Uncovering a lyrical component to language

Nadine de Moras recalls growing up in Paris and being taught English as a second language. While her formal educational training was fine, she found she learned a lot more from John, Paul, George and Ringo.

“When I was learning English myself in school, at that time there was no Internet, so I always thought songs were a really good way to learn, especially when you don’t have any other choice,” said de Moras, who has taught at Western for 17 years, the last five at Brescia University College. “In France, I started learning English in school, which was only like three hours a week.

“So I started to buy records from the Beatles to Simon & Garfunkel, all the classics, in order to listen and write down the words. It was a great way to train my ears.”

Even though she knew nothing about linguistics at the time, de Moras knew back then her method was a good way to improve vocabulary and pronunciation while learning more about the culture and having fun.

A professor of French at Brescia University College, de Moras has since brought her personal learning experiences to her teaching, in a manner different from that of most language instructors. Based on her research, teaching experience and attention she pays to students’ needs, she has designed her fourth-year Topics in Language course with material that, through the use of music, observably improves and advances the language learning of her students.

de Moras has observed that most language courses concentrate on grammar and written language, with only a small oral component. If students learn vocabulary, it is usually that of the formal written language presented in books and texts. Informal language is rarely taught, even though, very often, it is the language which students need and request to learn.

“I remember in school I learned ‘How do you do?’ and ‘How are you?” said de Moras. “When I began private lessons, the first thing my instructor asked me is ‘What’s up?’ I just stared at him because I had never heard this and didn’t know what he meant. This is such a common expression which is typical or part of oral language that you never learn in school.”

Because, for the most part, non-native speakers have not been exposed to the target language as much as native speakers, they tend not to acquire the language as accurately as native speakers, she added.

de Moras tested the learners’ familiarity of ‘liaisons,’ knowledge which reflects their mastery of the French phonetic system. The results indicated that after studying French for an average of 10 years in school, Anglophone students produced 61 per cent of liaisons, compared to 96 per cent for native speakers. This showed students clearly do not master the French phonetic system.

The songs de Moras uses in her class are carefully chosen with a view of providing content in which informal vocabulary and pronunciation are prominent. Students listen to the songs until they know them almost by heart, which then provides a basis for the study of pronunciation, language variation, language registers, vocabulary and culture.

de Moras tested the effects of different types of instruction (repetition, correction and explanation) on the students’ progress. The instruction given to the group that made the most progress included repetitions, while that given to the group that made the least progress was based mainly on explanation.

This research has weighty implications for language teaching.

“I concluded that, based on my research,  a language class can only be effective if students receive extensive exposure to, and repetition of, the language, in addition to both receiving corrections accompanied by explanations, and considerable opportunity to practice,” said de Moras.