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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.


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