Earworms: infecting language learners with song

We all know how annoying a catchy tune can be; I was sleepily driving along the A28 last week when my trainee decided to put DiscoBitch’s C’est beau la bourgeoisie on the iPod at full pelt. I spent the rest of the day teaching KS3 with the words “I’m a bitch” rolling around my head on a loop. For the creative MFL teacher, however, this curse can be turned into a golden advantage.

Invading your students’ involuntary memory

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that we fill our lessons with expletive-ridden rap in order to drive them mad. In fact, it’s not the words of the song I’m interested in; it’s the music.

Dr Daniel J Levitin of McGill University in Montreal remarks that songs are easier to remember than words alone, because of the combination of melody, rhythm and rhyme… and what’s more, he points out that this is nothing new; before the ‘invention’ of written language around 5 000 years ago, songs were a number-one way to remember and transmit information.

According to Dr Vicky Williamson, memory expert at Goldsmith’s University in London, ‘stuck-song syndrome’ or ‘Earworm’ sets off involuntary triggers in our memories, which can result in a song remaining lodged in our consciousness for days on end.

More information on the science behind earworms (and my source!) can be found here.

Teaching grammar with songs

Ok, ok, I’ll stop boring you with neuroscience. The point is that this inherent ability to more easily memorise words set to music can be a invaluable tool for the Modern Foreign Languages teacher.

I try not to overkill the singing method however; we all know how quickly a well-loved activity can bore a class to tears if it is used one time too many. I therefore use songs to teach the one thing that students find the hardest – grammar!

The key to using songs in the classroom is to pick something the students know; the last thing you want to be doing is spending an hour teaching them the notes when you could choose something they already sing backwards in front of the bathroom mirror while their mothers bang frantically on the door and beg them to use their hairbrushes on their hair and not as a microphone.

Monsieur M’s top tips

Using pop songs in your lessons is not difficult, and you don’t need to be Education’s answer to Katherine Jenkins or Jonas Kauffmann to do it; it just takes a bit of confidence and the ability to have a laugh, albeit sometimes at your own expense! Here are my top three tips to help you get started:

  1. Don’t play around with the music!
    The whole reason this method works is because the students already know the rhythms and melodies of the songs that you choose, so changing these to fit in with your words, no matter how slightly, will confuse them and detract from the sticking power of the song.
  2. Keep it simple!
    Chanting all conjugated forms of the principal modal verbs in the space of five seconds may be your party trick, but you’ll be lucky if the kids can manage the first three pronouns! My general rule-of-thumb is to use the verses for model sentences and the chorus for the conjugation of the tense in question, or the main grammar point that I’m teaching. Check out the song lyrics I’ve posted above for some ideas.
  3. Trust in yourself!
    Yes, yes – it would be hard to get cheesier than that, but you’d be surprised how far a little confidence will go. You don’t have to be a great singer to do this – just accept your tone deafness and scream the lyrics out. The kids will probably fall about laughing, but as soon as they see they you’re laughing too, the new competition will be to find who can sing worse than you! As long as they’re all getting stuck in, your song will succeed.

Good luck!

UPADTE! Check out recordings of my songs on my YouTube channel: MonsieurRMc.

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