Finding Their Voice (and all that jazz)

Billie Holiday quote

I must thank Ron Morrain for the inspiration to write this post. Ron’s cover photo on Facebook had a photo of Billie Holiday with the quote, “If I’m going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.”

Powerful words from a powerful lady. This got me thinking about student voice again and fits perfectly with my point.

Staying in the jazz mode, I’ll go back to my story as a trumpet player. As I’ve written before, I learned trumpet by listening to big band music, and later jazz and blues. My style, my intonation, and even the way I held the trumpet and positioned the mouthpiece was to achieve a specific sound. I used this method for 13 years and developed it. When I entered university, it was as a Music Education major. One requirement of the major is to take private lessons with a professor that was 1st chair with the state symphony orchestra. Obviously a talented and well accomplished artist, this teacher immediately attempted to change everything I was doing in order to make me a perfect classical trumpet player. Just like all the others. But this wasn’t my objective. My goal was to combine the styles of Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard and Maynard Ferguson with my own nasty, rough blues sound to develop into my own style of playing (Ian Anderson if he played the trumpet). I refused to change, and even after the offer of a full 4-year scholarship if I complied, I left and I transferred to another university and studied Business Management, Computer Science and Secondary Education.

Over the years, I have played professionally with many bands using my style, my method, my “voice”, and never had the desire or need for the classical training that they proposed.

The moral? Not everyone fits the model that the book, the syllabus or the course lays out for them. When they reach C2 level (this is the Common European Framework of Reference’s highest level of English proficiency), students should be pretty competent users of English. Most of what the books cover is reviewed grammar from lower levels and vocabulary that is not necessarily meaningful to the students at that stage.

Why aren’t we teaching them how to develop their own voice and their own style by teaching them how to acquire their own vocabulary, develop their own structure – that which they would use in L1? Why are we trying to change their L1 voice to a different L2 voice?

Because it’s easier.

(L1 refers to their native language, L2 refers to second language)

As part of our job in the early stages of L2 acquisition, of course we have to be generalized in order to build a strong foundation for them to continue scaffolding. But what about when they reach C2 level? Are we really giving them the tools, or pointing them in the right direction to develop the L2 they need or, moreover, want? Are we helping the individual to advance to become a true autonomous learner?

Those of you who have ever seen one of my live presentations know that, for years, I have been talking about giving a voice to students. What do I mean by this? Giving them their own personal voice, the way, the words, the structure and feeling from their native language, but in the target language. By voice, I mean their individual style of speaking.

Everyone has their idols, whether it be from music, literature, the arts, politics, journalism or even our parents. Listening to these idols over the years has influenced the way we speak today. Case in point, those of us with kids are always catching ourselves saying, “When did I turn into my mother?” Groups of friends tend towards the same language and style because it the group norm. Lawyers, Doctors and even Teachers tend to use the same language within their respective groups. This is because we mimic what we hear.

We need to teach this to our students. Teach them how to develop their group voice for their group. If they are Lawyers, have them watch shows like “Law and Order” or crime shows or read John Grisham books to see how legal language is used. If they are Doctors, there are many medical programs, both fiction and non-fiction. If being an orator is their choice, nothing better than Bill Clinton or Obama to learn how intonation and phrasing can be affective. An actor, preparing for a part in a Police drama, often follows an officer in real-life to get the feel and the “lingo” of a cop. We can point this out to them early on. When I make this suggestion to learners, I am surprised at how many (most) have never thought of this.

Remember, their opinions shouldn’t have to become tempered during the shift from L1 to L2 due to the lack of vocabulary. I also teach my students that they should sit and think of how they would voice their opinion, the words they use, in L1 and then make sure that they can say the same in L2. This works for presentations, lectures, classes etc. too. This will require a little extra work on their part, but they can feel the difference when they can hear their own voice emerge.

Now, armed with the basics that we have taught them throughout the early years, plus the modeling done by their respective influencers as well as the hints to become autonomous, learners can now start to form their own voice. Equipped with the instruments to perform, their efforts to develop and use their own, personal and individual voice will take the stage. We welcome more voices. What a plain world it would be with only Billie Holiday`s version of “Summertime” and never hearing Janis Joplin’s unique version, in her own voice.


Stephen and I have given you many ideas for improving vocabulary through apps, TV, books etc. Now it’s your turn. Please go to the blog and give us your best ideas for improving student voice development in the comments section.


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Rob Howard is the owner of Online Language Center. He is a teacher, tutor, trainer, material designer and author for English as a foreign language. He is also a consultant and has been a frequent speaker internationally regarding online retention as well as using technology in and out of the classroom. Originally from Boston, Massachusetts in the U.S., he is currently residing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. You may e-mail him at rob@onlinelanguagecenter.com.

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