Thursday, July 5, 2012

Can You Sing That For Me, Please?

It has been a while since I have written a post and this is going to be my first post in this blog. My other blog (Te@ch me Tech) mainly consists of tutorials and tech tips, however, in this one, I want to write more about ELT and other issues that occupy my fragile mind. I haven't had the chance to write about IATEFL Glasgow and now I think it is about time. Glasgow was 5 days of conferencing mayhem and I think it was the ultimate ELT event. I will not talk about what I saw at the conference (there is plenty of content here), however, I want to write about my experience as an English teacher in an "English Speaking" country.  Before Glasgow, I had never been in an English Speaking country and honestly speaking, I was happy to know that finally, after travelling in many European countries, I wouldn't have to ask people if they spoke English (and trust me, speaking English to the natives in many European countries is still a problem).  Well, Glasgow did not turn out the way I imagined! In Glasgow, people are speaking a variation of English. I thought I was good in understanding accents (I have watched all Guy Ritchie movies and Trainspotting  many many times), but,  I failed. It took me a while to understand the taxi drivers' questions "Whaur ur ye frae?" or "Ur ye also gonnae th' leid conference?". And questions like "Whit woods ye loch tae bevvy loove?" at pubsAfter a while, I got embarrassed about repeating "sorrys?" and "come agains?". Once again, it felt like I was in a non-English speaking country.

All of this reminded me of the Scottish Rock/Blues/Country (?!) band Texas and their lead singer Sharleen Spiteri. When I was a student at the university, I used to listen to them. They were a nice blend of pop and rock and this is what I would hear (and still hear)You don't have to listen to all of it, the first minute will do:

Everything is alright, isn't it? You can understand almost all the lyrics  "and when I get that feeling, I can no longer run, I can no longer hide, no no no" and so on (here it gets too romantic for me!). However, now I want you to watch and listen to THIS (first 2 minutes will do):

What is going on here? What happened to that sweet ENGLISH singing Sharleen? (noticed how she pronounces "Texas"??). What's more, I think  at one point, even one of the hosts looks like he is concentrating really really hard to understand what she is saying. 

Is there an explanation to this phenomenon? There are many. One might be that the singer is intentionally adopting a 'clearer' accent so that people will understand what she is singing about. Another 'outrageous' explanation is that one simply cannot sing in a Scottish accent! A quick search on Google shows that the patterns of an accent in speech cannot be retained in singing (great explanation here) If that is the case, would I have been luckier if I had asked the drivers and bartenders to sing to me?

How about using singing in the classroom to help students of English lose their foreign accents or work on their pronunciation accuracy? One study suggests that this is possible. In a study called "Singing your accent away, and why it works", Hagen, Kerkhoff & Gussenhoven (from the Centre for Language Studies, Radboud University Nijmegen, the Netherlands; Queen Mary University of London, UK) have shown that it is possible to lose your foreign accent when you sing. They made eleven Dutch secondary school children sing and speak the lyrics of a number of popular English songs. At the end of the study, their pronunciation accuracy was rated significantly higher by  English native speakers.  

I haven't had the chance to try this in the classroom since I am teaching MBA students and singing at that age requires a certain degree of self-confidence, but I wonder if anyone out there has tried this in the classroom? Do you think it would help? What kind of an activity would you use?

Hagen, M., Kerkhoff, J. &  Gussenhoven, C. (2011) 'Singing your accent away and why it works' ICPhS XVII, 799-802


  1. I've wondered about this myself, Hakan. Great topic to write about on the first post here.

    I don't think singing in an (your?) accent is impossible though. I think of Artic Monkeys - Alex Turner sings in a pretty northern English accent.

    1. Thanks Mike for your comment. I agree with you there. However, I think, whenever the accent becomes prominent, the singing changes more into a speaking (rapping?) kind of way. I think, if we'd hear Alex speak, we'd say that he has a heavy accent. But when he is singing, it sounds like "ok, he is British" and we still understand the lyrics. In Sharleen's case, at some points, it's impossible to understand what she says when she is speaking.

  2. Thanks for this post! It was very interesting. I am not a singer at all, so I struggle to incorporate music in my classes, but I definitely want to think through it and try to find a way to use this in the classroom!

    1. I'd be very happy if you could share your thoughts on how your students reacted to the idea.

  3. Hi Hakan,

    Great to see your new blog, and it was good to meet you in Turkey.

    As a quick aside to Mike, My Fair Lady, the musical, might be another pointedly obvious example of singing with an accent...

    I think that singing is a great integration exercise structure.

    First you have rhythm and intonation baked in.
    Second, you have an emphasis on emotion, which in voice is transmitted by vowels. Vowel quality is modified by the act of singing.
    Third, the structure of a song makes it easier to predict the words. (Both rightly and wrongly).

    I do something similar when working pronunciation as an ability. I hav a hunch that imitative pronunciation is different than emergent language learning in that it is a either a talent or ability, like singing, or acrobatics, and that we try to get the students doing backflips and arias before scales and warmups. So, here is what seems to work for me... without any real singing.

    Step one:

    Student listens to a sentence and repeats it via "la la la-ing" through a sentence. No real sounds just "sings" the intonation and rhythm in the sentence without focusing on the actual sound.

    Step two:

    Student builds on step one by just doing the vowel sounds in the sentence. (It sounds stupid. [I'll write it like "i ouuu ooo-ii" because I can't be bothered to look up and type in the phonetic alphabet]) This step helps carry the emotion of the sentence, and many actors do this while training a monologue.

    Step three:

    Student adds in consonants, (which carry the logical meaning) and says entire sentence. Student compares results of imitating a sentence directly with that of going through the three steps.

    Breaking down the steps seems to help students notice sounds. I think that doing this a minute a day with a voicethread would be a great way of integrating pron into one's routine and journalling the long term result of pronunciation work.

    the communication of emotion is a good goal for MBA students, and in any case, if you can get a bunch of MBA students to go "ow aaa uuuu uuuiiii ooo aaaaay?" ....
    singing is a much closer next step than it was before.

    1. Thank you Mat for this great activity. I agree with the idea that imitative pronunciation is different and that it can help students to overcome pronunciation barriers. On the other hand, it would be great if you had videos from these sessions. I also wonder how the students react (feel?) to this activity? I definitely want to try this and see how they react.

    2. Hi Hakan, I don't have any videos of students, but you inspired me to do some action research and I went through the process of trying to learn a sentence in Turkish. As an absolute beginner in Turkish, I don't hear any meaning at all... and without meaning to hang sound on, I have big problems. Giving a process makes it easier to go little by little, but a more advanced student could go way faster.

      Out of curiousity... by the end, is what I say intelligible?

      The video is here on youtube (if the link doesn't work here, click on my name beside this comment):

    3. This is really an action research (I admire your patience!), thanks for the effort. However, I have to tell you, there is not much difference between before and after, by the end, it is still not intelligible. I am sure, it would have made a difference if a Turkish speaking person had been there to help you hear (?) the correct sounds because as a Turkish speaking person, I don't know how you "perceive" those sounds (which I perceive completely different). I don't know if "perceive" is the right word, but, I think, we also have to take into account that those sounds are 'decoded' in a different way by speakers of another language and hence make you produce (encode?) other sets of sounds. I wonder what would have happened if you had tried to learn a Turkish song (by imitating the sounds) instead of a line from a movie? I would gladly find a link to a Turkish song if you are up to (have the time and patience for) another action research.

    4. Hi Hakan,

      Thanks for your patience in watching it! (Failed action research is still good action research.)

      I am not at all surprised it isn't intelligible, and suspected it wasn't. I think you are right, it is about perception, and putting phonetics through my phonemic filters... slicing everything into wrong shapes.

      Yes,it would have been MUCH easier with someone to help me instead of "shooting in the dark": Having said that, there is still time for somebody to leave a video comment to help me correct my sounds. (Hint. Hint.)

      Perhaps 5 minutes of time with a real teacher is worth more than 100 hours of banging your head against the phonetic wall. This is a great experiment to increase empathy with total beginners and tolerance to frustrated "beginner face" facial expressions.

      It is a bit of an extreme example, of course. Further along the road, and with a bit of guidance, the 3 step process seems to be more useful, as students have better approximations and can "notice" things easier, but... the outside ear is always a good friend to have. The process also kept me "at task" longer than I would have without it. Whether this is good or bad, not having reached intelligibility, is a good question. Certainly, the time invested leaves a desire to actually get to intelligible, and helps builds up patience (tolerance to failure?).

      Am just entering into a bit of free time and I am up for the experiment of the song to take full advantage of my ignorance of Turkish.

      I might also get my three year old to try imitation to see if a VYL will be able to learn the sounds in a more naive manner than I am capable of, without the benefit of motherese. (If so, can she teach me?)

    5. Hey Matt,
      I think we can turn this into a more global project. I want to write another post with the Turkish video and see how others (and yours as well since we have your attempt at trying to "imitate" a Turkish sentence) also respond to it, maybe there are others who want to try ,too. I, want to try a song in another language, too and see how my pronunciation is rated by the native speakers of that language. Is it ok for you if I use your Turkish pronunciation video in another post?
      Here is the song that you can try, I will post this again in the new blog post:

      It is a popular song by a very popular Turkish band called MFÖ. Let's see how this will turn out (I am very excited about this).

    6. Hakan, no problem at all with video use. I just changed licence of video to creative commons, so if you want to edit it, shorten it, or whatever... all good.

      I like the song... and, yes, there are a lot of ELT teachers/singers out there.
      Any part of the song you want me to work on?

      By the way, if you don't speak French, this might be a good song:

  4. Hi Hakan! A great post. I don't think you attended Jane-Maria Harding's workshop at the conference but I think it is related to your post here. It was a bout chanting and rapping to improve pronunciation. Here's her page where she also shares the link to her blog:

    1. Wow, thanks for the link. I will check it out right away.