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What do choir singing and language learning have in common?

Some years ago I took my young French classes to see a French film called Les Choristes (The Choir). It was about a class in a French boarding school for disfavoured boys after the Second World War. The boys were unruly and often received corporal punishment by the intransigent headmaster. Then one day, a middle-aged man down on his luck was hired to supervise the students at night and during study periods. He soon used his passion for choir music to motivate the boys to love singing. Although the film centred on one complex boy who sang beautiful solos, the beautiful songs were the product of the group effort of the class.

What relevance does this film, or choir singing in general, have to do with learning a foreign language? Quite a lot really. When we think about language learning, we tend to think about the individual talent and skills of each pupil. At test time, each child is assessed on their individual learning. Each pupil receives an individual grade. What would happen if we considered the English class to be like a choir instead of a number of individuals? What would happen if the whole class spoke at the same time and was assessed as a group and not as individuals? What if every pupil in the class received the same grade based on the collective speaking effort of the class? That would be revolutionary! Except that the revolution would probably be one of protest against this philosophy. And yet the pupils, except the most ambitious and competitive ones, would probably favour this type of pedagogy, at least in their early years of learning English.

One learning methodology that has been around for millennia, but less so in recent times, is what I like to refer to as ‘choral learning’. We see this more in oriental cultures, for example in the practice of the Chinese martial art of Tai Chi where the group moves in unison. This also happens in classrooms where pupils will recite texts together. One of the practical reasons for this is the sheer numbers of pupils in one class. Japan is increasing class sizes in elementary schools to 40 and I have observed classes of 50 pupils in elementary schools in China.

I do not posit that choral learning is the most effective pedagogy for language learning, especially the extreme phenomenon of Li Yang’s ‘Crazy English’ method. However, when faced with large classes where the confident pupils tend to dominate during speaking time and timid pupils remain silent, choral English speaking and singing creates a safe environment where all pupils feel comfortable to speak up without the danger of losing face or being ridiculed.

Anyone who has studied a bit of cultural anthropology will recognise that some societies tend toward individualism and others toward collectivism. However, regardless of a particular culture’s leanings, educational assessment has always been based on individual performance. Wouldn't it be refreshing if that habit was reversed?

Tony Gallagher 11-May-2015

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