How misheard lyrics can help your learners listen better

Do you have students that complain they can’t understand the listening tracks until you let them read the transcripts?

The solution could be in Richard Cauldwell’s work, which has been brought to my attention by my dearest Higor Cavalcante. The author of Phonology for Listening and of the forthcoming A Syllabus for Listening, Cauldwell did an EVO webinar on Sunday and reminded us that it’s a jungle out there. In a very fitting metaphor, he explained we usually teach pronunciation of isolated words as if words were potted plants in a perfectly weather-proof greenhouse. We then put words side by side in sentences with some linking and sentence stress. We think this is authentic, but it’s still a carefully kept garden. Real-life spoken language, however, is all over the place, like a jungle, and the British author maintains we haven’t been doing much to help our students understand it. Learners may not wish or need to speak all “jungley”, but if they are to be effective listeners, they must be able to decode what people are saying when they don’t e-NUN-ci-ate VE-ry CLEAR-ly.

One of the tips Cauldwell gave us to help students understand “jungle” audios was to cherish mondegreens, that is, misheard phrases in the lyrics of a song.* So here is a list of a few mondegreens I have heard of or found online and the features of connected speech and real life listening they may help to shed light on:

  • “In my life, there’s a heart in campaign” was my friend’s rendition of “In my life, there’s been heartache and pain” in Mariah Carey’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” => Can be used to show the flap T + weak forms of “and” and prepositions + linking
  • “I’m only forty-nine” was my best go at “if only for tonight” in Colbie’s Caillat “Midnight Bottle”) => flap T + consonant elision**
  • “I wish that I could be like the cookies” was a friend’s mishearing of “I wish that I could be like the cool kids” (Echosmith’s “The Cool Kids”) => consonant elision
  • Life’s so many friends we’ve lost along the way” was my (much more poetic) understanding of “Like’s so many friends we’ve lost along the way” in Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” => consonant lenition
  • “I know one airline bling” (or pretty much anything else) came up when my friends and I were trying to figure out “I know when that hotline blink” by Drake. => dropping of the initial H
  • “Got along with Starbucks lovers” was how many people heard Taylor Swift sing “Got a long list of ex-lovers” in her hit “Blank Space” => Shows how we can segment the sounds in different ways + how muffled prepositions can be
  • “I tell you to end your life” is not what Black Sabbath sings; it’s “I tell you to enjoy life” => affrication of [d] before [y]

Of course students don’t need to be exposed to all that metalanguage. In fact, I’d advise against teaching them these complicated linguistic terms (plus, this is only my analysis, not an answer key). However, showing learners the phenomenon of mondegreens and their sometimes hilarious results is probably one of the most engaging ways of raising learner’s awareness of the issue of how words can be pronounced in real life. It can also reduce listening anxiety, I believe, when we draw their attention to the fact that mondegreens happen in their L1, too (“trocando de biquini sem parar”, anyone?) and how L1 speakers of English also struggle with many songs (see this video and this website for evidence).

*For more activities and tips, please go to Richard Cauldwell’s website Speech in Action.

**For a great lesson plan on elision based on a very cool song, please go to my mate Thiago Veigga’s website: https://tveigga.wordpress.com/2018/02/04/a-lesson-on-connected-speech-intermediate-b1-onwards/

Natália Guerreiro

Natália Guerreiro has been a teacher since the year 2000 and currently works in Aviation English assessment and teaching for the Brazilian Air Force. She holds a CELTA, a B.A. in English & Portuguese from UFRJ, and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics (Language Testing & Language Program Evaluation) from the University of Melbourne. She's been elected to the BRAZ-TESOL Advisory Council for the 2017-2018 term.

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