As the opening notes of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” play from director David D’Andre’s laptop, 12 sets of eyes are glued to a large monitor with the song’s lyrics on display.
The English as an Additional Language (EAL) students in May Yeung’s Pronunciation II class take one final deep breath, then launch into a performance designed to showcase their new skills for an audience of their fellow students, faculty and staff at MacEwan University’s Alberta College Campus.
Just nine weeks earlier, May was welcoming students, convincing them that David’s weekly visits to their classroom would make a big difference in their learning, and promising to stand front-row centre as they performed songs by Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Bobby McFerrin.
While the approach may be unconventional, integrating music into a course on pronunciation makes perfect sense according to David, a faculty member in MacEwan’s Conservatory of Music. Because singing often involves stretching out and slowing down words, he explains, it’s easier to practice things like diphthongs (combining two-vowel sounds in a single syllable – “boy” or “cow”) and to show non-native speakers where the stress should go in a particular word or phrase.
“English is a musical language,” says David, who, in addition to teaching music, also taught EAL in Europe for 15 years. “When you sing, you can feel the words that should be accented.”
Both May and David agree that their students take far more from the experience than English language skills.
“They gain confidence in their pronunciation skills, they overcome fears of singing in a new language in front of an audience and they build bonds with each other,” says May. “When they finally get to perform, they’re really proud.”
Péguy, who is now in her third term studying English, says her musical experience in Pronunciation II helped improve her language skills and reignited her love of singing.
One of those proud performers was Péguy Dossous, who took the course in the Winter semester during the pilot program, which was made possible through funding from the Muttart Foundation to the Conservatory of Music.
“I hope my English classes will help me continue in my career,” says Péguy, who studied business administration in the Dominican Republic and worked as an assistant manager in Haiti before immigrating to Canada two years ago. “I also have to confess that this course inspired me to take lessons in voice at MacEwan. I think it can inspire other students in the same or another way too.”
If the big smiles, clapping hands and swaying bodies of the students belting out Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” to close the class’s July 4 concert are any indication, Péguy just could be right.
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