Can Singing Aid Foreign Language Learning?

Jimmy Kilpatrick in Education News, July 19,2013:

Singing in a foreign language can make learning how to speak it easier.

It is a source of national embarrassment – despite hours of lessons and listening to foreign language tapes, most of us can barely stammer our way through a simple drinks order while abroad.

However, a new study suggests there may be hope for those who struggle to get to grips with a foreign language – they should try singing it instead.

Research from the University of Edinburgh found that adults who sang words or short phrases from a foreign language while learning were twice as good at speaking it later.

It is thought that by listening to words that are sung, and by singing them back, the technique takes advantage of the strong links between music and memory.

Although not clearly understood, music is known to help students when studying and can help to trigger memory recall.

Dr Katie Overy, who led the study at the university’s Reid School of Music, said singing could provide a new alternative to the traditional listen and repeat method of teaching new languages.

She said: “Most people have experience of remembering words from songs they have heard and songs are sometimes used by language teachers with young children.

“We thought we would explore whether there was a benefit and found singing was more much effective, particularly when it came to the spoken language tests.”

Dr Overy and her colleague Dr Karen Ludke, whose findings are published in the journal Memory and Cognition, used recordings of Hungarian words to teach 60 adults.

They chose Hungarian as they participants were unlikely to have encountered it before and none had any experience of learning this language.

The participants either listened to words that were spoken and then had to repeat them back, much like a standard teach yourself tape, or the words were said rhythmically or sung.

After a 15 minute learning period, they were then given a test to see how well they had learned the words. Those who had used the “listen and sign” approach scored highest.

They were also better at recalling the words correctly in tests of long term memory.

Importantly they did not sing the words when they recalled them.

Dr Ludke said the findings could help those who struggle to learn foreign languages.

She said: “The results suggest a listen and sing learning method can facilitate verbatim memory for spoken language phrases.

“It opens the door for future research in this areas. One question is whether melody could provide an extra cue to jog people’s memory, helping them recall foreign words and phrases more easily.”

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