Drumming, automaticity, and the teaching of speaking to beginning foreign language learners

David Beglar


How many of us teachers have extolled our charges to “learn language like an instrument?” I always do on the first day of the semester, and here, Temple University at Osaka’s David Beglar outlines a theory-based practical approach that transfers music education methodologies to L2 acquisition.

Drumming, automaticity, and the teaching of speaking to beginning foreign language learners

Cognitive learning theory and research on expertise suggest that all forms of adult learning have a great deal in common. If that is the case, then learning approaches used in various fields might prove valuable in the field of SLA. In the world of drumming, considerable time and energy is invested in developing high levels of fluency, which is manifested as the ability to play smoothly, with little conscious effort, and at potentially high speeds. The development of fluency is particularly important when building complex rhythms. In such cases, many drummers learn part of the rhythm (e.g., using both hands) and when that has been somewhat automatized, complexify the rhythm (e.g., by adding the feet). In this way, the development of more complex and accurate rhythms is based on breaking complex rhythms into simpler subcomponents and partly automatizing the individual subcomponents before combining them.

This same basic approach seems to be used by children acquiring their first language and could be applied to the development of second language speaking skills, using the order in which children acquired their native language. This means that L2 learners would acquire and partly automatize L2 phonological and suprasegmental features by engaging in extensive listening (see Postovsky, 1974 for an example of this approach). They would then focus on building and automatizing an approximately 400-word receptive vocabulary embedded in syntactically simple sentences (see Bates et al., 1994 regarding details of L1 lexical acquisition). That vocabulary would then be put to use productively in utterances involving simple syntax (i.e., sentences). By allowing learners to focus primarily on one aspect of language at a time—phonological features, then lexis, then morpho-syntax—they might ultimately display greater levels of accuracy and fluency, and this might result in feelings of increased self-efficacy and motivation to continue practicing the language.


Bates, E., Marchman, V., Thal, D., Fenson, L., Dale, P., Reznick, J. S., Reilly, J., & Hartung, J. (1994). Developmental and stylistic variation in the composition of early vocabulary. Child Language, 21, 85-13.

Postovsky, V. A. (1974). Effects of delay in oral practice at the beginning of second language learning. Modern Language Journal, 58, 229-239.