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Can Song Help You Learn a Second Language?

Published: January 11, 2017
Rukholm’s findings, which were published in Italica, suggest music did in fact have an impact on participants’ scores.
Rukholm’s findings, which were published in Italica, suggest music did in fact have an impact on participants’ scores.

» Read more features in the Winter 2017 Journal

Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language knows the struggle to retain vocabulary. But what if there was a simple tool that could help?

In her study, “Singing to Speak: an Examination of Adult L2 Learners and Vocabulary Learning Through Song,” Vanessa Rukholm, assistant professor of languages and linguistics, examined the effectiveness of song on the acquisition of Italian vocabulary among adult learners.

The study examined the performance of 66 participants on a vocabulary test both before and after listening to a song containing the terms.

Her findings, which were published in Italica, suggest music did in fact have an impact on participants’ scores.

“Song can promote the rehearsal of language, a necessary ingredient in vocabulary retention,” said Rukholm.

The idea of using song to aid in acquiring foreign language vocabulary first began germinating for Rukholm in high school when she was taking Italian for the first time. Her teacher would often include cultural elements, one of which was Italian pop music. Rukholm found it was much easier to remember vocabulary when it was part of a melody.

“Fast forward many years and this idea of examining whether melody could impact language learning became my thesis topic,” she said.

For the study, Rukholm tested five groups of University of Toronto undergraduate students enrolled in a second-term introductory Italian course. All participants took a pretest on 20 vocabulary words chosen from an Italian pop song with a repetitive melody.

Then, one group listened to a recorded reading of the lyrics of the song (no melody) and one group listened to the song itself. A third group was read the lyrics as a poem, but also given activities to do with the words (find them in an Italian dictionary, for instance). Similarly, a fourth group listened to the song, and was also given activities. A control group just took the tests.

Post-tests were given two and four weeks later.

“The process was very nerve-racking, but I had a good feeling I was onto something,” said Rukholm.

So, did the song groups perform better?

The results showed that the group who listened to the song and completed the activities using the target words scored highest on both post-tests.

“Going through the post-tests, we found that not only did participants in that group know the words, but it was also the only group to use them correctly in a sentence even after only a few exposures to the vocabulary,” said Rukholm.

Though more studies would be needed before large-scale changes to language curriculum could be implemented, Rukholm said foreign language instructors should consider the use of music in their classes.

“I introduce song all the time,” she said. “Students enjoy it, and while hearing the music they are also learning to think in a second language and getting into the cultural mindset of a native speaker.”

By Kiley Mallard, Writer/Editor