(Trans)literate art

Languages and the conservatoire: A state of the challenge in music and dance education

Joanna Britton

Despite increasing internationalization, to date there has been little research into the language use of students in performing arts education at tertiary level. This article outlines a framework for academic and professional language skills in music and dance, intended for use by students, staff, and managers to streamline language support in the context of increasing competition and precarity faced by music and dance graduates.

Ondanks de toenemende internationalisering is er tot op heden nog steeds weinig onderzoek gedaan naar het taalgebruik van studenten in de podiumkunsten op hogeschool- en universiteitsniveau. Dit artikel schetst een kader voor academische en professionele taalvaardigheid in muziek en dans, bedoeld voor gebruik door studenten, personeel en managers om taalondersteuning te stroomlijnen in de context van toenemende concurrentie en onzekerheid waarmee afgestudeerden in muziek en dans te maken krijgen.

Recent years have seen increasing internationalization within higher education in many countries: the percentage of international students in Belgium, for example, almost doubled from 5.8% in 2005 to 10.5% in 2018.1 Similar trends have also been noted in creative arts education,2 leading to an ever-increasing need for language skills and intercultural competence amongst teachers, students, and curriculum developers. Yet approaches to language teaching in performing arts education have hitherto received little attention from scholars. In particular, there has not yet been a systematic overview of the relevant (foreign) language and communication skills for students in music and dance, as reflected in the almost complete lack of published teaching materials – at least in English – for language learning in this field.3 Moreover, no attempt has been made to synthesize or compare existing research and materials, nor to consider how existing knowledge could be made more accessible for practical use.

It is perhaps useful to define our terms here. Performing arts traditionally encompasses work that occurs in front of a (live) audience – principally music, dance, and drama. Nowadays, conservatoires and other higher education institutes offer a wide range of programmes ranging from traditional subjects like classical music, to music and theatre technology, non-Western music, and even adjacent disciplines such as performance art. It is beyond the scope of this article to consider the language used in all of these disciplines, so the present article instead focuses on two of the three core disciplines, namely music and dance. The choice to leave theatre aside here is due, firstly, to the methodology and literature available, as explained in more detail below. Second, although it might seem logical to include drama (given the increasing internationalization and multilingualism of many tertiary-level theatre courses), these programmes generally still have significant text-based components that require specific and advanced language skills when compared to dance and music programmes, where the focus of learning is usually not textual (except, perhaps, singing training). Nonetheless, internationalization and language support in all performing arts disciplines – including theatre – clearly deserve more attention from researchers, and hopefully the present article can serve to inspire further work in a field that is ripe for development.

The lack of work in this field is perhaps surprising, given the wealth of research on international student experience more generally,4 as well as the wealth of materials for language teaching in equivalent domains including ‘Business English, Legal English, Aviation English, English for Medical Purposes, English for Science and Technology’,5 to name but a few. Language proficiency is far from a luxury here, in particular, for international students who may be disadvantaged in their studies if they feel ‘hesitant to speak in class when they are either unfamiliar or do not feel particularly confident with the working language’.6 Indeed, all music and dance students benefit from developing language skills, given that ‘knowing the language of a discipline makes you feel like part of that community and is likely to lead to a more successful study experience’.7 . Student success in international education, ISANA International Conference, 27-30 Nov. 2007, Adelaide, Australia. p. 6.] Higher education institutions play a vital role in helping students develop these skills, and by cultivating a conscious, holistic approach to language support, schools not only help integrate international students, but can maximize student experience generally, during training and beyond.

Fig. 1 – Note Values, including both British and American English terms. (San Martín Gómez, p. 10)

For language skills are not only essential while studying. Music and dance graduates at the elite level frequently hope to work abroad after graduation, and limited language proficiency can lead to ‘numerous professional challenges (…) in terms of performing or presenting their own artistic project’.8 Moreover, given the highly competitive nature of their work, performing arts graduates may find themselves competing for the same small number of contracts, positions, and funding opportunities, regardless of where they studied. Precarity in the performing arts is notorious, and compounded by the ongoing pandemic. So, when seeking to help students develop ‘portfolio careers with multiple revenue streams and high levels of insecurity’,9 one thing is incontestable: the more versatility the better. As we will see, language skills are a key transferable skill that allow students to become versatile performers.

This article attempts to take a first step towards providing an overview of the language challenge facing performing arts students and institutions by developing a template for a language skills framework for dance and music education. The framework has been created by distilling from the existing literature all language skills which researchers have suggested are relevant for dance and music students in tertiary education. It is complemented by an attempt to trace a further, ‘nebulous’ layer of language-related soft skills that are rarely mentioned explicitly within existing materials and syllabi.

In terms of scope, the article focuses on the current situation and resources rather than suggesting any specific solutions at this stage. The hope is that this synthesis of existing work from disparate sources can serve as a starting point for teachers, curriculum planners and even students, as well as a call to share good practice and materials. Due to the limited research in the field, and also the predominance of English as a lingua franca in the performing arts,10 the paper draws chiefly on literature about teaching through English (both in the English-speaking world as well as in Europe, Latin America, and Asia). Much of the literature focuses on tertiary music education, with some references to dance, and the visual arts. Nonetheless, this article should hopefully be of interest to students, teachers, curriculum planners, and researchers, working in different languages and in different settings within other performing arts and adjacent disciplines.


The article draws on data from two main sources. Firstly, existing research on language skills in dance and music was analysed to synthesize the skills, teaching aims, and tasks mentioned. This literature was assembled by means of a bibliographic search of academic databases for keywords in combination, including: ‘music’, ‘dance’ and ‘performing arts’ alongside ‘EAP’, and related terms (‘TEFL’, ‘ESP’, ‘ELT’, ‘foreign languages’, ‘English’, ‘multilingualism’). Given the limited responses, the literature search was followed up by direct contact with as many original authors as possible, enabling follow-up questions and also the collection of further or more recent references by means of a snowball effect. As mentioned above, methodology was a key reason for limiting the current project to music and dance. If ‘theatre’ or ‘drama’ are added as keywords to the above list, the number of responses multiplies, but the search is clouded by a very large number of hits for literature related to the popular topic of drama as a tool within foreign-language teaching, making it far harder to identify relevant research on the language skills needed for performing arts.

The bibliographic search was complemented by a review of two course outlines from existing language support programmes within tertiary music performance programmes. This final section of the article draws on literature from adjacent fields, including art history and visual arts. Both parts of the article are underpinned by preliminary observations and input based on the author’s own ongoing experience as a participant observer in a research project based in a performing arts school in Europe.

By cultivating a conscious, holistic approach to language support, schools not only help integrate international students, but can maximize student experience generally, during training and beyond.

The article is also designed to be a partial needs analysis, responding to two of the five categories traditionally used for needs analysis: first, ‘target situation analysis and objective needs analysis (e.g. tasks and activities learners will use English for)’; secondly, ‘linguistic analysis, discourse analysis, genre analysis, i.e. knowledge of how language and skills are used in the target situation(s)’.11 (The other three categories being ‘subjective needs analysis’, ‘present situation analysis’, and ‘means analysis’). This focus is due not only to the sources at hand, but also in the hopes of developing a framework that is versatile, and applicable to a wide range of performing arts education contexts rather than being tied to a specific school context, budget, or student profile. Nonetheless, the final section of this article lists some questions that may be helpful when adapting the framework for specific contexts or schools.

Literature review

To the best of the author’s knowledge – and that of cited authors who responded when contacted for this study – the material reviewed within this article represents the bulk, if not the totality, of current literature at the intersection of music/dance education, and the teaching of English as a foreign language. That it is possible to synthesize such a field within one article points to the lack of research hitherto! It is far beyond the scope of the present article to provide a detailed history or comparison of the theory or different approaches to (English) language teaching. The brief – if simplified – descriptions below should hopefully serve as a sufficient introduction for teachers and curriculum planners in performing arts colleges who are exploring options for language support, particularly of international students.

Research in the field tends to build on one of a number of approaches. English for Specific Purposes (ESP) is commonly used as an umbrella term for any language courses that are not general English courses. These may include English for Academic Purposes (EAP) – both English for General Academic Purposes (EGAP) and English for Specific Academic Purposes (ESAP) – alongside English for Vocational Purposes (EVP) – sometimes also referred to as English for Occupational Purposes (EOP) or English for Professional Purposes (EPP) .12 Two terms are relevant in the present context: ESP and EAP. Here, ESP refers to courses which teach language skills needed for a specific study programme (i.e. art, music, dance). For music students, this might include materials or lessons that focus on music terminology, perhaps basic music theory, and language related to music history. In contrast, EAP classes typically cater to students from different programmes (i.e. all arts and humanities students together), and focus on general academic language, in particular academic writing. Two final concepts occur in the literature. First, Blended Learning – courses that include both in-person and online learning – and, second, Content Based Instruction (CBI – also known as CLIL, or Content and Language Integrated Learning), a technique whereby regular classes within the core programme are taught through a ‘foreign’ language, usually complemented by in-class language exercises and extra language support.

Obviously, all of these approaches could be relevant for performing arts students, depending on the institution and focus of their programme. Many programmes may have little or no academic writing requirement at BA or even MA level, and here an ESP course could offer students grounding in subject-related terminology and conventions to help them follow technical and practical classes, or history and cultural lessons, alongside functional and professional language skills needed for networking and entrepreneurship. In contrast, the EAP approach tends to focus on academic writing and so would be most appropriate for students whose degree also includes a significant academic or research component. In particular, students who wish to focus on research, or even pursue further study at doctoral level, are likely to benefit from language support that exposes them to the academic norms for engaging in dialogue with other scholars, researching, writing, and even publishing their work in a foreign language. It is interesting to note that, along with growing interest in CBI and blended learning, the work cited here points to a shift towards ESP. This is perhaps unsurprising since performing arts programmes typically face great financial and scheduling pressure, and the ESP approach is likely more efficient than traditional EAP courses which do not ‘specifically address the nature and degree of complexity of specific target languages, such as the language of music study’.13

This article draws chiefly on articles by eight researchers in the field. Of these, four authors write about ESP for music students at conservatoires and universities (Dai et al., Lesiak-Bielawska, San Martin Gómez, Kovačević), one explicitly relates to EAP in performing arts, visual arts, and the cultural industries (Carr et al.), one draws on EAP but leans towards ESP (Wakeland), while two authors explore, respectively, the potential of CBI and the importance of metaphor (Wolfe), and the broader psycho-social importance of language skills (Martin). Of the two music college courses analysed here, one is labelled an EAP programme (Eastman), while the other (Trinity) takes a seemingly integrated approach, mixing general English classes with ESP and professional skills.

What language skills do dance and music students need?

Although the basic problem of language can appear monolithic, it is in fact complex and can impinge on all aspects of teaching and learning. Some students say that they cannot speak, others that they cannot understand, or answer questions, or read at the speed required if they are to keep up with the coursework.14

Sonia Sovic, writing here about international students studying fine arts in London, goes on to point to numerous subtler language problems; including accent and dialect, speed of native speech, and – perhaps hardest to codify – their lack of ‘tacit knowledge’ of ‘concepts or references which local students would grasp immediately’.15 Sovic does not give examples, but one might guess that she is referring to the broad and eclectic range of cultural and other knowledge that – as anyone who has lived abroad can testify – is generally only acquired by growing up in a country or living there for many years. These references may be related to the subject at hand, arts or academic culture more generally, but also just everyday life. It is not surprising that ‘tacit knowledge’ is rarely explicitly addressed in the research since, by its nature, it is culturally embedded and thus inherently difficult to codify.

One resource that at least partially addresses tacit cultural knowledge is an online resource for music students entitled English for Specific Purposes by San Martín Gómez from 2013. In the introduction, San Martín Gómez explains that his course was developed in the context of ‘increasing interaction among musicians in different parts of the globe’16 and he takes an original and rather internationalist approach throughout, incorporating information, terminology, comprehension exercises, and discussion questions for classical music alongside popular music from around the world. In an exercise entitled ‘What about you? What do you play?’, possible genre-related and geographical expectations are undermined by the sample answers ranging from ‘I’m a pianist’, to ‘I’m a rapper’, to ‘I’m a flutist/flute player/quena player/pan flute player’.17 A less subversive example, perhaps, shown in figure one, is San Martín Gómez’ presentation of British and American note names as equally important: an appropriate inclusion for students who may encounter both sets of terminology if they study abroad or use English-language resources. San Martín Gómez even takes the international approach further by explicitly inviting the reader to consider cultural difference in music theory, as shown in figure two. Here, he describes attitudes to ‘fixed do’ and ‘moveable do’ found in different countries and music traditions, and then opens the topic for debate. Rather than non-native students being excluded by their lack of ‘tacit’ knowledge, as Sovic described, this exercise names and validates different approaches, thus including students from different backgrounds by inviting them to explore and understand cultural difference.

Fig. 2 – Instructions for class discussion on moveable-do. (San Martín Gómez, p. 17)

Terminology and music theory are, of course, just one type of ‘tacit knowledge’, and the below framework in no way pretends to be comprehensive for this or any other category of language skill. Rather, it is an initial attempt to codify existing knowledge, and is open to expansion and discussion. Skills have been classified here according to traditional categories in language teaching (reading, writing, listening, speaking, and vocabulary). The absence of grammar as a separate category here may surprise language teachers. It is due to two factors: firstly, given the applied and practical context, it seems more appropriate to integrate grammar as a functional aspect within other skills. Second, during the author’s fieldwork and interviews, numerous teachers and students in performing arts tertiary education emphasized that grammatical accuracy in itself was rarely their priority, provided that communication was engaging and the content accurate, interesting, and original. Where possible, reference is made to concrete examples or real-life performing arts contexts, paraphrased from the literature as cited.

A framework for language in music and dance education

Endnotes from the table can be found here:18 ,19 ,20 ,21 ,22 ,23 .

Endnotes from the table can be found here:24 ,25 ,26 ,27 ,28 ,29 ,30 ,31 .

Endnotes from the table can be found here:32 ,33 ,34 ,35 ,36 ,37 ,38 .

Endnotes from the table can be found here:39 ,40 ,41 ,42 ,43 .

Gaps in the framework

Many of the skills outlined in the previous pages, or parallel skills, are probably familiar to language teachers in many arts fields, and also to subject lecturers working in the performing arts. However, a number of skills recur in the literature, albeit obliquely, which perhaps will be familiar to teachers and curriculum planners, at least in any collated fashion. These can be broadly seen as soft skills – building on what Carr et al. have termed ‘aspects of ambiguity, group work and identity work’ –44 and as such are harder to place in traditional categories. They have been briefly summarized in the table below, which perhaps can serve as inspiration for further research, for example to confirm whether students, graduates, or practitioners also regard these skills as important. Even though these skills are not always taught explicitly, it seems fair to suggest that they are core language skills for learning and teaching creative subjects, and also key building blocks for success as a performing artist.


Language use as socially-responsible artists

  • Awareness of how language helps sustain privilege and colonial power structures.
  • Knowledge of strategies and inclusive language use to deconstruct norms and promote diversity, inclusion, and equity.
  • Ability to use language to refer to non-Western, non-classical art, and performance traditions.
  • Skills to express personal responsibilities in art and academic domains, including ability to use platform for social/political/environmental ends, if so desired.

Awareness of links between language and cultural difference45

  • Strategies to deal with ‘(un)translatablility’ of concepts between languages or traditions. e.g. English ‘up-down’ and ‘higher-lower’, vs. French ‘aigu’ for pitch, or different associations of ‘improvisation’, ‘devising’, ‘creative’ in different dance communities.
  • Development of cultural capital and understanding of the traditions of studies, institution, or country where one is studying or working.

Professional competences46

  • Language skills for applying for further study or funding: writing a personal statement, filling in application forms, negotiating fees, preparing budgets, liaising with venues.
  • Entry into professional discourse/learning to ‘talk like a creative entrepreneur’ for collaboration, networking, inviting and welcoming performers; networking with others who work in performing arts.
  • Versatility; ability to adapt and use appropriate registers in different contexts, genres/styles within one’s field in preparation for portfolio career, e.g. organizing events in the community, communicating with the public.

Creative communicators47

  • Ability to take risks and subvert expectations when communicating, e.g. using alternative strategies to structure discourse based on images, narration, or multimodal images, or using creative note-taking techniques to practise associative thinking.
  • Able to critique others’ work and investigate its influence on one’s own practice and process of self-discovery as a musician/artist/filmmaker/actor/dancer.
  • Language skills to support the shift from learning and talking about other people’s art to talking about one’s own art; assuming the role of a professional performer.

Multilingual competences

  • Strategies for multilingual contexts such as rehearsals or masterclasses where multiple languages may be used at once.
  • Multilingual competence to perform the same task in multiple languages, i.e. introducing oneself on stage.

Intrapersonal/reflective skills48

  • Strategies for communicating abstract, ambiguous meanings and meeting the challenge of explaining ‘the intrinsic nature of their particular art form alongside “saying it” through their artistic practice’.
  • Language as tool for autonomy, lifelong learning, and artistic independence, including self-knowledge about learning and communication preferences (visual, sensing, sequential, etc.).

    Well-being and connections as keys to success during and after studies49
  • Language skills as the key for connection, for creative collaboration, and also for psycho-social well-being (tool to adjust to the challenges posed by ‘alienation, culture, language and study/academic shock, confusion over pedagogical styles and learning expectations’).
  • Awareness of register and social conventions appropriate for informal/formal learning and even socializing as a student.
  • Ability to use ‘multidimensional’ language to talk in a controlled, conscious way about personal experience in relation to artistic practice (including reference to affect, identity, faith, or trauma).

Implications for research

As stated above, this framework is a first attempt to codify information from disparate sources. In future, alongside developing the list of skills through feedback from teachers and students in the field, there is also a clear need for more research into language needs in music fields other than Western classical music, including jazz, popular, and non-Western music as well as dance, movement work, and other performing arts disciplines, including drama.

Another welcome step would be making the framework more accessible by bringing it into alignment with an existing outline, most obviously the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). The best-known application of the CEFR is, of course, its use as a code for language levels ranging from A1 for beginners to C2 for advanced language speakers. However, the framework is a rich resource and has been used and adapted to many contexts, including needs analysis in various languages; as an in-class tool for promoting learner autonomy at all levels; and for portfolios for trainee language teachers as in the case of the European language portfolio,50 amongst others.

A first step in this direction could be to launch a crowd-sourced database of CEFR-based ‘can do’ statements which music and dance students could use to identify gaps and prioritize skills most relevant for their context. Alternatively, the CEFR is also a useful tool for teachers and curriculum designers. Athanasiou et al. have described how the CEFR has been used successfully in other settings to streamline and structure the development of ESP programmes (2016). Performing arts schools could use a CEFR-aligned tool to assess student levels and ensure uniformity – especially for exchange students and for placement purposes. Moreover, it could provide language teachers and performing arts teachers and planners with a shared basis for syllabus design, and a starting point when deciding ‘what to teach and what goals to set in language teaching’.51

Implications for teachers, researchers, students, and curriculum developers

The state of the challenge facing ‘languages and the conservatoire’ is thus at the crossroads between arts and language, between English for (General) Academic Purposes, English for Specific Purposes and English for Vocational (or Occupational) Purposes, between language as a tool for learning, and language as a tool for success in a competitive and demanding profession. Between language difference being a bar to academic growth or mutual understanding, and multilingualism being a building block for artistic excellence and innovation. And, also, between performers as ‘doers’ and performers as ‘thinkers’ and communicators.

Given the diversity within and between performing arts disciplines, it is clear that no ‘one size fits all’ approach to language support will work. Some needs analysis questions will thus be relevant when applying the framework to a specific situation: What is the students’ starting level, and educational background? When best to deliver support – in a pre-sessional course, as a foundation programme, as an optional course, or compulsory sessions embedded throughout a study programme? How can curricula cater for students with different learning styles or specific educational needs? How to support staff or students working in a language that may be their second or third language? How to balance support students’ needs during their studies, related to their ‘specialist study area or profession’ – such as subject-related terminology or conventions in their specific field – with the entrepreneurship and professional language skills needed after graduation? And what about the ‘generic academic skills’52 needed for artistic or academic research at tertiary level (most particularly for students who wish to pursue a PhD or career as an artist-researcher), including language for constructing an argument, supporting it with evidence from one’s own artistic practice or that of others, or the skills to find and cite scholarship or theory?

Other considerations are more specific to the music/dance context, and are also ripe for further research. These relate to the extra aspects of needs analysis mentioned above (‘subjective needs analysis’, ‘present situation analysis’, and ‘means analysis’) and so anyone seeking to apply this framework to a specific context should consider these questions in particular. For example, what structure and learning formats – online, in-person, or blended approaches – are most suitable given the logistical and time constraints in performing arts programmes? Given the growing diversity in performing arts colleges, what linguistic and intercultural skills do teachers need to ‘engage and validate these diverse student cohorts and ensure their integration and ultimately their success’?53 And, most obviously, how can schools choose a focus from the large range of skills? How do arts subject-teachers, language teachers, managers, and students negotiate their needs and wishes? And what quality and evaluation mechanisms are appropriate in the performing arts context to ensure that language support delivers the desired results during and after a student’s training?

A deeper reflection relates to the varying degrees of academicization between different institutions. The importance of language skills for performing artists cannot be underestimated, yet excellence in (academic) writing is not universally regarded as a dance or music student’s main priority, even in programmes which have a significant academic component. The needs of a student majoring in jazz guitar, or contemporary dance, for example, should not be confused with those of students in musicology or the history of dance, and the framework outlined above can perhaps help shed light on skills which are most important for performers, (e.g. ‘Strategies for multilingual contexts, such as rehearsals or masterclasses’), those which are probably of equal importance for both performers and researchers (e.g. ‘Multi-modal reading skills for music and other non-linguistic texts’), and those that are more relevant for students of courses with an academic component (e.g. ‘citation and bibliographic skills’).

At the same time, it is essential that language support opens rather than closes doors. Traditionally, the main if not only ‘language’ that dance and music students were supposed to master was performance, whether through their body, instrument, listening and interpersonal skills, or stage presence, while words and lexical competency were generally secondary. Even in the case of programmes such as drama, opera, oratorio, or song, a performer’s language needs were not traditionally aligned with those of academics or researchers. This, of course, relates to the typical division between ‘people who make art (painters, composers, theatre directors, performance artists, etc.)’ and those who ‘study artworks or artists (such as art historians, musicologists, theatre researchers, performance theorists, etc.)’.54 It is essential that, rather than reinforcing this dichotomy, work on language support for performing artists in general – and this framework in particular – should serve as tools to build bridges, and open doors, helping students develop versatility in the face of precarity.

The question is, therefore: How can we balance support for academic writing and research in the arts with other professional and performance-related language needs in such a way as to enhance progress and innovation in both? This includes skills that some students and teachers may regard as more pressing needs – such as subject-related terminology, language for everyday life, or soft skills and entrepreneurship – alongside the tools that performing artists need to add their voice to academic discourse, if they so wish. In any subject area, but particularly performing arts, it is simplistic to think that language support is just about helping students write a good final dissertation. It is also very much about enabling students to engage with scholarship and the work of others as an integral part of their performance practice. Whether delving into the story of a specific practitioner, the history of a music genre, or the science of dance and movement – and whether they are seeking work on a project-by-project basis or auditioning for permanent contracts with world-renowned orchestras or dance companies – both academic and soft language skills should ultimately serve to enrich each student’s performance and capacity to excel as an artist both on and off stage.


Joanna Britton

studied modern languages and literature at Oxford University. Since 2009, she has lived in Belgium where she is active as a language teacher, translator, singer, and community activist. She is currently working on a project researching multilingualism at the Royal Conservatoire of Antwerp, having previously taught in the English linguistics department of Ghent University.

joanna.britton@ap.be, Joanna.britton@gmail.com


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