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Music as a Language Learning Medium
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

The music of a culture and in a certain language provides a good resource for language learning. Music as a popular communication and entertainment art is a critical aspect of a culture. Music expresses the thoughts and interests, the desires and needs of the community, the fantasies, fears and goals. More than that, music often carries the history and cultural identity of a people.

Music can be used as a productive learning tool for a new language from the very beginning. In the design of many adult language learning programs, I included a music component.

Working and Learning Context
The context in which the learner will live and work should be the primary learning laboratory. The learner's expected work and living context provides appropriate natural opportunities for learning. Participating in the primary activities of that context should be central to the learning process.

The primary clients of programs I designed were Christian workers needing to learn particular African languages and cultures. Thus in these programs I included songs, choruses and hymns as part of the learning program. The normal church activities in many locales were also rich sources of language, music and interaction.

Listening to the radio provides a good secondary support for language learning. The flow of the language, coming into the subconscious as music, leaves impressions of the rhythm and flow of the target language, without the conscious effort of concentration. (Of course, some conscious effort is also helpful!)

Music, for listening or participation, can help with tone and rhythm patterns in your target language. You also gain culture-art awareness from local music, helpful in your cultural acquisition.

Sharing in Searching
One learner in an Indian Ocean country reported that he has used songs in the predominant local language as a learning tool. This man, a guitar player as well as a medical doctor, was working at a Christian hospital. Desiring to expand his faith life with the local cultural flavor, he began looking for songs based on Bible verses. He found only one existing scripture song, so he set about collaborating on scripture songs in the local language.

His helpers might be Christian or non-Christian - it did not matter. An informant would translate the verses from French, then he set the local language texts to music. He would then learn these and sing them to speakers of the local language. This gave him a basis for learning some good phrases in the local language and also broadened his personal base of faith into another language. The interaction and collaboration provided a basis of positive relationships with the local people.

Early Appropriate Communication
This also provided a positive and culturally appropriate manner for this active Christian doctor to express his faith in a foreign language, even in the learning stage! This was a critical benefit in this primarily Islamic country.

Musical Vitamins for Learning
Music can add strength, spark and interest to your learning. Most cultures have a rich musical heritage of popular or traditional songs. Many learners will also find a Christian hymnody already existing in their target language. These can be a help in appreciating the local culture, especially for those already musically inclined.

Music is so much a part of our cultural identity. Draw upon this valuable resource in your language and culture learning.


Originally published in the "Techniques" series in Focus on Communication Effectiveness, September 1994

This version written and posted 09 June 2001

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 1994, 2001
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.
Email: orville@jenkins.nu      saxophone@bigfoot.com
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