It’s never “just” about the language! Or is it?

Language learning can become really dull when it is just about the language. Concentrating only on the words prevents us to pay attention to other cues which are important to construct meaning. These cues include, our own knowledge of a topic and the non-verbal signals that accompanies the words. Verbal language is only one vehicle to carry messages. Although it seems to be the most important, it can’t exist without all the other ways of communicating meaning. In face to face communication, we also count on facial expressions and body language to help us make sense of what the other person is saying. More often than not, ignoring those non-verbal clues can cause miscommunication and misunderstanding between people. Hence why communicating through only writing can be really challenging. Because of that, it’s important to consider all elements present or not present in a message to be able to compensate for or avoid misunderstandings.

I was thinking couple of days ago also about how shallow our comprehension of things is when we just cover a message superficially. When we don’t get deeper and try to really understand something. Let’s take Rap for instance. People who are not into rap (listening, producing, talking about it!) usually see it as something bad, because rappers might sound agressive. Personal views shape the way we uncover a text and the non-verbal signals that come with them.

When Juan Uribes posted this on Facebook and asked us to share this message with more people, I remembered a question that Chuck had asked me earlier about Freire. He asked whether I thought that his ideas related to autonomy links to what I do in class. I mentioned that although I know my job is to teach English and do not impose my views of anything on my learners, I keep the principle that they should have a chance to reflect about themselves and about others. Raise their awareness of what is around them is also important as well as about their own lives. The fact that we construct our beings in contact with others is empowering because we realize that we do not exist outside the other and that my choices can affect what happens around me. Once we realize that striving to live a meaningful life instead of just being either selfish or alien to what happens elsewhere makes us comprehend that our life is important for those we’re in touch with.

“Live a life you will (BE) remember(ED) because you made the difference!”

That’s what the Indian Rapper Sofia Ashraf is doing. And this is how I’m sharing Sofia’s message with others. 

Using the Indian Rapper Sofia Ashraf song in class (and blogging about it).

1- Prepare the Lyrics in a way that learners can use a picture or word glossary to comprehend the text . I tried to predict some of the words that would be hard for them and added bubbles with definitions and clipart.

2- Ask them to read for about 5-10 minutes. Encourage them to read the whole text at least once without getting attached to something they don’t understand yet. Limiting the time will avoid their need to concentrate on translating each stanza and end up getting stuck in the first one. I’m very flexible with time though. We need to feel students need and respond to it but I keep this goal in mind. I just need them to get acquainted with the topic.

3- Show a picture from the campaign website and explore it with learners by concentrating on key points, like who it is featuring, the slogan, what is the problem, and other inference learners might come up with.

What does U stand for? Do you know what Unilever is?

Most teenagers have no idea, but one of my learners gave this response: an organization that helps people. Without questioning whether they are really helpful or not, I asked them to look around their kitchen cabinets when they get home and find products that it produces and distributes. My role is not to campaign against Unilever or defend it, my goal is to mediate this conversation in a way that they can use their own knowledge of the world or question what they don’t know to be able to understand the protest song. And definitely get them to ask more questions and explore this provocative campaign.

In another group the link between the Slogan and the social campaigns run by Unilever was not made. I can’t bring that into the discussion because I’d be leading them to think in a certain way. If a peer does that it would be okay. But I don’t think it is fair for me to do that. In the second group, the link was made and I was able to ask them why the protesting campaign was using this Slogan and what were they trying to say with that. There is no right or wrong answer. As much as I want to give learners a reason to learn or practice the language they need to talk about this topic, I want them also to be able to think for themselves.

Moving to the worker holding the sign. We worked on the word “shareholders” and discussed multinational companies briefly. We also discussed what these people were protesting against and how the community feels. The role of workers in the industry chain is usually taken for granted.  Consumers in more developed countries and in better situation than most people tend to think that they are the ones who sustain companies and usually don’t consider the role of low-paid wage workers get and their working conditions to name a few things that affect profit. Again, I can’t really lead students to see this and my focus is to unveil the text (verbal and non-verbal) by letting students make the connections by themselves. But at this point, everything is at the superficial and biased level and the protest song tells the side of a sad story – people dying and getting seriously ill because of toxic material.

4- As this song is a parody of Nicki Minaj song Anaconda. After the brief discussion on the poster where they drew information from the lyrics to answer their questions and the knowledge they have of the topic, I asked them only to listen and read the lyrics. Do not show the video as they will focus on the visual input. As soon as I started playing most learners recognized the song Anaconda straight away. This caused some distractions as they started chatting to each other about it. But soon after they started reading the lyrics. I asked them whose beat that was and they readily shouted: Nicki Minaj.

5- Personalizing, Connecting and Reflecting: Is this a rap song? Some of my students said it was mixed with POP. Do you like rap? How often do you listen to rap? How often do you listen to music? What kind of music do you like? Reasons for liking or disliking Rap songs.

6- Play the video clip.

7- Language focus: 

Identify the theme of the protest song: In this case is Environmental issues

Identify words in the song that relates to the theme using a mind map.

8- The first group listens to Rap, the other one don’t. In order to get learners to really produce something of their own and show their understanding of either protest songs which carries a message about a social issue and the value of Rap culture for our society, or understanding of environmental issues, they were asked to produce a poster presentation based on a rap song or concentrating on a environmental issue. They were free to choose from one of the possibilities.

The poster idea came from reading this article shared by Barbara Sakamoto in her Gplus page. Thanks Juan, Barbara, Chuck and Jason for the inspiration (each of you have something to do with this particular lesson plan) 😉

I’d love to hear your ideas on how you would work with this song and why. Or maybe why you would never bring this song to your class. 

4 thoughts on “It’s never “just” about the language! Or is it?

  1. I don’t think the teacher’s job is to teach students what to think but giving challenging material is useful. There are issues regarding supply-chain ethics that I’ve discussed with business students; asked students to find out why some companies have bad reputations and to assess whether they are deserved.

    We can’t put opinions in their heads but we can give a forum for their opinions, beliefs and curiosity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Marc, thanks for reading and commenting. I’ve fixed the s for you.
      That was exactly what I had been thinking in my way home after morning classes. Your example is perfect.
      “asked students to find out why some companies have bad reputations and to assess whether they are deserved.”

      I know the protest song stood out in my post, but I’d like readers here and also my students to consider that we need more than just words to understand the world around us and communicating ourselves. We need also to look for more accurately information, weight them at the light of facts rather than sentimentalism and focus on solving the problem instead of just talking about it.

      When comes to language, top-down is just as important as bottom-up and vice-versa. Teachers and learners should take this into consideration. It’s difficult to know how much a student can really decode a text when we present a material in class and how much about that topic that person knows that will allow them to understand it, and to what level. That’s why continuing dialogue is needed and it’s an ongoing process. And the less a student is able to engage with the text and discussion about it, less they will learn from it. Words are not transferred from paper to minds like magic.


  2. It’s never just about language. After all, language doesn’t emerge from nothing. We always influence our students in a way, I believe, that’s why our job is so important. I loved Sofia Ashraf and I’ll definitely use her music in class! I was talking to a student this week about environmental issues and this will be great as a follow up, thanks for that!

    Liked by 2 people

    • T. I was watching a TV show yesterday ( a documentary actually) that featured deforestation as the main cause of greenhouse effect. Guess who was mentioned and appeared in the documentary for supporting illegal plantations of palm trees in Indonesia by buying from companies that buys from them? And all of them pretty much aware of that. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by and glad this is useful. I’m happy that Juan posted it on FB. 🙂


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