmic sub-text”, vowel shaping to ensure consonance with the rest of chorus, mouth shaping to improve resonance, facial and physical expression, variation of volume and tone... I could go on.

By isolating these sub-skills, working on them repeatedly, you hopefully, by small increments become a better singer. In crude terms you develop a sort of muscle memory or automatised behaviour.

Does this have any bearing on learning a language?

By some accounts, you can become a more proficient linguist the same way. The sub-skills for listening, for example, would include being able to recognise the phonemic system of the new language, being able to match sounds to spellings (phonics), recognising individual words and chunks so as to be able to break down the stream of language you hear. In addition knowledge of morphology and syntax is required to be able to “parse” the utterance, i.e. combine the lexical bits to make sense. An awareness of listening strategies, general knowledge of the world and using cognates to help with comprehension also help the learner be a better listener.

By explaining and practising these sub-skills, the argument goes, you produce more competent linguists. For example, you might do transcription exercises, word and chunk gap-fills, sound spotting and grammar drills. There is surely much to commend this skill-based approach. But of course it’s far from the whole story. Indeed, many scholars and some teachers argue that it’s hardly any part of the story at all.

If you start from the assumption, supported by a good deal of research, that learning a second language is much like learning your first, then you might reject this skills view of learning. Young children acquire the essentials of their first language by the age of six (while clearly lacking a great deal in terms of complex syntax, range of vocabulary and world knowledge. Yet they receive barely any explicit instruction in the sub-skills of language acquisition. For them the stress is pretty much entirely on communicating in context. Nature does its work and gradually fluent speakers emerge.

It’s tempting to believe that practising sub-skills is a short-cut to acquisition when you don’t get much time in the classroom. Most teachers believe this (as do I), even though, as Bill VanPatten points out in his recent book While We’re on the Topic, there is scant research to support this view.

So is second language learning a “natural” phenomenon or a skill which can be developed through explanation and practice? Is it at all like like learning to sing? Whatever the current state of research (which leans strongly towards the former view) most teachers believe that both perspectives are useful and can be exploited to help students become the best linguists they can be. Depending on the learning context, for example the reason you are learning the language, the syllabus you have to do or the country you are in, the balance of skill-building and naturalistic, communicative approach might vary a good deal.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:

Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

GCSE and IGCSE revision links 2018

It's coming up to that time of year again. In England and Wales. Here is a handy list of some good interactive revision links for this level. These links are also good for intermediate exams in Scotland, Ireland and other English-speaking countries. You could copy and paste this to print off for students.

Don't forget the GCSE revision material on of course! How could you?

As far as apps for students are concerned, I would suggest the Cramit one, Memrise and Learn French which is pretty good for vocabulary. For Android devices try the Learn French Vocabulary Free. For listening, you could suggest Coffee Break French from Radio Lingua Network (iTunes podcasts).

Listening (Foundation/Higher) (Foundation/Higher) (Foundation/Higher)