Adult ESL Learners: American Pop Music can Help You Become Fluent
Apr 26, 2009 Adults 2940 Views
When studying a second language, you discover many new words in the context of a classroom or textbook. You may look the words up in a dictionary, review them with flashcards, use them in exercises, and test your understanding in a quiz or exam. If you get a good score, then you're satisfied that your studying was successful.
But have you really learned those words? Many ESL learners notice that when they try to speak conversational English, they struggle to remember words that they've studied. This can be very frustrating. It turns out that new words don't switch quickly from unknown to known, even if you study them. There is a gradual transition. For a while, you will be "acquainted with" a new word. You may recognize it when you see it but you may not be able to use it freely. After you have experienced the word repeatedly in a meaningful context, it eventually becomes "established". According to the National Institute for Literacy, this is how a native speaker learns most vocabulary. Children hear adults using language around them every day. They use the words themselves and experience success and failure as they try them in different situations. But, unlike children, you may not have the opportunity to hear and speak with native-speaking adults every day. Pop music can provide a little bit of that experience for you.
First, pop music will more than satisfy the requirement of repetition. Naturally, if a song is musically interesting then you are likely to listen to it many times. And, although popular music can cover a wide variety of subjects, it typically deals with everyday matters. Therefore, quite a bit of vocabulary will be repeated in different songs by different artists. Finally, the traditional format of a pop tune includes the use of a refrain, a group of words that is repeated several times during the course of the song.
If you're willing to try and sing along with pop music, you can also get an opportunity to use the words yourself. It doesn't matter if you're not the best singer or if you can't pronounce the words very well. Just sing in the shower or when you're driving alone in the car. Like native-speaking children, you can try again and again until you get the words right. Since pop music is usually sung at natural speeds, your tongue will get practice in making "English sounds" at a natural pace. You don't even have to know what all of the words mean at first. It's a little like using an exercise bicycle at the gym. Even if you don't go anywhere, your muscles get training that will help you on your next bicycle trip.
Your comprehension ability can improve too. Try listening to a song a few times before you look at the lyrics or a dictionary. If there's a repeated refrain, try and sing along if you can. It's OK if you don't quite understand the meaning of the song. You want to give your brain some practice at figuring things out. Do this a few times (the more, the better). When you finally read the lyrics, you will sometimes get a laugh! You might see that you were singing certain words, but the actual words are quite different. This happens to native speakers too; it's all part of learning.
You may already enjoy American music, especially in your favorite music style. If you want to become more familiar with American culture, I suggest exploring number-one hits from past decades. These songs are well-known to almost every native-born American and there is reference to them in advertising, TV, movies, literature, the newspaper, and when people are joking around together. A familiarity with old hit songs is useful background knowledge that can make it easier to follow casual American communication. You can look online for "number-one hits (United States)" and get a list of songs that goes back 60 years. Load up your MP3 player and have a good time; it will really boost your English speaking skills!
(Note to ESL Teachers: this article is directed to upper-intermediate level learners and may be used as part of a lesson plan. It could serve as an introduction to the use of pop music in upcoming lessons. The ideas are based on my own experience as an English speaker who has used pop music to study German and Spanish. You may omit this last paragraph when reprinting the article.)