Madonna once sang, “Music makes the people come together.”
There’s a lot of truth to that.
Music is a cornerstone of culture, and so songs have been written in every language since the birth of speech itself.
But how exactly can you use this modern musical phenomenon to your advantage?
And why should songs form part of your journey to fluency?
How Can Songs Help You Learn a Language?
There’s a reason that annoying song you heard on the radio is stuck so firmly in your head. Melodies are excellent memory tools. Whether it’s Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” or Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” a good, simple melody can be paired with words and make them a lot easier to keep in mind. In fact, many experts even recommend language learners put words they’re trying to learn to simple tunes.
What’s more, modern music tends to have a set, repetitive structure. Verses and choruses repeat phrases and words, so listening to them helps to drill vocabulary into your mind. Meanwhile, rhyme patterns help you remember pronunciation and memorize groups of words that fit together. (A very well-used example for Spanish learners is Manu Chao’s “Me gustas tú”—a Peruvian friend calls it “the vocabulary song.”)
Finally, if you find songs you like, you can listen to them again and again, learning a little more each time.
They provide context
Whether it’s a love song, a political anthem or a dance tune, songs have themes. They give crucial context to the language you’re learning. Unlike lists of vocabulary, which are hard to absorb into your language usage, once you get the gist of a song, you know that all the words you learn from it will be related to it. This hugely increases your chances of being able to use that language in the future.
They’re a cultural adventure
Music is a crucial part of any culture, and cultural understanding is a hugely important element of language learning. This insight can help give meaning to your language study—as well as give you something to talk about!
We all love to discover new music—why not kill two birds with one stone?
Learn a Language Through Songs: Rockin’ Tools and Tips
Getting Going: Finding Target-language Songs
On board? Great! Here’s how to get started…
Choose your songs wisely
The key tip is this: Pick music that you like. This might sound obvious, but it’s tempting to just pick the first songs in your target language you come across. However, there’s no point in forcing yourself to listen to thrash metal or soporific ballads if they aren’t your thing—you won’t enjoy them and you won’t be motivated to keep listening. If you like rap or rock ‘n’ roll in your native tongue, start with these in your target language!
(A personal tip: I really like listening to rap music in foreign languages. It’s rhythmic—which helps you to learn about stress patterns—a mix of spoken and sung words and incredibly varied in theme. Check out “La vuelta al mundo” by Calle 13 if you’re a Spanish learner, or “Goldfisch” by Fiva if you’re trying to pick up German.)
Just like with any listening material you would use to support your language study, make sure to pitch it right for your level. If you’re an advanced learner, a children’s lullaby is unlikely to teach you much; however, if there are no words you understand at all in the songs you pick, you’ll struggle to make progress.
Get your resources right
Music is everywhere, but in a digital world it’s important to be savvy in what you use to find your optimal tunes. Here are some recommendations:
- The best source of song recommendations is native speakers of the language. Ask friends or people online what they listen to and try it out. If you don’t yet have any connections with native speakers, it’s really easy to find them. For online connections, try Speaky; if you’d rather meet people face-to-face, Meetup often has groups that do language exchanges or gatherings for specific language and culture groups. There’s nothing like listening to some tunes over a drink or a meal!
- FluentU is an ideal resource for finding and learning through target-language music.
- Invest in an account with a music streaming service like Spotify. I use it to create playlists of music for each language I’m learning; this means I can always find my tracks and add to it as I get new recommendations. The other great thing about Spotify is that you can use the Radio feature to get recommendations based on individual songs or artists. Find something you like, listen to related songs and populate your playlist!
- Go onto YouTube and search for playlists in your target language. In the modern world, people share all sorts of curated content. For example, you could listen to a list of Disney songs in French, a collection of Swahili music or a playlist filled with Russian rock. These are easy to find! Simply:
- Search for what you want to find, e.g., “Spanish rock songs.”
- Click “Filter.”
- Under “Type,” choose “Playlist.”
- Listen and enjoy!
- Prefer to listen in person? Depending on where you live this could be tricky, but planning a trip to a festival in a target language country is a great motivator—and will give you a chance to hear loads of different artists as well as give you ideas for music to look up ahead of time, all while meeting people with a shared interest. Time Out has a huge list to start with.
Making the Most of It: How to Learn with Songs
Got your playlist ready? Already on your way to being a musical multilinguist? Great! Here’s some advice to help you make the most of it.
Sing out loud!
As you’re starting to get the words of the songs, sing them out loud! This will fix them in your mind and improve your speaking as well as your listening.
If you play a little piano or guitar, look up the chords online and learn to play them, impressing your friends as you go.
If not, what could be better than a little karaoke? YouTube is the place to go again—simply search the name of your song of choice and “karaoke” and there’s a good chance someone has created a voiceless version with all the lyrics on the screen. Invite your study buddies round and have a foreign-language karaoke party!
Write out lyrics
As you’re listening, try writing out the lyrics as you understand them. This will help you remember the words and also help you to build an understanding of the meaning of tricky phrases. Once you’ve got most of a song but there are a few gaps, you can look them up online—although remember that lyric sites like AZLyrics are user-created, so do make mistakes!
Do your dialect research
The biggest drawback (or exciting challenge!) of using pop music can be that, in a medium designed for native speakers, specific slang, dialects or strong accents can slip in. For example, I was bemused about not being able to understand a single word in a specific verse of Articolo 31’s “Gente che spera” until a native Italian speaker told me it was in the Neapolitan dialect—essentially a different language!
The upside of this is that, once you get used to what you’re listening to, you’ll hear a much broader and richer range of language than you might find in a textbook.
The best thing to do is a little background research—Wikipedia, anyone?—to find out both where a target language singer or band is from and what the dialectic differences to expect in your target languages are. For example, if you’re learning English from a Scottish band, you know it’s possible that some Scots dialect might slip in—very different from Standard English!
Join fan forums
Remember, every great band has great fans. Participate in fan forums online—nowadays mostly found on social media, like Twitter or Facebook. (One example is Japanese duo Ego-Wrappin’s Facebook page.) Use these resources to connect with other fans, allowing your newfound hobby to expand your language horizons yet further. This may also give you a few new songs to listen to…
Is there a more fun way to study than to learn a language through songs? Happy singing, dancing—and learning!
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