How to Spark Your Students’ Passion for World Language Through Music

May 2, 2019
Dr. Jamie Agins Lincow, Ph.D.

My love for Spanish was ignited after listening to Gloria Estefan’s Mi tierra album when I was 12 years old. The tropical rhythms and the lyrics in Spanish were enchanting, and I sat for hours on my bedroom floor trying to decipher the meaning of each verse even though I was only in my first year of learning Spanish in school.

From that initial encounter with songs in Spanish, my collection of music continued to grow over the years, in addition to my fluency in Spanish. Singing along with the music artists, I polished my pronunciation, learned new vocabulary and expressions from their lyrics, and developed an appreciation for Latin-American and Spanish music and culture.  

As a World Language teacher with 17 years of experience, I attempt to ignite that same spark in my students, and I have found that music is the common denominator that allows me to accomplish this goal. From the very first class in September, I expose my students to contemporary Latin-American music that I know and love. Music is always playing when students enter my room. On the first day some students are surprised because they have never heard this type of music or these popular artists before; however, others come into the room and begin singing along with the lyrics. They already know this music and love it! My experience has shown that within a few short weeks the majority of the class will have at least a handful of those songs downloaded on their devices and eagerly sing along with the choruses.  

We begin the curriculum with a music unit that outlines some fundamentals of linguistics and the phenomena that hispanohablantes make in their speech and while they sing. The terms that I highlight include sinalefa, or the combination of words into one utterance; aspiración, or the placing of air into a letter; and elisón, the elimination of syllables or letters. We discuss tongue twisters, or trabalenguas, in music, and also street language, or palabrotas, that they may hear. Lastly, we study the use of the Spanish cedilla in songs produced and sung by artists from Spain. Besides giving them examples of these aforementioned phenomena in Spanish, I ask them to provide me with utterances that they make in English that also exemplify these traits. They are always amazed to see that English speakers tend to commit similar linguistic phenomena as the Spanish utterances we are analyzing in class!  

Once students can differentiate between these fundamental terms and locate them within the song, we move on to translating the lyrics and eventually researching information about the genre of music, whether it is salsa, merengue, reggaeton, pop Latino, or bachata, to name a few. Each student acquires their own opinion about the different genres of Latin music and then subsequently chooses a contemporary song to present to the class in a formal presentation. In addition to locating the linguistic phenomenon in the song based upon what we have studied together class, the student must also translate the lyrics and include information about the biography and hometown of the music artist. By including this additional cultural component, the class begins the journey through the first AP® theme of the year, Family and Community.  

While linguistic terminology may not be included in the AP course themes, the study of the people and communities that commit these phenomena in Spanish-speaking countries is a major part of the curriculum. The students’ presentations about the music and the singers provide an invaluable foundation for the class to gain an understanding and appreciation for the diverse cultures in various Spanish-speaking countries around the world. The class as a whole is interested and invested in each presentation because the music is at the heart of the demonstration. Many students even include a link to a music video or live performance of the song within their presentation! By the end of this unit, the class is able to put together a playlist of all of the songs that their classmates have presented and take that music with them on their devices. I know that I have accomplished my goal when parents comment that they hear Spanish music playing in their homes and that their students are often listening to it on their devices. Studies have shown that repetition is a key factor of language learning, and my students are proving that theory correct as they repeat these songs and sing along with their lyrics.  

This type of music unit can be integrated into any Spanish course at any level. Students of all ages love music and the linguistic component can be tailored to any level of language learner, from the novice student in elementary school to the master student in a high-school AP class. World Language teachers are simply training the students’ ears to more easily recognize differences in pronunciation that can make comprehension difficult. By establishing a cultural connection to the AP themes, we are preparing the younger students for a more global approach to language learning and providing supplemental context to the more advanced, AP students. It is also possible to modify the students’ presentation to the AP presentational rubric provided by the College Board.

I have tailored that rubric to many assignments, and you can find them along with other fun, educational assessments in my book, Cultural Connections in the Spanish Classroom.

It can be found here.

Posted By Dr. Jamie Agins Lincow, Ph.D. | High School Teacher

Dr. Jamie Agins Lincow, Ph.D., is a high-school teacher who teaches AP Spanish courses in Language and Literature. In addition to a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in Spanish, she earned her doctoral degree in Spanish Language and Literature with concentrations in Golden Age Literature and Contemporary Latin-American Literature. She has more than 17 years of teaching experience and holds a master’s degree in Education.

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1 comment

  1. I loved this article, Jamie! In fact, it gave me some ideas for working with English language learners and incorporating music sung in students’ home languages as a way of forging a sense of community and connection, as well as honoring the home language. Thanks for sharing!

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