Most English teachers really enjoy using songs in their lessons. Like film clips, they are an excellent source of what we refer to in TEFL as, ‘natural English’ or REALIA – language not intended for learners. The language of songs has not been simplified or graded to a specific level. It is English in its most raw and pure state. I use plenty of songs in my lessons as well but I usually like to kick things off with a discussion beforehand about the benefits and drawbacks of using English songs to help us learn the language. Yes there are even some drawbacks or caveats when using English songs in class. Let’s look at the subject in greater detail.
Asking the students the question: “Can listening to English songs help you learn English?” seems a bit silly because the obvious answer seems to be an overwhelming YES! But I ask students to be honest and give real life examples in terms of whether or not songs have ever helped them with the following:
Gaining new vocabulary
The students’ answers are very candid and honest and demonstrate a lot of learner awareness. Their conclusions on average reflect the following points;All vocabulary that can be retrieved from a song is generally good – even the vulgar language. Unfortunately songs (especially rap) can contain swear words. My argument is that just because students are aware of certain words and have a passive knowledge of the vocabulary, doesn’t mean that they’ll use it. The only example of a word that I would prefer my students actually wouldn’t even learn is: AIN’T. It is an extremely overused and primitive sounding ‘universal negative’ that students are not afraid to use sometimes. It makes an English speaker sound really low class and uneducated especially when thrown around too often. There are words that appear in songs that are FAR more vulgar (the infamous N-word or C-word come to mind) but it is enough to passively know these words and how, because of their power and absolute vulgarity, should NEVER be used.
There is a relatively rare phenomenon whereby words can be ‚invented’ for a variety of reasons for example to facilitate a rhyme or just to appear funny and creative. Examples of words such as bootylicious, conversate, bestest, fo shizzle, bling or dis. This never bothers me. Poetry does this. Shakespeare did this. Eventually when these words become a part of pop culture they even get added to the Oxford English Dictionary – like 4 of the 6 examples above!
The ‘gonna’ ‘wanna’ and ‘hafta’ phenomenon (connected speech) that has grown extremely popular amongst young English students these days is not an enormous problem for this English teacher. I think it is brilliant and makes students sound more native in their speaking. If listening to English songs encourages this kind of natural connectivity of the words in speech then it is good.
It is also a quite incorrect assumption that this is an exclusively „American thing”. To this I say:
- Oasis – Wonderwall „Today is gonna be the day that they’re gonna through it back to you”
- The Beatles – „I wanna hold your hand”
- Rick Astley – „Never Gonna Give you up, Never gonna let you down.”
Students argue that there is sometimes a more troubling trend with examples of words that are intentionally incorrectly pronounced in order to fit the rhyme and meter of a certain song but examples of these are rare. I, myself, can only think of very few examples. (Paper Planes by M.I.A. …and take your mo-NAY [money]).
Raising awareness of grammatical structures
With respect to raising awareness of grammatical constructions – listening to English songs only scores about a 70%. It is true that students have improved their grammar with:
- Beyonce- If I were a Boy – 2nd conditional
- 21 Pilots – Wish I Could Turn Back Time – (the ‚I wish’..construction)
- Suzanne Vega – Tom’s Diner – present continuous
Unfortunately however there are FAR too many examples where the English grammar in songs is simply not good grammar at all.
- Justin Bieber “Love Yourself” – …my mamma don’t like you, and she likes everyone
- Justin Timberlake, “What Goes Around” – “When you cheated girl, my heart bleeded girl.”
What is it with singers named ‚Justin’ and why do they want to destroy English grammar?
This is just one example but I would hazard a guess that around 25-40% of the top songs on the charts contain at least one grammatical error of some sort. For lovers of hip hop (I am one myself) I would say there probably isn’t a single song with grammatically pristine lyrics.
What are your feelings on the effectiveness of using English songs to help you learn English? Let us know in the comments below. Don’t forget to include examples if you can.
Caveat – (from Latin) a warning
Candid – unrehearsed, unplanned
Hazard a guess – (a collocation in English) take a guess, presume sth