Jul 152010

If you want to teach someone to sing a tune, you could write down the notes and give it to them to play (providing they can read music, of course). Or you could play it yourself and get them to sing along after they’ve heard it a few times. Or you could do something rather magical like Bobby McFerrin does in this 3 minute video. Do you think teaching a language can be similar?

 Posted by at 7:48 pm

  13 Responses to “Formal instruction, demonstration and something magical”

  1. I think the ‘if you want to teach someone something, sing a tune’ is a bit off base. If my high school had been filled with operatic teachers, I don’t think I’d have retained any more than I did. (Which isn’t much.) A better choice of words would be ‘if you want to teach something, be surprisingly different.’

    Also, part of the magic in the video (yes, I watched it twice) was the way he set the audience up and then they understood what they were supposed to do without him introducing more notes. I think that’s something we can parallel in language education, but I’m not really sure how. (Chat freely and let them see how conversing in English is [almost] the same as in German?)

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Karenne Sylvester, BELTfree. BELTfree said: #BELTfree #ELT #EFL Formal instruction, demonstration and something magical […]

  3. First off, thanks for sharing this with us Vicki. It’s always good to have a different view on education above and beyond the standard run of the mill.
    Second, I think this could be emulated in language learning, but it would require previous knowledge of some kind. This is really just a reorganization of what is already in our brains. We all know a scale, and Bobby was just using that previous knowledge in a different way.
    For language I think we can utilize this same principal in different types of Task Based Lessons, fitting in previous knowledge into a different pattern. If you wanted to teach a functional unit.
    Or for vocabulary you could try to match antonyms to synonyms. or you could leave spaces in sentences and ask them what part of speech goes here? noun? verb? adjective?
    Of course these are just random quick thoughts. Please shoot holes in them if you see something awry.
    Great Post!

  4. Thanks for sharing this and it DOES have major implications for language teachers courageous enough to look at it squarely and think how we can apply the same methodology.

    It is very much like Jazz chants gone TPR. It is how we should teach intonation and rhythm (which is the apex of fluency, how to get to great fluency early).

    I think all language teachers should reflect long and hard about the parallels and commonalities between music and language. It is something that will bring you rewards far beyond any you might imagine as a language teacher – imho. I guess the larger question is – if Bobby Mcferrin spent a year in a language classroom – what / how would he teach?


  5. previous knowledge I found can work with borrowed words.

    Have used students knowledge of English words in German or similiar words as a base for building up there vocabulary, and conversational ability.

    The students have to be willing of course.

    Yesterday I wrote the German word inzentiv on the board as a way to first discuss the meaning of the word in german compared to the English word incentive. This then lead easily into a discussion as to incentives to first take a job, then the more problematic retaining employees. Even the student surprised me by explaining perks as goodies; was such a fabtatsic explanation that I am going to steal it for future lessons.

    The feedback was great, as to walk into an English lesson and have a German word on the board was intriguing enough to pique interest.
    Especially as not to be expected in my lessons 😉

    Another nice idea is to use poetry or short stories as a way to teach intonation and emphasis.
    Not really working on previous knowledge, however I am sure all learners as pupils in school had to read poetry or stories.
    Reading aloud, and using others to listen and give feedback is very mutually beneficial for the students.

    btw: I saw Bobby in Leipzig sometime ago, he accompanied Nigel Kennedy with his voice as instruments. Such a great guy and innovative.

  6. Toby, good to meet you. Glad you highlighted the issue of surprise. It’s such a powerful weapon for grabbing our learners’ attention and alertness. Humour often relies on surprise – like when Bobby jumped on two notes at once. Also pleased you thought the video was worth a double viewing. In truth, one of my motivations for posting it was selfish – I don’t think I’ll ever tire of watching it and wanted to store it somewhere handy.

  7. Neal, David and Stewart, the best thing about blogging is the folks who drop by with great comments! Thank you all so much.

    You ask a great question David – if Bobby were a language teacher, how would he do it? He’s got that audience eating out of his hands. If he ever wanted to give up music, he’d be a brilliant EFL teacher – always anticipating where things might go wrong and adding in a guiding note, but then shutting up when he isn’t needed. He also has great time management skills.

    Neal and Stewart, yeah, it’s that question of what previous knowledge can we build on, or at least, what common understanding do we share, that intrigues me. With the pentatonic music scale, Bobby is playing with a pattern that’s recognized pretty much universally. As I posted this, I wondered if there were universal patterns in grammar we could build on– e.g. English tends to go Subject-Verb-Object which is pretty common among languages, and might that be a pattern we could play with. (But it wouldn’t work for a lot of languages because I think Subject –Object-Verb is a bit more common.) But perhaps it’s rather like your ‘what part of speech goes in here?’ idea Neal.

    Another thought I had was collocation –he’s playing with patterns here after all, and collocation seems universal in all languages – albeit with lexical differences that we’d want to explore. Another universal pattern to play with could be politeness, though obviously flavours of that can vary greatly. And then you came in and broadened it out into new dimensions like TPR, jazz chants, borrowed words and task based learning. Thank you for blowing my mind!

    Stewart – you saw him perform? Wow! I feel very jealous!

    And David – I agree about that link you mention between music and language and wonder if there might be another to add too – maths.

  8. Thanks Vicki for the response.
    It’s funny that you mention SVO order because Japanese is one of those rare languages that breaks that mold and goes SOV. Sometimes I think Japan is America in an alternative universe (in a good way).
    It reminds me of a study i read somewhere that suggests the brain actually works in SOV. New languages can attest to this somewhat. I think some new sign languages (or all?) have SOV. Whereas most ‘mature’ languages have switched to SVO. Go figure.
    I liked this video because points out that it’s possible to build prior knowledge to make something new.
    I think sometimes learners demand more words more phrases, but if we could just help them organize what they have we could create something new.

  9. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Neal Chambers, Dayle. Dayle said: RT @nealchambers: Formal Instruction, Demo, magic (vid) (@vickihollet) http://su.pr/AK95nB | Bobby M with a different teaching style […]

  10. Vicki,

    Again, great note about how he “shuts up” when necessary!

    I do think it of value to ponder the link with math but I think it much less fruitful on the immediate level than the connection with music. Math is of course a “language” but one with much less universality or “depth” than music. However, on a cerebral level, yes, math does indeed probably have much more conscious and explicit lessons for us. Me thinks. When I get old and gray, I would like to note some of those 🙂

    I think the power of Bobby’s teaching would be in making the learning, “subconscious” and automatic. Precisely what is needed, especially in the early years. We should react, not think – about language. Flow and show not think and blink.


  11. Something i saw a teacher do, it probably comes from someone’s book and has a name but i’m sorry i don’t know any of that, was a dictation type activity where the teacher read an article and would hesitate (and not say) at several of the words group of words, and wait for the students (listening) to shout out the missing word before continuing.
    Ok not exactly musical but……

  12. Love that ‘alternative universe’ concept, Neal. (I didn’t realise SVO is the norm.)Love the flow show vs think, blink too David.

    Chris, thanks for stopping by. It’s such a simple activity, but I bet it works realy well.

  13. […] Vicki at Learning to Speak ‘Merican shows Bobby McFerrin teaching music and asks us if we could do the same in our English language […]

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