Learning Languages through Music, Teaching Music through
Elena Kováčiková, Constantine the Philosoper University in Nitra
Learning Language through Music, Teaching Music through
The paper shows a possibility to interconnect music and second language teaching and learning.
It highlights their common methodological features and provides perceptions from observation
of CLIL lessons in Lithuania and Slovakia. Language teaching benefits from using musical
elements such as rhythm, intonation, melody and thus enhances natural acquisition of distinctive
sounds and different pronunciation. On the other hand, the topics about music history, music
genres and forms might become motivating enrichments of language classes with rather
educational background. The first observation describes a music lesson in Lithuania as an
example of a CLIL lesson combining teaching French and music. The second observation
focuses on an English language lesson taught through music by using rhythm instruments,
dynamics, chants and songs, and music topics appropriate for the age of learners. Even if the
aim of the first lesson is to teach music primarily and the second one focuses on the language
more, the interconnections between languages and music are undeniable and therefore advised
to be used by language teachers with musical ear or music teachers who are competent enough
in a foreign language.
language teaching and learning, French, ELT, music, CLIL
Within past two decades the scientists have made big progress in the theories of language
acquisition. Didactic connection of language and music has been approved through the
historical context as music and a language both communicate via sounds. Music elements are
melody, verse and dance. In the language we can find the similar parallel in intonation, words
and body language. When children learn to speak, they perceive first only sounds and
intonation. Later they begin to recognise sounds in the language, and then differentiate the
words and expressions which are inevitable for communication. Due to the fact that music and
language commonly share the basic features such as rhythm, pitch, dynamics, volume and tone
of voice, the combination of the approaches, methods and techniques for learning language and
music can be effectively connected. Some language approaches involve music as a helping tool
in order to make learners feel comfortable or active in their language production.
English through Music
Larsen-Freeman describes Desuggestopedia (an amended term for previously known
Suggestopedia) as one of the methods for learning a foreign language developed in the 70´s
years of the last century. Music plays there an important role. Background music played in a
language lesson aims at limitation of negative feelings as these might prevent development of
language skills and systems. According to the author, music does not only create atmosphere for
learning only passively, however, it is also actively used and created by learners. In the
classroom, which the author describes, there is a table with rhythm instruments as well as some
other props. The background music (Bach, Händel) creates a positive and comfortable
atmosphere when a teacher reads the text presenting new language. Teacher teaches the students
a children´s song with presented language in order to drill and acquire it. Students actively use
the instruments as they sing the song. Music and movement reinforce the linguistic material. It
is desirable that students achieve a state of ´infantilization´ so that they will be more open to
learning. If they trust a teacher, they will reach this state more easily (Ibid.,p.80).
Also Loewy (2004) believes in the positive impact of using music in language classes. Within
other benefits of using songs in the classroom he lists development of all the skills, productive
as well as receptive ones. When using songs in the classroom, a teacher plays the song and
learners follow and perceive it. Then students repeat lyrics without singing. Then they all
discuss related vocabulary, grammar structures and practice pronunciation. The teacher plays
the song again and the learners start singing when they feel comfortable and confident enough
to express themselves. Loewy (Ibid.) also uses songs as a presentation or revision of grammar
structures. The song may be also used as a drilling technique or instead of drill. In case when
the primarily technique in the lesson is drill, the music provides possibilities to learn required
patterns through remembering the text which may happen unintentionally. Methods dealing with
teaching languages to young learners and very young learners are based on TPR techniques,
movements, songs and chants.
Carolyn Graham is a creator of jazz chants® which connect the rhythm of spoken American
English to the beat of jazz. She developed the technique of jazz chants during her teaching ESL
(OUP, 2016). According to her, jazz chants bring rhythm into the classroom and that is what
makes them remember the language. Connecting hand clapping, stamping and body movements
performed along with the language bring joy and motivation to the classroom. They all work on
subconscious and natural acquirement of language structures.
Music through English
Macarthur and Trojer (1985) two musicologists declare that due to the fact that music and
language share basic features of rhythm, pitch, tone and dynamics, the teaching methods applied
in the classroom with the aim to teach music should definitely engage Orff-Schulwerk. Carl
Orff (1895-1982) developed the method of teaching music by providing the space for
improvisations with the use of songs, rhymes, xylophones and percussions. The authors then
present their music and linguistic system on three language levels. Beginners are advised to
recite phrases from the text with the help of metronome. Then the text is then
rhythmized in a canonical form. Thus, the learners create the rhythmical patterns and acquire
basic music knowledge by experiencing off-beat and syncopation. With more advanced learners
imitation and memorizing are supported by using a technique of a question–response and a
response-question between a teacher and learner and learner – teacher. Then the learners are
required to write lyrics (text) into a music background with rhythmical and instrumental
arrangements. Macarthur and Trojer recommend several activities: text reciting with the help of
hand clapping, avoiding words from the text and play them with the instruments or acting out
the text in the form of the dance which can be later on performed.
Curriculum of music lessons varies from country to country but it definitely covers exploring
different music genres developed throughout the history as well as lives and works of famous
music composers and performers. These topics could be presented in a foreign language via
using and practising appropriate vocabulary and grammar structures, and developing language
skills. Classical music forms such as theme and variations or rondo can be experienced through
singing songs in a foreign language and thus two parallel aims can be achieved: first it is getting
familiar with musical forms and second one involves practising or revising language structures.
Content and language integrated learning (CLIL) promotes the idea of joining language and
content of a non-language subject in a very sensitive and collaborative integration (Marsh,
2007). The idea is to connect effectively the methodologies of language teaching with non-
language subjects. Project Erasmus+ with the title ´Transnational exchange of good CLIL
practice among European Educational Institutions´ provides and prepares opportunities for
observing and sharing ideas on good CLIL practices in different European countries: Lithuania,
Latvia, Italy, Sweden and Slovakia. Latvia and Lithuania support CLIL lessons at elementary
and also secondary schools. Italy specializes on CLIL application at the secondary level of
education. In Slovakia, the results of the CLIL research carried out at elementary school are
discussed in the book Modernization of teaching foreign languages, CLIL, Inclusive and
Intercultural Education (Pokrivčáková et. al. 2010) It summarizes the Slovak achievements in
CLIL practice at elementary schools in Slovakia.
In order to prove the above mentioned theory on connecting music and English, the paper
presents the results of observation carried out within the mentioned project Erasmus+. They
both use methodologies of language and music teaching.
The CLIL lesson combining music and French was performed by a music teacher expert Jelena
Valiuliene from Lithuania. The lesson was held in Vilnius, at Vilniaus Jono Basanavičiaus
progimnazija. The learners were 3rd and 4th graders at Elementary level of schooling. French is
their first foreign language and they have been learning it from their 2 nd grade. The mother
tongue of the learners is Lithuanian.
The main topic of the lesson was Variations
Content aims were to get to know the form of variation, then listen and get familiar with
Mozart variations. The partial aim was to let students experience and create their own rhythmic
variations with the help of Orff-Schulwerk instruments.
Linguistic aims of the lesson were to use the basic vocabulary related to the topic. New
vocabulary presented the following words:
Le theme variations
La forme musicale
Methods and Techniques used in the lesson
TPR (Total Physical Response), drilling by chants and rhythmical patterns, translation
Learners were standing in a circle clapping their hands or using body percussions when
presented new phrases. Then they repeated them. Teacher rhythmically chanted words and
students practiced them by repetition and drill.
Forms of work: pair, group, whole class
Every action was performed applying movements and language.
Code-switching from French to Lithuanian and back was done naturally and only when learners
misunderstood the instruction. However, new vocabulary was drilled in French only and
learners were praised with French phrases:
Bravo! Aie confiance en toi! Tu t´es amélióre! Bon esprit de camaraderie! Trés bien! Pas mal!
In the end of the lesson self-assessment took place. It consolidated how the learners acquired
new knowledge. It was provided in French. Children could choose which phrase had applied to
I understand what variations are.
It is not difficult for me to create variations.
I would like to understand this topic more. ....
This CLIL lesson combined music and French with the aim to present, learn and acquire new
terminology and vocabulary, understand the concept of variations providing an example by
Mozart variations. Moreover, learners experienced creating their own piece of music and
performed it in the end. Thus, linguistic as well as content aims were fulfilled. Above all, the
teacher and the learners enjoyed the lesson a lot.
CLIL lesson – English through music
This lesson was held in a language school in Nitra, Slovakia with a group of teenage learners
aged 13-14. Their English was at A2-B1 level according to Common European Framework of
Reference for Languages. It was their 6th year of studying English as a foreign language. Mother
tongue of the students was Slovak or Hungarian.
The main topic of the lesson was Musical as a genre, West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein.
Content aims were to understand what musical as a genre was, get familiar with a composer
Leonard Bernstein, then listen and sing the song America, explain the term triplets which is
used in the leitmotif of the song and play music using the triplets.
Linguistic aims were to develop language skills: reading the story of the musical, use past
tenses in retelling the story of the musical, discuss the different accents and cultural differences.
Methods and Techniques used in the lesson
Task-based instruction, drill, chants, song, use of Orff-Schulwerk instruments
A warm up activity was a jazz chant by Carolyn Graham aimed at revision of past tenses. It was
performed even as a TPR activity. After listening America song and comprehension of triplets,
students used instruments to perform and sang the song along. Then the text in English about
the story of the musical was read silently and comprehension questions were answered in
groups. According to the background knowledge students had a task to state possible problems
and arguments of the opposite gang members and discuss it with the whole class. The teacher
depicted the situation in the USA in the mid1950s. Students retold the story in a rhythmical way
with the use of past perfect and prompted words.
Forms of work: pair, group, whole class
Code switching: regarding the language proficiency of students, Slovak language was rarely
used. The students used Slovak only when they wanted to make sure they had understood well
the terms as for example triplets.
This lesson aimed more for English language development rather than music content
knowledge. However, the topic of West Side Story as a love story was very catchy for the
students. The linguistic aims of practising past tenses and content aims of explaining musical
and triplets were achieved. Moreover, the students as well as the teacher seemed to enjoy the
Music and language undoubtedly share some common features which can be beneficial in
language and music teaching. Music provides a renewable source of material which may help
break the ice in language lessons and create relaxed and positive atmosphere. When using music
elements actively, learners and teachers can benefit from its use by building up vocabulary,
developing receptive and productive language skills, providing drill techniques for language and
improving their pronunciation. Above all, music, rhythm and dance connect people throughout
the history. On the other hand, music history, forms and genres can be discussed through the
language and thus build up content knowledge. CLIL lessons combining music and foreign
language teaching bring in challenge and support in inter-curricular connections. Observations
carried out in Latvia and Slovakia as a partial result of the Erasmus+ project prove that music
and language teaching methodologies have a lot in common and achievement of both –
linguistic and content aims are feasible.
The paper publishes the partial results of the project Erasmus +, Project number: 2015-1-SK01-
The author wishes to give special thank to Mrs. Jelena Valiuliene, a music teacher expert from
Vilnius and her students , from Lithuania for their CLIL lesson and also to an English teacher
Asta Pleckevičiene as a project partner who was willing to gather and translate all the
information necessary for this paper.
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Mgr. Elena Kováčiková, PhD.