Pop culture helps students learn English

Teachers are using pop culture to help students from less privileged backgrounds learn English as a second language, writes Anjali Hazari

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 June, 2013, 10:30am

We are learning A, B, Cs

A, B, Cs are not easy

Our class name is 5D

5D also means "fai dee"

Composing bilingual rap with puns like these has helped students in a Band Three school in a working-class area build bridges between their Chinese mother tongue and English. By identifying more closely with hip hop and rap artists as role models for their own language learning, students develop identities as English-speakers, says Angel Lin, associate dean at the HKU faculty of education.

A pioneer of innovative interdisciplinary approaches to second language education, particularly for young people, she advocates entry points like these to create a fun, meaningful context for the use of English among students.

The government has been active in trying to realise Hong Kong's goals of nurturing the development of a biliterate and trilingual society. The need to develop niche areas in the education sector, such as vocational English, is one of the recommendations by the Education Bureau in its strategies for planning and implementing a whole-school language policy. They find students are unable to use formal English to read, write and make oral presentations; lack subject-specific vocabulary; and are unwilling to read longer or unfamiliar texts. They seldom read or write beyond teachers' requirements and rely mostly on classroom learning.

Lin identifies three key dimensions to achieving the government's stated goals. They comprise the acceptance of English as a foreign language for most of its students and addressing the psychological barriers that are associated with learning a foreign language; getting students to develop ownership of the English language; and recognising English as a post-colonial language.

"In the socio-linguistic scenario of Hong Kong, whether English is a foreign language or second language depends upon one's social class or social position. If a student's parents and friends speak English, it can be considered his or her first or second language," she explains.

We don't need to sound like a BBC news anchor, but like an educated person and one who can communicate clearly
Angel Lin, Associate dean at HKU faculty of education

Family background is key for foreign language-learning, says Lin. So while making policy on local students' needs, we "should visualise who they are - visualise the housing complex they come from and their good, honest, hard-working parents who might not be able to speak English".

And when students are from a working class background then in many of the key domains of their life, English is more like a foreign language. She explains that for most Hong Kong students the authentic sociocultural role that English plays lies on a continuum.

Carlos Soto, who teaches English at the CMA Choi Cheung Kok Secondary School in Tuen Mun, agrees.

"My Form One students come to me with a huge range of English abilities, but we all study together as one class. The special challenge I have is not just building their ability to pass an exam, but developing their academic literacy, and their ability to use English as a communicative tool."

Lin's research shows that one way to overcome the psychological barriers associated with learning a foreign language is to draw on elements of pop culture - hip hop music, films and even video games - that will appeal to students. "The issue in East Asia is that this pop culture is mediated in the local language - we need to build bridges where English can come in as a comfortable lingua franca," she says.

For example, students can learn about K-pop or J-pop artists by reading about them.

There are many ways they can develop English as a communicative tool rather than learn it mainly to pass an exam, Lin says.

Soto, who is also in the final stages of a PhD in education at HKU, confirms the need to reach out to students in areas that interest them and at their level.

"To do this, we try to build bridges between students' family and youth cultures and the academic texts we want them to study," he says.

"We don't use textbooks, and instead study music, films and documentaries from around the world, read stories and poetry, play games, and do work online. We use Facebook groups to communicate and to do writing, and each student has their own blog. This year we joined to collaborate on blogging with three classrooms around the world. I learn about the conflicts they face in their lives, and use English as a way for them to learn about themselves and learn to solve problems in their communities."

While the lack of motivation among local students may have something to do with our heavily exam-oriented culture, Lin's research shows that by getting students interested in learning the skills of English rapping, they developed ownership. English language teaching (ELT) rap gave them the chance to identify positively as members of an English-speaking community who enjoyed each other's company and formed close social bonds.

"When the students are weak, then more entry points are necessary to have them embrace language and arts, interest them, excite them and meet them where they are," says Lin.

The third dimension is to speak English with a Hong Kong accent. "We need to develop this idea of speaking 'Hong Kong English' - we don't need to sound like a BBC news anchor, but like an educated person and one who can communicate clearly," says Lin. "We need to have reachable goals with regard to English-language proficiency for our students."

Researchers such as Jim Cummins have repeatedly shown that ESL learners need five to seven years to catch up with their native English-speaking peers. Studies show that although the ability of immersion students to understand concrete ideas is not compromised, their ability to grasp the more abstract concepts in non-language subjects is hampered as they move through higher levels in their education.

Educators can help students shift between everyday and academic usage.

"We need to develop the idea that switching styles, between formal and conversational when we need to, is OK. Like Gangnam style, students can embrace different styles in different contexts," says Lin.

Teachers often ask Soto what they can do to motivate students. His advice is to stop asking that question. Instead, educators should explore other questions such as: Who are our students, what is their place in society, and how can English become a tool to empower them? In what ways, besides exams, can we have them show their learning? How are their lives already multilingual and how can our teaching promote multilingualism?

Kiran Kaur, one of Soto's Form Two students, agrees.

"Throw away the textbooks and learn something which is not written in the books; that is how our class learns," she says. "We do learn a bit from books but our class power is movies, which is almost everyone's favourite. We learn new words from Mr C through some talk. We listen and think about others' ideas. We learn in our English class by looking around the world.

"That's all I can say: less words, more understanding."