Music provides way to Arabic language understanding

Educators have long aspired to create innovative pedagogical methods to improve the instruction of languages to non-native speakers.

But the reliance on emphasizing grammatical rules, without capturing the attention or stimulating the enthusiasm of the students, has failed to create deeper understanding. I propose presenting language to learners in a new way – through song.

Let me shed some light on my proposed methodology. These tips, drawn from my experience in preparing lessons for the Arabic courses I teach in Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, offer an example of how to address the challenges and demonstrate the effectiveness of using song as an instructive tool:

  1. Select a song commensurate with the linguistic level of the students in the class. The lyrics should be simple and easy to understand. The song should also reflect the culture and the values of the Arabic world;
  2. Improve students’ language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) by means of a song that includes the desired grammatical rules and ideas emphasized in the teaching unit; and
  3. Increase students’ awareness of the Arabic culture, making them feel the beauty of the traditions and customs associated with this target language.

Progress through the following stages while planning to sing a song with the students:

First Stage – Preparation before hearing the song

The objective of this stage is to familiarize the students with the lyrics of a song by generating an interactive discussion with them about the song’s content. This stage hopefully will help the instructor convey a sense of the beauty of the song played, thus eliciting a desire within the students to listen to the song and memorize it for their own enjoyment.

Second Stage – Process after hearing the song

As the students listen to the song, they are encouraged to understand the vocabulary and the salient ideas within the song. They are asked to identify the central theme of the song and focus on understanding its concepts and any moral instruction embedded in it. Meanwhile, the students will internalize the Arabic grammar the instructor explains through the song. The students are also expected to master performing the song with correct intonation.

Third Stage – Recapitulation

During this stage, the instructor will proceed along two tracks.

First, the instructor will engage the students in an activity to measure their understanding of the song. For instance, he or she could proceed with a series of questions eliciting answers about the song, and have the students elaborate on the meaning expressed by the verses.

The second track will involve a written assignment. After the students have engaged in an oral discussion amongst themselves on the subject-matter of the song, they will produce a written summary of their findings. This will allow the instructor an opportunity to move from focusing on listening and speaking skills to enhancing the students’ proficiency in linguistic skills required for reading and writing.

Here is an example of the proposed technique. Let’s take each stage in turn.

First Stage – Preparation before hearing the song

The instructor piques the students’ interest by asking a series of questions that will help them focus on the instructional objectives of the lesson that the instructor plans to teach. The questions posed should be formulated in such a way as to lead the students in the direction intended by the instructor, covering the objectives of the lesson.

New vocabulary will be identified and studied in order to prepare the students to hear the song and develop an interest in the coming grammatical exercises. Here is a sampling of possible questions leading up to listening to an Arabic song about neighbours, for example, which can provoke comments on details expressed in it.

  • Do you have a neighbour? What is your relationship with him or her?
  • Do you visit him or her?
  • What is the meaning of the following words?
  • Can you find synonyms for the following words?
  • Can you find antonyms for the following words?

The instructor will then use audiovisual equipment to project the song onto a widescreen. Here is the song (translated):

The Dear Neighbour

I love my neighbour.
His home is my home.
I greet him with a smile
with love and respect.
I share my food with him
on many days.
If he is absent I visit him.
And ask after his health.
His children are like mine.
We live in security.

Second Stage – Process after Hearing the Song

The instructor slowly reads the song in Arabic to the class in order to help the students with the correct pronunciation. Then he or she makes the students elaborate on the meaning of the words as well as on the overall subject matter of the song. The instructor then reads the song a second time and intones the melody of the song in front of the students, asking them to repeat this afterwards.

The relevant points that the instructor intends to teach during the lesson on Arabic include:

  1. The difference between the sun letters and moon letters;
  2. The difference between strong and light Hamza;
  3. The difference between the past tense and present tense;
  4. Personal pronouns and their related verb conjugations;
  5. Possessive pronouns;
  6. Genitive particles and their functions;
  7. Sentences without verbs – their structure (subject and predicate);
  8. The rhyming words at the end of each hemistich; and
  9. An expression of admiration for the Arabic culture and its traditions.

Third Stage – Recapitulation

After completing an oral discussion with the class and covering the desired grammatical rules exhibited within the song, the instructor will then implement these new rules in written exercises.

Written assignments serve to reinforce and confirm the learning outcome that the instructor has intended while reciting and discussing the song. As the students repeat the song, they gain a new confidence in their familiarity with the grammar, as well as an additional awareness of features within the culture.

Students are encouraged to study other grammatical rules as they continue to listen and learn other songs. An appreciation for the language of the culture and its traditions will follow.

Finally, the students will be able to derive continued benefit by memorizing and singing songs. Writing about the theme and subject matter of each one will also reinforce the use of the grammatical rules and the song’s context. As the course progresses, instructors may wish to assign the students (with guidance) the task of selecting other songs that will then serve, through analysis and study, to enhance their understanding of the grammar contained in subsequent lessons.

Yahya Kharrat is a professor of Arabic at Western. He holds a PhD in applied linguistics and an MA in language teaching methodology from the University of Kansas. Kharrat has taught a wide range of language courses for nonnative speakers as well as heritage speakers. His areas of interest include Arabic literature, applied linguistics, and pedagogy of Arabic as a second language.