Sometimes, inspiration for language learning comes from the most unexpected places. For me, one such place was a cosy restaurant in Osaka a few months ago. The restaurant serves up delicious, high-quality Japanese-style pub dishes, but what I found particularly impressive were the restaurant’s main stars: a group of drag queens.
They take turns performing almost every night, strutting up and down the narrow steps to the stage in dim lighting, all while wearing dangerously high heels. These queens give it their all, sashaying between tables in their glamorous outfits and wigs. What caught my attention the most however, was their lip-syncing.
One of the key skills that sets one drag queen apart from another is how well they can lip-sync to a song. The audience needs to believe that they are actually singing. Things like mouth movements, hand actions and facial expressions all come into play. This is no easy feat even if you’re an English speaker lip-syncing to an English-language song. So, when these Osaka drag queens came out and performed in English, with creative dance moves that matched the lyrics, I realised that language learners can learn a lot from drag queens.
Lip-syncing involves understanding the pronunciation, intonation and meaning of song lyrics. Understanding the meaning of lyrics is especially important in order for any choreography to make sense. Take for example someone lip-syncing Beyoncé’s famous line: “If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it.” If they weren’t clear on the differences between “putting a ring on something” and “putting a ring around something,” they might mime drawing a circle around something they want in a shopping catalogue, instead of putting a wedding ring on their finger. While it would be pretty funny, it would be the wrong interpretation of that line.
Drag queens are absolutely what all language learners should draw inspiration from. By that, I don’t mean wearing layers of makeup and impossibly long fake eyelashes. Speaking a new language, especially at the beginning, is a bit of a performance — one that is also undoubtedly nerve-wracking. You need to do some preparation, memorise a few things, and if you want people to understand you, learn to copy. Copy their body language and copy their intonation. And then, just like a drag queen, don’t be afraid to make the performance your own — because a bit of your personality also needs to shine through.
I know it’s not practical for all my students to get up and start lip-syncing dramatically to Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It). At the same time, I have no doubt that if they did it just once, they would learn a lot — no 15-centimetre heels required. (Samantha Loong)