Can’t get you out of my head…
It’s 7pm on an early spring evening in Norwich, and at NUA’s Ideas Factory 60 members of Norfolk Network are learning to count. Not in English – let’s hope there’s no need for that – but in Mandarin Chinese: yī, èr, sān, sì …
The counting lesson is a demonstration of the value of rhythmic music and ‘memory hooks’ in language-learning the Earworms way. “The word ‘earworms’, which comes from the German Ohrwürme, means catchy or ‘sticky’ tunes, which we now know are stored in the part of your brain called the auditory cortex,” says Marlon Lodge, the brains behind Earworms. “They reside there ready for instant recall – earworms are songs you can’t get out of your head, even if they’re in a foreign language. Wouldn’t it be great then, to reverse this idea and use the phenomenal power of music to plant words of a foreign language into your head? This is basically what we’ve endeavoured to do.”
And the endeavour is paying off. Today Earworms is an international business whose products are bestsellers in many markets.
Right brain, meet left brain
At the heart of the Earworms method is music. In every module a man and a woman discuss and repeat phrases, vocabulary and grammatical structures, and their conversation is accompanied by rhythmic, memorable music. Why the music? The theory, as explained by Earworms, goes like this:
Firstly, the music primes the neural networks and puts the learner into the optimum state of consciousness for learning, the so-called alpha state; relaxed but at the same time receptive. Also, music engages and stimulates both the right and left hemispheres of the brain, allowing ‘whole-brain learning’ processes. Traditional teaching practice has tended to favour the left hemisphere of the brain, which is more concerned with logic, mathematical thinking, reading and the rules of grammar, discounting the value of the senses and emotions in the learning process. By tapping into the auditory cortex, the area responsible for processing and storing sound waves, and to some extent evoking an emotional response through music and dialogue, Earworms engages the right hemisphere, unleashing more learning potential.
So scientific understanding is in place, but although the Earworms method has been the subject of research at Goldsmith’s College in London, it was born not in a university sound laboratory but in a language-school classroom in Düsseldorf…
“Years ago I taught English to German and Japanese business people in Germany,” says Marlon. “Most of them spoke English pretty well, but I specialised in getting their English from good to very good, and to do that they needed to learn a lot of vocabulary and expressions. The difficulty was getting all the vocabulary from the page into the students’ long-term memory, and I decided they needed some sort of tool or strategy. First I tried memory techniques, which worked pretty well, but the disadvantage was that the techniques had to be learned and practised, which was quite an effort in itself.
“At the same time I was teaching at my son’s school. He was six or seven then, and I’d take my guitar in and play nursery rhymes, and it was a great eye-opener to me to see how quickly they picked up these nursery rhymes, in English. So I thought I’d try a similar thing with my adult students. I recorded all the vocabulary from the lessons, with music, and gave them cassettes so they could learn at home. That worked surprisingly well, and the students would typically learn when they were driving to and from work.
“The huge eureka moment came for me when I was teaching a group of young students at an HSBC bank. I was standing for a teacher who was sick, and teaching international commercial correspondence English to students who had an exam in three months. Having assessed their English, I realised that there was no way they could pass with the level of vocabulary they had. So I made a cassette with 350 or so commercial terms from their textbook, with music, and asked them to listen to it several times, and I would test them a week later.
I noticed the students were tapping their feet while they were trying to think of the vocabulary they were visualising in their minds.
“During the test an interesting thing happened – I noticed the students were tapping their feet while they were trying to think of the vocabulary they were visualising in their minds. Anyway, they handed their papers in and I started marking them. Wow. To my utter astonishment, the first student had 94 per cent. That’s unheard of. The second had 91 per cent, the third 99 per cent, and they all had over 90 per cent, except for one student, and she had 43 per cent. My initial thought was that this only works for certain people, but then I asked her, out of curiosity, how many times she’d listened to the cassette. And guess what, she hadn’t listened to it at all. She didn’t have a cassette recorder.
“That said it all to me. Over 90 per cent with music, 43 per cent without music. That’s when I knew I had to pursue this idea further.”
The Greek connection
The rest, as they say, is history. Marlon’s brother, Andrew, is married to a Cypriot but was at that time struggling to learn Greek, so Marlon worked with Andrew’s teacher to make a short Greek course for him, with backing music. Andrew was bowled over, saw the method’s commercial potential, and soon the brothers were working together on Earworms.
Since then the business has been on an upward trajectory, via a brush with Dragon’s Den (they didn’t make it on to the show, but Theo Paphitis was a fan and ended up stocking Earworms products) and a big competitor’s shameless (and unsuccessful) attempt to copy the Earworms ideas.
Today Earworms modules are available for learning Arabic, Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese (European and Brazilian), Spanish (European and Latin American), Russian and Turkish.
“Our range consists of over 80 titles, spread over the English, French and German-speaking markets,” explains Andrew, “and we’re working now on a new range for native Spanish-speakers. We produce and sell both in the old-fashioned CD format and as digital audiobook downloads through our website and a number of digital distributors. Our current project is to develop apps for the whole range – by its very nature, Earworms is made for the apps platform.”
And, possibly, for schools, which is where Marlon and Andrew’s sister, Jane Gamble, comes in. Jane is an educational consultant looking at the benefits Earworms could deliver to pupils and teachers alike in a school setting.
So listen up: Earworms is coming!
For more, visit: www.earwormslearning.com
Event photos: Joe Lenton Photography