Archive for the ‘language’ Tag

Commonalities across boundaries

The two young women move swiftly and gracefully to the front of the stage, arms outstretched. In the centre of the stage a young man holds a stylized pose. He is supposed to hold a deep knee bend but it is his first time in this role, and the group’s esteemed director kindly, affectionately tells him he can use a chair for this first day. (Observation journal)

I spent the weekend with students from three Sri Lankan state universities – Eastern, Jaffna, and Peradeniya – as they prepare a performance act for the forthcoming Galle Music Festival. They are working under the direction of Dr Arunthathy Sri Ranganathan, and faculty members from their respective Performing Arts departments. The focus is on traditional music and dance, but Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic population means that these traditions vary widely across the island. What’s more, with the three universities based in geographically distant and somewhat war-isolated areas (one in the North, one in the East – both areas were epicenters of the civil war that ended in 2009 – and one in the central, mountainous region), opportunities for cross-campus exchanges and collaborations are not in the usual course of student life.


What’s been fascinating to observe this weekend are the points of commonality – social, cultural, and aesthetic – and how these are found and navigated.

The first point of commonality is the students’ shared love of music and dance, and Sri Lanka’s traditional folk forms in particular. If they weren’t interested in these, they wouldn’t be here, because the Galle Music Festival is primarily a festival of folk and traditional arts. (There’s a bit of fusion and rap going on to – but folk traditions are the foundation). The students from Jaffna and Eastern Universities are enrolled in Performing Arts degrees; the students from Peradeniya are members of the ‘Music Society’, a university-wide, student club for those with an interesting in performing music together.


Another commonality is their age and stage in life – they are all university students, young people coming of age in a digital era with phones, photos, selfies and Facebook making up some of the artefacts and shareable commodities of their modern lives.

Finding a common language is more problematic. All of the students are being educated in Sinhala or Tamil at university. Some students can speak both Sinhala and English; some speak Tamil and English. A smaller number speak both Sinhala and Tamil (although most of this generation are across the basics of both languages, they tell me). Therefore, conversations happen in second or third languages, or with the help of mime and gesture and a lot of good-natured laughter.

Each of the groups was asked to prepare a musical number to contribute to the workshop. Some had prepared songs with instrumental accompaniment, others had songs only, others had dances.


In the full workshop with Dr Sri Ranganathan, they each first presented the music they’d prepared. Dr Sri Ranganathan made notes, and then proposed a form that would flow from one song or dance to the next. As they worked through this proposed form, students were roped into different roles. Four girls from Eastern University who’d come along to the workshop as singers found themselves dancing alongside the dancers from Jaffna University, who instructed them in the steps. In the very vigorous and rousing ‘Kavedi’, all of the boys had to dance, with very physical choreography requiring lots of jumps and deep knee bends, and Cossack-style kicks while crouching low to the ground. Impressive – and demanding!

The students stayed in Colombo overnight, so I asked one of the Peradeniya students to keep an observation log of the interactions for me, as I’m interested in the ways that music collaborations can foster more positive intergroup group bonds and relations. She reported back to me the next day that in addition to lots of conversations in different languages, a highlight of the evening was an impromptu jam session, lasting into the wee small hours, when the instruments came out and everyone sang each other’s songs, played each other’s instruments, and generally just hung out and immersed in music the way music-loving young people do everywhere.


The collaborations are one of the new programming strands in this year’s Galle Music Festival. Next week there will be workshops for the collaboration between two all-female drumming groups, one from the North, in the Kilinochchi area, and the other from the Academy of Music and Dance in Colombo. They will be joined by Sri Lanka’s premier women’s vocal ensemble – and possibly by me on clarinet, because the piece that is planned needs a Western melody instrument. It’s a bit of a departure from research observations, but what I love about my work is the constant interplay between music, ideas, collaborations, and intercultural learning. Whether I’m watching, writing or playing, that intersection is where the magic lies.

Learning lyrics in a new language

The Lower Primary class I teach at the Melbourne English Language School is very sweet – lots of energy and goodwill, and an impressive ability to focus as a group and make some coherent music together. This term we have been with two traditional songs from Canada (Iroquois, I belive) – Ho ho watanay and Canoe song.

Both these songs can be accompanied with a simple 2-chord pattern. I tend to play them in D minor, with the second chord being C. The chord progression is Dmin | Dmin | C | Dmin.

It’s been a lovely project. We’ve worked out some accompanying patterns on glockenspiels, which they’ve invented themselves, and we’ve added in some drums. We’ve tried singing both Ho ho watanay and The Canoe Song as partner songs, and we’ve tried them as rounds.

For these young English learners, Ho ho watanay is the simpler of the two, as the lyrics are repetitive, and are just a series of simple sounds to be memorised:

Ho ho watanay, ho ho watanay

Ho ho watanay, kee-o-ka-na kee-o-ka-na

The Canoe song is more complicated, with lots of unfamiliar English words:

My paddle’s clean and bright, flashing with silver

Follow the wild goose flight, Dip, dip and swing.

They picked up on the ‘Dip, dip and swing’ line first and have always sung that with gusto. However, they struggle with ‘Follow the wild goose flight’ – lots of words, lots of syllables, a d-ending followed by a g- beginning… and other similar challenges. Last week I devised some simple warm-up games to get them to repeat this line and become more confident with it:

  1. Pass The Sound – this is a Game we play every week, where a single sound (usually a clap, a ssshh, or other vocal or body percussion sounds) gets passed one by one around the circle. It’s like Chinese Whispers except the intention is for the sound to copied accurately every time. To bring the focus on the lyrics, I passed around single words like ‘follow’ or ‘goose’ or ‘wild’. Then I strung two words together, such as ‘wild goose’ and ‘goose flight’. Then we moved onto three-word strings – ‘wild goose flight’ or ‘follow the wild’. Lastly we sent the whole phrase ‘follow the wild goose flight’ around the circle. The children enjoyed the predictability of this game, but it also gave them a chance to hear their own voice pronouncing these unfamiliar sounds (and to hear that others in the group were also struggling).
  2. How Many Words? – I know that when I am learning a new language it helps if I can visualise how the sounds separate into different words. I asked the Lower Primary children to tell me how many words were in each line of the song (particularly this difficult line) by counting on their fingers as they said the line aloud.
  3. Hocketting– Lastly we said the line one word at a time, around the circle. Then we tried saying the whole song like this.

The children remained engaged throughout all these tactics. It gave me a chance to hear and assist the children who are often very silent during singing tasks, and to encourage them to try these words aloud, and in the context of the song. The singing of the song became much more confident. I’ll have to wait until next Tuesday to find out how much has been retained!

My research project – as it currently stands

I am officially* in the final three months of my Masters research project. I have collected data (interviews with students and teachers), transcribed these, observed classes and written up detailed notes of what I saw, and kept an ongoing journal of thoughts, ideas, and small epiphanies. I am now in the data analysis phase, going through all of this written material, looking for themes that emerge, cross-referencing these between the three different students I am focusing on, and, eventually, getting stuck into some more targeted reading, as my themes emerge and the gaps in my understanding can be identified.

My research question:

How do Language School students perceive the music activities? What do they think they learn? What do they engage with most strongly? What sense do they make of the program and its existence at this school?

To answer this, I am doing a qualitative case study. Three case studies in fact, interviewing three different students, each from the same class (Upper Primary) but from contrasting cultural and educational backgrounds. Please be introduced:*

Susan from Sudan. Extremely disrupted, inconsistent schooling before coming to Australia. A bright, bubbly girl who loves music, has highly developed learning strategies for all the challenges she faces in school, and is a social leader among her peers.

Kevin from China. Very hard-working, clever boy, who had absolutely no English when he first arrived. He blossomed by his third term (the time when the research interviews took place), taking a leading role in the class music-theatre piece, and keen for new challenges.

Leki from Thailand. Very bright girl. For her, school is a great delight, for she is an only child in a quiet household, and school lets her connect with her peers and build a social world. She is quiet, and says very little. But she watches and observes. Her style of engagement is quite passive, but attentive. She is happiest out of the spotlight, but loves to laugh with her friends at every opportunity.

*Pseudonyms used for all participants in the research project.

Analysis so far…

I am doing the first detailed read-throughs of the transcripts at the moment, making notes in the margins as I go, and annotating those themes that seem to recur most frequently.

In my early observations, I am finding the following:

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“You dance good, miss”

Friday afternoon lessons with the secondary students can sometimes feel a bit uphill. It is the end of the week – they are tired, I am tired, and even though they are a wonderfully good-natured and cooperative class, sometimes we are just not at our best on a Friday afternoon.

Not so last Friday. We have spent the last few weeks building up a piece for performance that uses material developed through a few different tasks – energetic, syncopated rhythms made from students’ names; improvised riffs on the pentatonic scale; and drum ‘alphabet’ rhythms – as section content for a piece that I really like. It is a bit West African in feel, and we have developed words that we sing in unison with the main xylophone riff.

Last week we agreed that this piece could do with either a rap, or a dance section. On Friday we created the dance. A number of the students are enthusiastic dancers, so we started by sharing ideas for moves.

I should add here, I LOVE dancing. It is years since I took any classes (which I do periodically, for fun), and I have certainly never studied it seriously. But when I develop dance content with my students I always join in, and I always hope they will teach me some new moves.

Once we had a bank of possible moves built up I performed them one by one for the students and they voted ‘yes- keep it’ or ‘no – lose it’. Then we looked at all the moves that had got a ‘yes’ vote and decided together which order they should go in in the dance, and the number of repetitions each should have.

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Language censorship, Harry Potter, and authors

Last night I went to an authors’ do – a get-together for writers of Young Adult fiction who do school workshops for the agency Booked Out. My sister invited me along (she who wrote Notes from the Teenage Underground).

It was a chance for the writers (who came from all over Australia – in Melbourne for Children’s Book Week) to get together and socialise as well as chat about their work, and exchange notes from the field, so to speak. Writing must be a pretty lonely profession sometimes. At one point the conversation turned to swearing in books for young adults – the kinds of words a writer might want to include, but that get knocked back by editors, and how strongly the writer might want to fight for a vernacular that others could take offense at. And constant deliberation about what is appropriate for the age-group, when you take into consideration schools and school libraries and other ‘gate-keepers’ who might keep young readers from your books if they deem them inappropriate.

Which brought me to thinking about the most recent Harry Potter book. I’m quite a Harry fan (even though I feel like my sense of the world I live in becomes a little warped and a little more tense whenever I get immersed in the HP books – I have to ration my reading somewhat, consequently). And I was surprised to find the word ‘bitch’ in the last big battle scene of the latest book.

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