“WHEN you read you begin with A,B,C. When you sing you begin with Do, Re, Mi.” — (Maria von Trapp, The Sound Of Music.)

I was probably 7 when I watched the classic 1965 film The Sound of Music for the first time. I can only vaguely recall the storyline but what I do remember is how much I enjoyed the songs from the movie. And I still do. One song in particular looped on my stereo for months. “Doe, a deer, a female deer.” The lyrics have stuck since.

Without realising it, repeating the lyrics again and again led me to acquire a bigger vocabulary and I delighted in new phrases. The more curious I got, the more I learnt. Then I found myself moving onto other songs and the process was repeated again. With every new song heard came newfound knowledge. And that’s exactly what the Superstar English programme, designed to enhance confidence and fluency in the English language, is trying to encourage. Both the directors, Greg Ramanado and Joe Heggie, aspire to instil a love for the language through songs and lyrics.

“Music is an effective platform to cultivate a passion for English that’s not confined in an academic system,” explains Greg. Nodding, Heggie chips in saying: “We’ve seen it happening time and time again — the way music lifts up confidence in language usage. But people aren’t really aware of it. It happens naturally and people don’t think twice about it when it happens.”


Joe Heggie (left) with his newfound friend Greg Ramanado.

The recent craze over that infectious Spanish song Despacito is a perfect example of how music can encourage language learning.

Most of us here don’t even learn Spanish in the classroom and suffice to say, we haven’t a clue what singers Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee are warbling about on that infamous song.

But I’d bet my last ringgit that there are among us Malaysians who can actually sing its chorus by now. Or at least try to. It’s exactly this idolisation of music that helps to spur an interest in learning another language.

FAST FRIENDS

Soon-to-be father Heggie is a British native. The 32-year-old was teaching English in Thailand for six years before migrating to Kuala Lumpur, where he now resides with his wife. He met Greg at his favourite bar in the city.

“Greg was singing there and he has such an amazing voice,” praises Heggie, continuing: “We started talking and that’s when I found out that he was a fellow educator like me.”

Unhappy with his corporate job, coupled with the fact that both he and Greg wanted to do something more in the field of education, the two started to brainstorm some ideas.

“When I first got back from Australia in 2011, I was knocking on doors selling the simple idea of empowering English through music. It was really hard and the only school willing to open its doors back then was SMK Pontian,” recalls Greg.

That was the first time he taught English to 1,000 students using only his guitar and utilising his melodic voice.


Getting up close and personal with the participants.

“It’s fascinating how children and even parents become enraptured every time he sings,” says Heggie, adding: “At our first workshop, the parents who came to drop off their children ended up joining us for the full duration. I’d like to believe that they enjoyed the programme too and hopefully left with something that they could use at home with their children.”

FEAR OF FAILURE

The duo share that there are house rules to adhere to during their workshops. Shares the 30-year-old Greg: “We want to make it a safe place for everyone to learn the language without fear of being ridiculed. And this is the reason why Heggie and I keep emphasising that we laugh TOGETHER and not AT another.”

Both agree that their approach isn’t orthodox.

“We’re not from that old school of thought,” says Greg, with a small chuckle. Nodding his agreement, Heggie chips in: “We want to make language-learning fun. We’re not trying to replace what you learn in school. Instead, we’re looking to enhance that. Essentially, we’re taking all the building blocks given by academia and help you make sense of them all.”

In addition, both reveal that through their years in the teaching profession, they’ve observed that students will typically do well in their English tests and excel on their papers, but are not so great when it comes to using the language in a practical setting. “Even when they are, it’s a very different form of English than I’m used to,” reveals Heggie. “So they graduate with good grades but with no practical proficiency.”

“But it’s easy to overcome that actually. All they need is to build confidence, and that’s where music can help make a breakthrough,” adds Greg.

FOR A GOOD CAUSE

Breakthroughs don’t just happen with children. They believe that this form of language-learning can be applied to anyone at whatever English proficiency level and sans age limit. “All of us who were born before the advent of the Internet would do what Huggie and I have done. Push the play-pause button on our radio just to write down the lyrics to a song,” says Greg, continuing: “All we’re doing now is bringing back that old habit and reinventing it into an educational platform.”

That said, this form of language-learning isn’t new either.


Joe Heggie emphasising vocabulary learning.

A simple search on Google will unearth a list of websites that you can go to, to find out how we can utilise the music we listen to in order to improve our understanding of English.

Keywords such as “repetition”, “habitual”, “pronunciation” and “vocabulary” are the recurring buzzwords. And with YouTube easily accessible, you’re bound to find music videos with lyrics embedded in them. Singing — and learning — in the comfort of your room has now become simpler!

But what makes Superstar English different from the personal improvement exercises you may do online or in the confines of your room is that the duo are making learning more fun by using a live band instead of playbacks. So, their sessions are accompanied by two friends, one on the drum and the other on the keyboard.

All four play crucial roles as facilitators.

“They become like superstar mentors to cultivate that passion in the children. And they’re all good English speakers too,” shares Heggie.

The programme is conducted in a well-equipped space in Ara Damansara, sponsored by venue provider Mindspace.

“The programme is available for teens aged 14 to 20 and costs RM80 per person. But we’ve allocated about 40 sponsored spots for disenfranchised children. At the moment, these sponsored kids come from the Pure Life Society orphanage in Puchong. We’re hoping to expand our reach to help more children who needs this,” says Greg.

“We all idolise someone and they’re always musicians. This initiative began out of sheer interest on our part but we hope the children we’re teaching will emulate us. We believe that music has an amazing way of lifting your spirits. It’s the greatest communicator as well as a tool to transport emotions. It has been surreal to join both faculties (language and music) together and we can’t wait to see where this may bring us and the kids we’re teaching,” concludes Heggie.

Su-lyn@nst.com.my

Superstar English:

Sing your way to fluency

When: Every first Saturday

of the month

Where: Mindspace, Oasis Village,

Ara Damansara

Website: www.facebook.com/SuperstarEnglishKL

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