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Using Music to Learn English

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INTRO: It's time for wordmaster, with VOA's Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble. If you've ever had trouble understanding song lyrics, then what you're about to hear will be music to your ears.

MUSIC: "What's Love Got to Do With It?"/Tina Turner

AA: What's love got to do with it? Well -- not much, if you can't understand the words to this Tina Turner song. I'm Avi Arditti.

RS: And I'm Rosanne Skirble. A listener in Israel, Michael Farberman of Tel Aviv, says it's really hard for him to make out the words of songs such as Tina Turner's hit, "What's Love Got to Do With It?" Unfortunately, there are lots of American songs that even native English speakers cannot understand. So it's especially tough on people who listen to music trying to learn the language.

AA: Wendy Hyman-Fite directs the English as a second language program at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. She and her sister Lori Diefenbacher are also singers and musicians. Their English teaching book and recording, "Singing USA," includes the 19th century wagon song "Sweet Betsy from Pike."

TAPE: CUT TWO -- HYMAN-FITE

"Now you sing that, 'have you ever heard of sweet betsy from pike.' So even if a person doesn't know the natural stress of an English sentence, if they sing the song, they can remember that, 'have you ever heard of sweet betsy from pike,' and start to get a more natural rhythm to their language."

TAPE: CUT three: "sweet betsy from pike"

RS: Of course, other kinds of music in addition to folk songs can be used to teach -- pop, rock, rap. But Wendy Hyman-Fite has a favorite:

TAPE: CUT FOUR -- HYMAN-FITE/AA

HYMAN-FITE: "Now you many laugh at me here but I think country music is rich. It'll tell an awful lot about what's going on in the country and you know it's about trains and mama and all these -- 'my baby left me' -- but it's never so heavy that it doesn't come back with a rousing chorus that brings you back up because it has a more positive feeling to it. So I would tend to use more country music -- also choosing it for good grammar and rich vocabulary. All the teacher has to do is 'datamine,' to use a computer term. Find out what's in [the song] and really milk it for all it's worth. Then have fun with it. I always end with them singing the song. So we've worked it through, we understand it and we know the words and we know the rhythm. We've worked on the pronunciation and now let's just have a good time and sing it.

AA: "What about bad grammar in songs?"

HYMAN-FITE: "Well, yeah, there's a lot of bad grammar. But if you choose your songs carefully, I guess that would be it."

RS: Wendy Hyman-Fite points out that songs teach more than words. Teachers can use songs to talk about culture, history and social issues that the music reflects.

AA: Wendy Hyman-Fite also says there's a lot of research to show that music gets the whole brain working. So that's another benefit of using music to teach language.

RS: We leave you today with America's favorite unintelligible party song, "Louie Louie," as sung by the Kingsmen in 1963. It was the subject of a Supreme Court ruling this month involving royalty payments. The lyrics are so slurred that some people suspected they were obscene. But they're really the words of a lovesick, drunken Jamaican sailor, talking innocently to a bartender named Louie.

MUSIC: "Louie Louie"

AA: That's Wordmaster for this week.

RS: With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

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