Can Music Be Used To Enhance Intercultural Understanding In The Foreign Language Classroom?

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It has been widely recognised in the language teaching profession that learners need not just knowledge and skill in the grammar of a language but also the ability to use the language in socially and culturally appropriate ways (Byram, Gribkova, Starkey, 2002). Hence the National Curriculum in England underlines the importance of “liberating learners from insularity” (DfE, 2014) and familiarising them with the target culture through a “variety of authentic resources” (DfE, 2014) such as stories, poems and songs. In this essay, I will therefore demonstrate how music can be used as means to develop cultural awareness in the MFL classroom. In fact, using songs within secondary foreign language lessons could be more than an unusual, engaged learning atmosphere. It could potentially facilitate an accelerated, long term understanding of a culture and acquisition of a language. First, I will bring up the concept of intercultural competence and its connection with language and with students’ exposure to authentic input. Furthermore, I will identify some reasons for which MFL teachers should be encouraged to use songs in order to improve their teaching practice and increase cultural awareness in their classroom. According to Rubdy (2003, p. 49) a course book by itself has little operational value until the teacher populates it with his/her own ideas and experiences and brings it to life. Therefore, it is advisable that teachers consider the fact that there are various motivations for choosing a specific target language teaching resource. For this reason, I intend to present, through my research, some of the criteria used for evaluating the content of authentic resources, namely of songs. I will then proceed to discuss the practical implication of a Spanish song introduced to a Year 10 class, and I will include some references to pupils’ outcomes.

Intercultural Understanding and Language Learning

Over the last twenty years, European educational policy documents have increasingly highlighted the need for the school curricula to develop pupils’ openness to and acknowledgement of different cultures (the Resolution on the European Dimension, European Commission 1988; the White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue, Council of Europe 2008; the Recommendation on Education for Democratic Citizenship, Council of Europe 2002; the Report of the International Commission for Education, UNESCO 1996). Policymakers in several countries, including England, have responded to such directives in their national curricula in a range of different subjects, with special focus on this in the area of modern foreign languages. Whilst the cultural dimension has been recognised in MFL policy documents since the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1991, it had previously been defined as “cultural” awareness” or “cultural knowledge and contact”. A change in thinking and terminology related to the cultural dimension among linguists occurred before the English National Curriculum revision of 2008. In the early 1990s, scholars started stressing the limitations of the cultural awareness approach since it tended to take an essentialist view of culture that is static and associated with the dominant view in a particular country (Byram 1997; Byram and Zarate 1994; Crozet et al. 1999; Kramsch 1998, 1999). Intercultural languages theorists later emphasised cultural complexities and flows (Risager, 2007) and argued that one of the main aims of languages education should be to bridge cultural differences and to strengthen their harmonious relationships. Moreover, interculturalists support the integrated study of language and culture and some of them have constructed pedagogical models in order to promote such learning, see for instance, the “savoirs” model for intercultural communicative competence (Byram,1997) and the study of culture “in a third space” (Kramsch, 1999).

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A both cultural and linguistic analysis of the language helps understand perception, imagination, mindset and emotions of native speakers, and study their system of thinking. In a research report, Byram, Esarte-Sarries and Taylor (1991, p.22) offer a four-dimensional approach: these four dimensions include language learning, language awareness, cultural awareness, and cultural experience. They highlight the non-linguistic dimensions of culture, where students are taught to consider cultural differences from two points of view - their own culture and foreign language culture. MFL teachers can therefore make students aware of important elements of their culture and help them learn about how their culture has shaped them (Bryam, 1997). Thus, the principal objective is to convert their monocultural understanding of the world into an intercultural one.

Songs as Culturally Authentic Material

According to Nunan (1988, p. 4) authentic resources are the materials which have been produced for purposes other than to teach language, whilst Herrington and Oliver (2000, p. 21) suggest a relatively new pedagogical approach, called 'authentic learning'. This term directly refers to the students' real life and prepares them to know and deal with real world situations.

Genhard (1996, p. 17) classified authentic materials into three categories: authentic listening materials, such as radio news, cartoons, songs, etc.; authentic visual materials, such as street signs, magazines and newspapers pictures, post cards, etc; authentic printed materials, such as sports reports, newspapers, restaurant menus, train tickets, etc. These resources can belong to different genres and registers. Therefore, these might often be too dense and difficult, informal spoken or written authentic texts may not follow convention and the vocabulary used may be unfamiliar to pupils (Lansford, 2014) and often the vocabulary is not salient within the context of their learning (Merrill, 1986). Such materials can contain words that are unknown to students (for instance, slang or secondary meanings) or even topics and feelings that are completely new to them. Still, these should not be perceived as being disadvantages as long as the content is suitable for the topic of the lesson and to the learners’ needs. In fact, authentic materials help encourage students to learn the language by making them feel that they are learning the real language (Guariento and Morely, 2001). Whereas Hyland (2003, p. 94) reports that one of the most important advantages of using authentic materials is that it increases learners' motivation and reflects positively on the learning process. Furthermore, Melvin and Stout (1990, p. 44) argue that fully exploited, authentic texts give students direct access to the culture and help them use the new language authentically themselves, to communicate meaning in meaningful situations rather than for demonstrating knowledge of a grammar point or a lexical item.

As I previously wrote, songs are part of the category of authentic materials. Hence, the culture of a country is also conveyed through music. Murphey (1993, p. 8) states that songs […] are important tools in sustaining cultures, religions, patriotism, and yes, even revolutions. In fact, the use of music has the advantage of exposing students to an audio-video and written resource that gives them a broader outlook on the use of the foreign language in a wide range of real-life situations. Thus, it could be argued that songs and music offer pupils more freedom of interpretation, of developing critical thinking skills, and sharing ideas with each other. Music appeals to everyone:

Music is everywhere, and all students have musical tastes. […] I also hope it will show teachers how stimulating it is to tune in to the wealth of information, reactions, and feelings already there in our students. The advantage of musical materials is that they are so readily available to the teacher, and so immediately motivational to most students. (Murphey, 1993)

On the other hand, using songs in MFL lessons might present some issues, in terms of complexity and content. Therefore, teachers should propose resources that are appropriate for their pupils’ level and interests. Students might feel overwhelmed and frustrated by this different teaching resource because they face a new kind of vocabulary, with metaphors, secondary meanings, and an informal language. Melvin and Stout (1990, pp. 52-53) suggest that the best way to reduce this initial anxiety is to design exercises that draw the students’ attention to things in the text they will have understood. These activities might include the identification of number and gender of singers of a popular song or of a person referred to in the lyrics, characterization of the type of text (, poem, advertisement, love letter), or the names of central characters. The content of a song can also impose other kinds of problems. Bernice Melvin and Daniel Stout (1990, p. 50) argue that the wide array of language used is not the only factor making material difficult for the student. Culturally unexpected behaviour or attitudes can increase its inaccessibility.

However, scholars such as Jolly (1975), Candlin (1992), Engh (2013), emphasize the benefit of the cultural exposure of songs. They consider songs helpful to know more the cultural heritage of different societies, better understand the values of people whose language students learn. In fact, singers convey through music ideas that can be related to a particular cultural background. For this reason, songs represent an interesting and alternative method of teaching new aspects of the foreign language and its representatives.

Why Should MFL Teachers Use Songs as Teaching Resources?

Music could be considered by some teachers as a time filler, as an activity delivered only when there are a few minutes remaining until the end of the lesson. Other teachers might think that songs are inappropriate for secondary school or simply inadequate for their lessons because of the linguistic discourse used or the message conveyed. Murphey (1993, p. 12) asserts that music and songs is not really one of the conventional categories of language study (grammar, vocabulary, composition, reading, listening comprehension, conversation, etc.); but it can be the content matter of any of these categories and we can focus on any, or many, of these areas when using songs. Songs can replace, to a certain degree, some traditional teaching resources such as course books and grammar books, etc. Lake (2003, p. 12) finds that students are more willing to negotiate meaning within the circular structure of a song than in simply reading a passage. One interesting claim he makes is that the music carries you along into the text whether you are ready or not. Moreover, a song can be used to teach some grammar structures, new vocabulary items and develop the four skills. However, considering the cultural specificity of the foreign language, teachers would be concerned with aspects of language that are generally neglected, or that at best tend to remain peripheral in course materials: connotation, idiom, the construction of style and tone, rhetorical structure […](Pulverness, 2003). In other words, mastering the TL also requires being able to distinguish between a formal and an informal speaking style.

Maley (1990, pp. 93-95) lists ten main reasons for working with poems and songs: memorability, rhythmicality, performance/recitability, ambiguity, non-triviality, universality, playfulness, reactional language, motivation and interaction. Students tend to remember songs because they use rhymes, a lot of repetitions and usually describe a story with which the listener can usually empathize. Furthermore, Murphey (1993, p.8) identifies three ulterior motives for using songs within foreign language lessons. He argues that most importantly, perhaps, songs are relaxing, they can[…] be used as a means for teachers to increase rapport with their students and ‘’ […] can stimulate very positive associations to the study of a language, which otherwise may only be seen as a laborious task, entailing exams, frustration, and corrections (Murphey, 1993).

Songs also bring cultures closer to each other. This represents another relevant reason for integrating songs in the MFL teaching practice. Martin and Nakayama (2010, p. 360) assert that […] people often are introduced to other cultures through the lens of popular culture, namely through television, music, magazines and even gastronomy. Music has a social function because it can reinforce bonds between people and can communicate values. On the other hand, sometimes it is challenging to use songs because they might reiterate stereotypes and convey a false cultural identity.

Murphey (1993, pp. 9-10) mentions some purposes for listening to songs in a learning environment:

  • study grammar
  • practice selective listening comprehension
  • read songs, articles, books for linguistic purposes
  • translate songs
  • write dialogues using the words of a song
  • do role-plays
  • dictate songs
  • use a song for gap-fill, cloze, or for correction
  • teach vocabulary
  • break the routine.

However, the use of songs in MFL lessons can confuse or demotivate pupils to a certain degree. By concentrating only on grammar, vocabulary and translations they might lose their enthusiasm and engagement for sharing and listening to music. A better approach would be that of integrating music, culture and language in a same activity. Pulverness (2003, p. 428) states that there is an intricate bond between language and culture and therefore language should not be treated as a value-free code because […] it is likely to deprive learners of key dimensions of meaning and [to] fail to equip them with necessary resources to recognize and respond appropriately to the cultural subtext of language in use. By letting themselves guided by this principle, students are going to be equipped with the necessary tools in order to decipher the meaning of a song, both from a cultural and a linguistic perspective. Likewise, students would become more aware both of the intended and the implied meaning suggested by lyrics. They would be able to understand and differentiate between cultural clichés and genuine cultural values. In addition, it can be stated that music has become a trait of character. When someone asks you what kind of music you listen to, he/she already labels you and assigns you certain characteristics. Because music carries so much personal value, people tend to be sensitive to the message, the mood and the feelings that are conveyed through it.

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