Singing in a second language: transforming students' language abilities

More than 120,000 international students come to Australia to study English before they go on to university. One university is using music to help its students learn English while growing their confidence and expanding their social circles.

Kaho Sugawara, an international student from Japan, is studying at the University of Queensland's Institute of Continuing & TESOL Education (ICTE). She's learning English and is also a member of her university choir, the ICTE Chorus. 

For Kaho, singing has changed her life and improved her English skills tremendously. 

"Before I started to sing... I was really nervous to talk to local people but now, if I meet people who give me a brochure on the street... I say hi and I can get the brochure and I don't hesitate to talk to them," she says.

Kaho's choir teacher Vicki Bos says singing in a second language helps students linguistically, socially and emotionally.

"On the linguistic side of things, it can help with pronunciation fluency, vocabulary and seeing language as it is used in a real context, like a song. It can also help students socially. When we sing together, we build community together. We belong to something. And emotionally, it helps students to be able to express themselves," Vicki says. 

Vicki, a teacher trainer at ICTE, says music had helped her learn Russian as a student. 

"I started a little choir for me and my classmates to sing in Russian. And I found it so useful and so valuable to the point where nowadays most of the Russian I remember is from those songs," she says. 

Her personal experience inspired her to start a choir for language learners in ICTE. Her students echo her sentiments and say singing has helped them in a number of ways. 

Yuqing Low, an international student from China, will be doing a degree in Music at the University of Queensland. 

She says her listening skills improved after joining the choir. An introvert, she says singing in English has helped her become more confident. 

"I'm very shy and I'm afraid to speak English with people because I'm afraid to make mistakes. But now, I feel more confident than before and I will try... to talk... with people in English," Yuqing says.

Tali Santibanez is an international student from Chile. She says learning English through music means her young family can join in too. She's living in Brisbane with her three young sons and her husband.

"It's very funny and interesting for me to teach [them] the songs. My family is singing all of the days, all of the moment," Tali says. 

When I put the [English] songs in my house, we can share the language, the learning and it's very good. 

When it comes to linguistic development, Vicki says she's seen the transformation in her students almost instantly. 

"Before our very eyes, it's really obvious to the linguistic development that we see in students who are suddenly able to speak more clearly or at least speak with a greater degree of connected speech and fluency," she says.

In particular, singing has shown to improve pronunciation. Vicki says improving pronunciation consists of looking at two parts: speech production and speech performance.

"Sometimes, it's very difficult for students to combine both the speech production and the speech performance in their spoken English but singing sort of naturally does that," Vicki says. 

"You are forced to move your mouth into particular positions as well as performing it. You're performing speech so your voice is going up and down. There's beautiful musical intonation."

"So seeing that combination of speech production and speech performance happen in music is very important I think for our students. And then they're able to reproduce that when they do it themselves."

The ICTE choir performs at music festivals like the Raise Your Voice festival as well as in public places and community events. Performing as part of a choir has been one way for international students feel part of their local community.

"Coming here to study in a different country, in a different culture and a different language is a very isolating experience," she says. 

"They don't get the opportunity to integrate with the wider community as often as they would like."

The Raise Your Voice festival was started after Vicki and her colleagues realised there was an opportunity to create connections between international students and locals through music. 

In August this year, about 350 people from language schools, community choirs and colleges came together to perform at the festival. 

Vicki strongly believes in the power of group singing because the experience is very welcoming and inclusive. 

"You can see that every student that walks into choir for example, instantly has 30 friends who are saying: hey, come over here and sit with me, sing with me."

In December last year, the ICTE choir went to a nursing home where the residents taught the international students some Christmas carols.

"Many of our students found that such a moving experience because they miss their families and it's wonderful to have a surrogate grandparent teach you how to sing a Christmas carol."

Article courtesy of Shivali Nayak, ABC Education

Last updated:
5 September 2019