The Drachenland Fable

This was published in the Pergamon journal System Vol. 14 No. 2 of 1986, an issue for which I was the guest editor. Having commissioned several learned contributions from friends and colleagues, I decided I would put in something more light-hearted of my own. The actual genesis of the paper was a conference session I had attended in which people were discussing the integratioon of computer activities into classwork. Looking round the room, I wondered why everybody was looking so glum. Would they still be so glum if the topic were, say, singing?

Integrating [computers] with [foreign language] classwork

Musikfabrikanten (MF) of Neuschloss, capital of Drachenland, was established only some forty years ago, but flourished during the sixties and seventies, gaining a reputation for making reliable musical instruments at reasonable prices. Their first large scale customers were military bands, gradually rebuilding themselves after the disasters of the war. The company diversified into string instruments just at the time that the national broadcasting system was forming two new orchestras. MF's announcement of its new range of pianos coincided with the inauguration of a national singing competition, and the country's school choirs and singing teachers were prompt to renew their rickety instruments in the hopes of getting their pupils into the finals. Simultaneously the company launched an aggressive advertising campaign for its guitars, hoping to encourage domestic music making. Then an austerity-minded government put an end to the surge of musical sponsorship and sales began to dip. MF discovered it had a serious problem of overcapacity.

In searching for new markets the company found itself looking at language teaching. They funded a visit by a well-known foreign expert who, in a seminar at the national university, talked persuasively about the way that songs could make vocabulary and even grammar more memorable, about the improvement in the learners' command of stress and intonation, and above all about the enhanced motivation that musical language lessons had brought. Students, including many who detested and did badly in conventional lessons, had actually asked for extra sessions of foreign language singing, and even took tapes of songs home for private practice. The senior planning officer of the Ministry of Education attended the seminar and was convinced. A few weeks later he announced that it would now be government policy to encourage musical language lessons.

But Drachenland is not a place where things are done in a hurry. Before the new policy could be made mandatory, there was to be a trial period in which different models of MALL (music-assisted language learning) were to be investigated.

Northern Province

The Northern Province, which had a long tradition of independence from central authority, was excluded, and in this part of the country all singing in language lessons has now been strictly forbidden. This is partly due to a conservative orthodoxy which sees singing and other forms of music making as the exclusive preserve of the music and religion department in each school (the two subjects are taught together), and partly to a general snobbery about 'Mickey Mouse' instruments like the piano and the guitar; to a true northerner the only instrument worth playing or hearing is the church organ. One town in the North-West applied for a partial exemption to the ban on the grounds that their school choir, as recent winners of the national competition, were invited to the next Edinburgh Festival and needed to practise some international songs. Even there, however, they were only allowed to rehearse with their English teacher in the evenings: no musical notes could intrude on the periods assigned to serious language learning.

The ban was not universally popular. A few language teachers who were also part-time musicians resigned in protest and went to look for jobs elsewhere. In several schools petitions were handed in signed by numerous pupils and one or two staff; the lists, however, when scrutinised, were found to contain very few names of academically gifted students, so they did not matter. One sporty group of senior pupils rebelled to the extent of composing some ribald songs in English criticising the ban, which they started performing in their English lesson, but the only outcome of this was that the pupils were expelled.

Southern Province

In the South, by contrast, it was decided that all lessons in all foreign languages should be turned into periods of singing. This created a short term crisis, in that the pupils still had to pass the national baccalaureate examination. A working party was formed at once either to find or to compose suitable songs to cover every vocabulary item, every idiom, and every grammatical structure in the syllabus. About one third of the syllabus could be met from material in published song books. Composing new songs for the rest looked like overtaxing the skills of the team, until a simplifying solution was adopted: all verb forms were to be set to She'll be coming round the mountain, all two-clause patterns to If you were the only girl in the world, and all adverbs and preposition usages to Somewhere over the rainbow. This reduced the task to that of composing a large number of new lyrics and only a modest number of new tunes. As a stopgap measure the committee arranged for some 'authoring songs' to be distributed, namely sheets of music with blank lines on which teachers could write their own words. Although some schools took advantage of these and built up libraries of home-composed lyrics, most schools did nothing more with the authoring songs than sing them to the original words.

The working party also had to concern itself with teacher training, since only a handful of the teachers in the school could actually play a musical instrument. One short-term solution was to use cassettes, and a sub-committee was formed to supervise the recording and distribution of tapes containing melodies picked out on the piano, recordings of accompaniments without voice, and some exemplary recordings (imported) to show teachers what they should be aiming at. In the long term, however, everybody agreed that teachers would have to learn to play themselves. A crash course in guitar accompaniment was put together, and a hard-working group of trainers, covering the whole province, managed to reach 92% of the teaching force for a half-day course. (Complaints that half a day was too little were countered by saying that the objective of the course was to make the participants 'guitar-literate' rather than turn them into accomplished performers.) Selected teachers were also given a three-day residential piano course. An unforeseen problem was that there was by now a ten-month waiting list for new guitars and a three-month delay on piano deliveries, and many of the teachers had to wait the best part of a year before they got any 'hands-on' experience of the instruments they had been nominally trained to use. There were also many staffing problems when young teachers who had received piano training found themselves allocated to guitar-only schools and vice versa.

It was pointed out, too, that children, having far more supple fingers than adults, could learn to play these instruments more quickly than adults; indeed quite a number already had them at home. Many teachers were deeply disturbed at the thought that youngsters in their own classes could outshine them and make them appear ridiculous. The working party tried hard to make a virtue of necessity, encouraging teachers to use skilled pupils as accompanists and song-leaders. The teachers pointed out that when their youthful maestri actually sang, they often used faulty pronunciation or made grammar mistakes. After a good deal of discussion, the working party changed their minds and issued a set of guidelines discouraging teachers from calling on their pupils to play for them.

It took almost two years, but in the end the great day arrived when the plan could be implemented. From that day onwards no ordinary speech, no unmetrical prose, has been heard in the English or French classes of Southern Province. Classroom instructions are given to the tune of La Marseillaise. The roll is called using the notes of Ten Green Bottles. Some older teachers with harsh croaking voices are serving out their time till retirement, and their classes do not seem to be doing very well. Luckily they are fast being replaced with younger recruits, many of them originally aspirants for the chorus of the National Opera, with questionable foreign language skills but excellent musical ability.


Western Province

Meanwhile Western Province has adopted a less wholesale approach. The foreign language advisers recommended that only a part of the curriculum should be devoted to singing, and eventually chose Wednesday mornings from nine to ten, on the grounds that the children would be most receptive and most vocally energetic at this point in the week. The time had to be changed after head teachers pointed out that almost all schools held choir practice at the same hour for the same reason, and the instruments (all initially borrowed from the music department) could not be in two places at once. A strong lobby developed in favour of equipping all the language teachers with their own instruments, so that they could use them at the earlier time, but this subsided when it turned out that the majority of the teachers preferred to invite their colleagues from the music department in to help them run the MALL classes, or better still to take the whole class over to the music room where the acoustic was better and the instruments were always ready to use. (Another advantage was that most music departments kept a tuner on standby who could replace a broken string and re-tune a guitar far quicker than the language teacher could.) Thus eleven o'clock on a Wednesday has now become the province-wide moment when thousands of voices are raised in a chorus of Early one morning or whatever else is prescribed.

The problems of the syllabus were far smaller than those facing the Southern Province. With only one hour in five to fill, the available song books provided plenty of material, and it was just a matter of selecting songs which contained the most memorable lines and (for motivational reasons) the sweetest tunes. Indeed, no attempt was ever made to match the songs of the week to the grammar of the week. The Wednesday period is regarded as 'enrichment', a chance to extend the cultural horizons of the language lesson. This does, however, place some pressure on the rest of the timetable, and so there is no room for anything as frivolous as a song in the remaining four periods: after all, the children do have exams to pass.

There was one problem which Western Province escaped, and that was teacher training. A fair number of the teachers, over twenty percent according to one estimate, were already musically gifted and welcomed the chance to exercise their talents. For the rest, music departments throughout the province collaborated enthusiastically, and music teachers came in to help run the language lessons. This was not without problems. Although music teachers could play and sing very well, hardly any of them understood a word they were singing or could explain the words of the songs. Unless the language teachers were very alert, all kinds of false notions could be planted in the heads of their learners. A suspicion arose that the music teachers were using the time to give some extra tuition in music, and in some schools the timetabled music hours were actually reduced so that music teachers did not need to be paid overtime. It was feared that this would show itself in the exam results, with improved marks for music and lower standards in foreign languages. The figures so far available do not give a clear answer.

Eastern Province

Eastern Province, traditionally one of the liveliest and most experimental parts of the country, welcomed MALL but went about implementing it in a quite different way. An advisory committee was formed which began by going through the syllabus and prescribed textbooks; members jotted down the titles of any songs suggested by the reading texts, grammar exercises or vocabulary lists. (In one or two of the textbooks, imported of course, they actually found some songs already printed.) After discussing the merits of the various songs proposed, the committee issued a set of guidelines amounting to a 'MALL syllabus', with full scores of all the recommended songs, the exact points at which they should be introduced, and a methodology of singing, explaining the relative effects of choral singing, solos by pupil or teacher, small group singing with competition between groups, and the more advanced techniques of close harmony with its influence on establishing teamwork and collaboration. Singing, however, was subservient to language learning: songs were not to be used unless they were relevant to that week's teaching points. This meant that there might be some weeks in which four or five songs would be sung, and then four or five weeks might pass without a single song.

Eastern Province stressed teacher training and provided it even for those who were already music graduates. The committee insisted that foreign language singing and general singing were distinct disciplines, and that knowing how to sing and to play an accompanying instrument was not a sufficient qualification for MALL. The converse, they held, was not true: those who were already effective language teachers did not need to learn music to a high standard. One member of the committee, the well-known champion of learner-centred approaches Mario Rinlicruvo*, went so far as to maintain that teachers did not need to learn to play an instrument at all: they could sing unaccompanied or even speak the words of the song rhythmically. Five-day courses combining both practical work with piano and guitar and theoretical lectures on the importance of song in language learning are being held, but staff shortages mean that it will take nearly eight years before every teacher in the province has had a chance to attend a course. In the meantime many teachers are trying out the new MALL syllabus, either with the aid of a colleague who has been trained or entirely off their own bat. There are problems, of course. Eastern Province's rather more liberal approach goes hand in hand with a free-and-easy style of administration. One hears frequent reports of pianos delivered to schools and left in their crates for months or years, of other schools waiting for guitars which never arrive, of parents complaining that their children get too little singing or too much, of music teachers complaining that they are having to cure students of bad singing habits picked up in their English classes.

One point often made by critics from Southern Province is that, with teachers having so much freedom to decide when and how to use MALL, proper records are not being kept and trends in exam performance will be impossible to interpret. The education authorities of Eastern Province, however, are quite confident that they are right and can point to a number of individual success stories which, they claim, could not have been achieved under the more rigid regimes elsewhere in the country.

We are still waiting for the results of this year's baccalaureate examination, the first in which all the new schemes have been running at a level to justify comparisons. Nobody is quite sure what they will show. There is a rumour going around, however, that the top twenty places in both English and music have gone to that school in the North West whose pupils spent last summer at the Edinburgh Festival.

John Higgins, Bristol, June 1986

* This reference is to Mario Rinvolucri's article “Computer ideas for the chalkboard classroom” (1985) in which (after consulting me) he proposed cut-down versions of two of my programs, PINPOINT and STORYBOARD, which could be carried out by a teacher using only chalk and paper.