Rap sheds bad rep when it's put to use as language tool

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 August, 2006, 12:00am

A TRIO OF RAPPERS takes to the stage in front of a crowd of several hundred, microphones in hand, ready to pump up the volume.

The man with the mic is local hip-hop legend MC Yan, flanked by fellow Canto rappers Chef and MC ADV.

But rather than an audience of Generation X and Y hip-hop fans the artists are more accustomed to, these are primary and secondary school teachers. They are not here just to enjoy the music - this is a seminar on an innovative method which its protagonists hope could have a major impact on the teaching and learning of English in local schools.

They plan to teach students to rap.

Hip-hop may still be seen by many as a subversive influence not to be encouraged in the classroom. But desperate to find a way to ignite passion for a language students often find intimidating and have few real-life opportunities to practise, today's teachers are turning to unconventional methods.

So for the next two hours, Yan and his crew lead the teachers in what he describes as 'kindergarten lessons' in the medium, a crash-course starting with the basics of composing rhymes and going through to working with meter and tempo.

'The method I tried to use was something completely new to them,' said Yan, whose real name is Chan Kwong-yan.

Teachers received teaching materials that included a DVD and a book with suggested rap lyrics, rhyme sheets and related exercises, all under the title ELT Rap.

The project is the brainchild of Angel Lin Mei-yi, associate professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong Faculty of Education's department of curriculum and instruction, who said it was designed as an inter-disciplinary approach to second language learning.

'The idea is to create a livelier, more interactive method for teaching English,' Dr Lin said. 'It is safe to say that the majority of young people are interested in music. Rap has great potential for teaching English.'

Plans were now proceeding for a resident artist programme at a number of secondary schools following the 'exceedingly positive' response from teachers at last month's workshop, she said.

More than 80 per cent of respondents to a post-seminar questionnaire felt that using rap to teach English was good and more than three-quarters felt their students would be interested in learning it.

Schools joining the full resident artist programme get a school visit from rap artists to launch a six-month project culminating in a live performance to be recorded as a VCD. Hip-hop or jazz dance classes could also be incorporated to broaden the scope of the project, Dr Lin said.

Alicia Ma Yin-ha, English panel chair at King Ling College in Tseung Kwan O, said the seminar had been an eye opener. 'It certainly increased my understanding of this type of music,' she said.

Ms Ma said she had initially had a fairly low opinion of hip-hop, considering it to be a fairly low-brow form of music. However, she had been 'much impressed by the musical talents' of the rap stars and had changed her mind.

'As with other music, rap not only helps students pick up new vocabulary, the melody also helps with rhythm and having to repeat lines over and over also helps,' she said.

Ms Ma has invited Yan to talk at her school and will begin teaching rap to students in Form Four and Form Five. 'The boys will probably be a bit bolder than the girls,' she said. 'But I think they will both benefit.'

Eliza Chiu Chuen-wai, an English teacher at Fanling Government Secondary School, said she had been attracted by the unusual concept - even though she was not familiar with the style of music and had never tried to write a rap of her own before.

'It's very interesting,' she said, adding that she had been searching for ways to make English classes more appealing to her Form Four and Form Five students. 'They are mostly Band Three students, so it is difficult to motivate them,' she said. 'They just aren't interested in learning English.'

However she was optimistic and was eager to try out the teaching lessons at the start of the new term. 'Using rap to teach English is something I think my students would like, something they could enjoy,' she said. 'Using the rhymes will help them to remember things like irregular verbs which cause them a lot of problems.'

Yan said the idea for the collaboration grew following his first meeting with Dr Lin last year while she was doing research into Cantonese lyrics. They had later discussed the possibility of working together on an education-themed project with its roots in pop culture.

'Everybody will say this is just popular culture,' Yan said. 'But popular culture and popular media can educate people more powerfully than traditional methods.'

Education is clearly a subject close to his heart. Speaking passionately in fluent English, Yan decried the way language was taught in local schools.

'The Chinese way of learning a language is to sit down and memorise it,' he said. 'There is none of the methods used in Europe and America that inject it with energy and life.

'In Hong Kong, English language teaching doesn't focus on speaking but just on the textbook. Education is about face-to-face interaction, not through textbooks.'

The advantage of rap as a teaching medium, he said, was that it was 'just like daily speech' and taught students language could be a genuine form of communication rather than simply something to learn for the test.

'I feel that the traditional system in Hong Kong doesn't work. That's why they come to us,' he said. 'It seems like Hong Kong teachers are exactly as the system shaped them. They have memorised the syllabus and then they make the students memorise the syllabus. I try to let them know that education should be that you have knowledge to share.'

Best-known for his work with expletive-laden Cantonese rap group LMF, Yan might seem an unlikely candidate to partner with school teachers. He conceded they were not all entirely receptive to getting professional tips from a rap star, not to begin with, at least.

'I'd prefer to be standing in front of the students than the teachers,' he said. 'They [the teachers] all know LMF - but it has never had a positive image.'

But though some of the teachers initially saw rap stars as people who were 'poisoning their kids', many came round to the concept once he had broken the ice. 'Hong Kong people are very open-minded but they are very oppressed by the system,' Yan said. 'The audience was actually very happy to join in and share and try, try, try.'