Peace as a Global Language Conference, September 2004

January 2004

How Much Comprehensible Input is Enough?

Willie Nelson Provides New ESL/EFL Teaching Resource

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Michael Two Horses, 1953-2003

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How Much is a New Protest Song Worth?
Content-based instruction benefits from Willie Nelson tune

One challenge for a teacher wishing to harness the energy of real-world news to generate interest and facilitate the progress of students in ESL and EFL classrooms is selecting relevant current events and engaging students in communication activities built around topics and issues derived from those events.

With satellite TV, Internet news feeds, ubiquitous English-language news and infinite "blogs," there is no dearth of sources for ESL teachers to find current events to create lessons around or for their students to use in researching an interest. When I was a senior lecturerer in the Ohio Program for English Language Teaching (OPELT) at Chubu University, in the early 1990s--even without today's access to major news outlets via the Web, there was enough information available via satellite TV and English-language newspapers to build a unit around the developments leading up to the first Gulf War. Chubu students invented imaginary conversations between James Baker and Tariq Aziz; they registered their opinions on whether the U.S. and its allies should enter the conflict; some of the students chose as a topic for their argument essay writing assignment the question of whether Japan ought to be involved in the international coalition against Iraq.

Today it is far easier, yet in many ways so much more complicated and confusing, to find sources for the kind of relevant news which drives assignments and activities like these. Classic Vietnam-era songs like Bob Dylan's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" or Country Joe & the Fish's "What Are We Fighting For?" must have been wonderful vehicles for incorporating discussions of peace and war in the context of ESL/EFL lessons taught during the 1960s. Music is such a non-threatening, fun way to practice English while also dealing with the tough issues which divide people along political and social fissures.

English language teachers around the world have struggled during the past year with the problem of how to bring political issues, such as the question of whether the U.S. was justified in attacking Iraq, into the classroom. One of the typical concerns is to what extent the teacher's own perspective is appropriate or even relevant to discussions and activities about such intensely disputed conflicts. How useful it would be to have a significant song to use in order to facilitate and inspire activities which students would find interesting and meaningful to their lives.

Willie Nelson Photo by John Dettling, 2004One candidate is a new protest song, "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth?," by Willie Nelson, a 70-year-old country music "outlaw," "Farm Aid" co-founder and outspoken critic of the current administration's Iraq policies.

The lyrics are available and the song can be heard at

There's so many things going on in the world
Babies dying
Mothers crying
How much oil is one human life worth?
And what ever happened to peace on earth?

The refrain throughout Nelson's new song repeats the title, "What ever happened to peace on earth?" In the first verse, he introduces the theme of human suffering, and the refrain suggests an economic motive behind the suffering. These could be ideas to begin discussion of the song in an advanced class; in a beginning class, the focus would be on rhythm, intonation, pronunciation and a general sense of the meaning. One great thing about using material whose message relates to news which everyone in the world is thinking about today is that there is a strong context outside the classroom to support understanding. That context mitigates to a large extent the presence of new vocabulary words or unfamiliar grammar and phrasing.

We believe everything that they tell us
They're gonna’ kill us
So we gotta’ kill them first
But I remember a commandment
Thou shall not kill
How much is that soldier’s life worth?
And whatever happened to peace on earth?

In the first line of the second verse, "they" could mean either the media or the government: or it could entail both. This verse also refers to the new U.S. policy of pre-emptive military action, in the phrase "They're gonna kill us, so we gotta kill them first." In addition, the human suffering referred to in the first verse now is expanded to include the sacrifices soldiers make, and, again, suggests there is an economic motive behind the need for these sacrifices.

And the bewildered herd is still believing
Everything we’ve been told from our birth
Hell they won’t lie to me
Not on my own damn TV
But how much is a liar's word worth
And whatever happened to peace on earth?

Verse three states the songwriter's own opinion very clearly: he believes that a large number of American and world citizens operate within a "herd mentality" and take for granted the truth of what they hear or see in the media. Furthermore, Nelson seems to be suggesting strongly that someone in a position of power over what is presented in the media is a "liar." Where earlier verses implied that human life ought to have the highest value, this verse puts it squarely that a "liar's word" has no value. The strong language employed in this pivotal verse shows the emotional level at which Willie Nelson feels and believes what he is singing about.

So I guess it’s just
Do unto others before they do it to you
Let’s just kill em’ all and let God sort em’ out
Is this what God wants us to do?
And the bewildered herd is still believing
Everything we’ve been told from our birth
Hell they won’t lie to me
Not on my own damn TV
But how much is a liar's word worth?
And whatever happened to peace on earth?

The refrain now includes Nelson's phrases about "the bewildered herd," and he now questions whether God would approve of America's military action in Iraq, which he characterizes as "just kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out."

Now you probably won’t hear this on your radio
Probably not on your local TV
But if there’s a time, and if you’re ever so inclined
You can always hear it from me
How much is one picker’s word worth?
And whatever happened to peace on earth?

Willie Nelson first performed this song in a sold-out concert benefit for peace candidate Dennis Kunicich in Austin, Texas, on Sunday, January 4, 2004. The last time a country music act took a political stand against the current U.S. foreign policy on Iraq, radio stations largely boycotted their music, but paradoxically their concerts and albums actually became more popular than ever. It remains to be seen how the public, and how country music fans, will react to someone of Nelson's stature directly criticizing the administration of George Bush Jr.

But don’t confuse caring for weakness
You can’t put that label on me
The truth is my weapon of mass protection
And I believe truth sets you free
And the bewildered herd is still believing
Everything we’ve been told from our birth
Hell they won’t lie to me
Not on my own damn TV
But how much is a liar's word worth?
And whatever happened to peace on earth?

There is so much in this song for a teacher and his or her students to work with, to make language learning more fun and relevant. It is hard to imagine a persuasive argument against including current events of such global import in the language learning curriculum. Willie Nelson has provided us with a great vehicle, in the form of a protest song against the war, for developing lessons, activities, projects and units within this supportive context.

Hear Willie Nelson singing the song! Go to, and view the short streaming video, with comments from Dennis Kucinich, followed by comments from Willie Nelson and a clip from the song.

Article by Robb Scott

2004 ESL MiniConference Online