On Language

Last year I took it upon myself to work on my French language skills.

I wanted to improve my abilities and have been frustrated by language learning and its concentration on rules and vocabulary as currently taught in the US. There are thousands of students who have taken language courses and yet cannot speak, read, or write in the language that they have studied.

Why?

Perhaps this is due to the focus on grammar and vocabulary. When a student is confronted in the street by a speaker of French they are usually adrift because they are immediately trying to remember a set of RULES and CONJUGATIONS in the moment. We might say that the language is not fluent. It does not flow.

So, what did I do to study French? Did I read grammar books or study long lists of vocabulary?

No.

I learned about Stephen Krashen‘s theories of language acquisition. According to Krashen, we need LOTS of input in the target language. That means we need to take in a vast amount of the language through listening and reading in the target language. Not speaking. Not grammar or verb drills, and not memorizing of charts. This is learning that is organized around tests. 

 

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Learning French became a joy when I re-evaluated my entire language learning approach.

Your chosen inputs are VERY important. They should be centered on topics you are ALREADY interested in and would read in English. For example, if you enjoyed gardening,  you would seek out input about gardening in the target language. Podcasts, articles, radio, television, books, or YouTube videos all fit the bill.

Krashen believes that we need to take in a large amount of this input before we even ATTEMPT to speak the language. We need many hundreds of hours of listening and reading before we can begin to think about verbal expression. (Notice how this correlates to language acquisition as children?) The ability to speak in the target language literally EMERGES as one takes in greater amounts of input in the target language.

I recommend watching Dr. Krashen’s video to get a high overview of his hypotheses and theories. It’s worth the to watch to understand how I went about learning French more deeply.

At the end of three months of consistent input, I noticed my understanding zooming ahead and my facility was the highest it has ever been in all my years of French study. I knew I was on the right track when a friend, a French native speaker, was legitimately shocked at the sudden development of my language abilities in conversation. He wanted to know exactly what I had been doing in such a short time to improve my French so quickly.

Here is a quick distillation of the approach that helped me:

  1. Don’t learn grammar. If you do, the book should be slim.
  2. Listen. Listen a LOT. That’s the main ingredient. (Mirrors my thoughts on how we learn to sing, too).
  3. Repeat your listening quite a bit. Twenty times is not out of the question – more if you can.
  4. Use your dead time to listen: in the car, on public transit. That was very helpful to me because I was able to practice listening with time that was already ‘lost.’
  5. Don’t stress out if you don’t understand 100%. 70% is actually really good. The more you listen, the more your comprehension will increase. Take a calm and peaceful attitude into your language learning.
  6. Listen to content (input) that is of interest to you. It will hold your attention and you will be more likely to stay with language learning if you are learning about things you ALREADY LIKE. Many French language learning texts are dry and boring.
  7. Learn in accordance with the context of what you are listening to and reading. Context is an important part of ‘filling in the blanks’ of words and phrases that you don’t understand.

So, what does all of this have to do with singing?

When you learn the language you gain a respect for it – as a linguistic and musical event. It is our practice in the United States to push students into foreign language repertoire which they do not understand. So, the diction work done by coaches and teachers is all focused on externals: making the proper ‘sounds’ with no real context for the language’s nuances. It becomes a bizarre kind of parroting in which the student may understand the text but hasn’t grasped the benefits of the language’s colors and flavors. It becomes an indication or an approximation of a text.

Teachers and coaches will applaud a well-pronounced song or aria, but the student has only attained mastery of these externals or rules. They’ve hit the targets. But is that art? Singing is a musico-linguistic event. Communication should be its primary directive. How can a student communicate in a language that he/she does not speak? Listen to Tebaldi sing in Italian, or Callas, or Galli-Curci – they would struggle with ‘rules’ in a diction class, and their Italian pronunciation is idiosyncratic.

Perhaps voice education in the classical model should elevate language learning as one of its central goals. Students should be placed into intensive, immersive language listening as soon as they express an interest in singing classical music. Because Italian is the language of music, perhaps it can be a starting language, and students should be encouraged to listen to Italian content every day.

I can’t help but think that the communicative ability of a singer would take leaps and bounds if they dedicated themselves to a true immersion in the languages of singing. Can a singer learn ALL the languages? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t try. A wise course of study might be to spend an entire year on each of the major singing languages: a year for Italian, French, German, and later perhaps Russian or Czech.

We must VALUE language in teaching singing – as much as the music itself. It is the entire reason that the composer was inspired to compose in the first place. The greater the respect we accord the words, and the language of the poet, the closer we connect to the poet and the composer. We begin to live not only in the musical world of the composer but his linguistic world as well.

We MUST learn to make music WITH the language, not against it as some kind of inconvenient backdrop. 

Merely checking off the rules of a diction book when singing is NOT the same thing as a singer who has LIVED in that language and absorbed words deeply.

If you would like to learn more about Krashen’s ideas, please visit this link.

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