Music and language learning is the best combo since peanut butter and jelly.
I boosted my Spanish to fluency by listening to Enrique Iglesias, Marc Anthony and Shakira at full blast. I got truly passionate about Portuguese after discovering Joao Gilberto. I’m brushing up on some dusty Japanese skills these days by cranking up the J-Pop.
If only I knew sooner just how scientific my off-key singing and salsa dancing actually is!
As it turns out, there’s a reason why so many language learners swear by studying with music.
Whether it’s foreign music in the background to get you in the learning “zone,” music and lyrics paired for active learning or just dance tracks played at full volume for fun times, music can supercharge your learning.
What Science Is Telling Us About Music and Language
Music Improves Overall Brain Power
Children who’ve been musically trained start out in life with tons of great advantages. For the better part of a century, psychological research has continually pointed to music lessons being a key element of early childhood education.
By playing or listening to music, many regions of the brain are activated—even some pretty unexpected regions, ones that are seemingly unrelated to music and listening comprehension.
If you can play or are learning to play an instrument, more power to you. Musical training has been shown to significantly impact brain development. Playing an instrument exercises your brain, ultimately getting it to make stronger neural connections and start firing faster. All in all, a nimbler brain can tackle language lessons with greater ease.
This is exactly why music is often used as therapy for people facing brain damage and linguistic challenges.
Music Puts the Memory Pedal to the Metal
It has been straight-up proven that music aids memory in language learning. In one recent study, research participants made bigger strides in acquiring Hungarian when they sang their new language.
One prominent psychology researcher has devoted his career to the study of memory and music. But, for Dr. Roediger, the issue isn’t so much getting information into your brain as it is getting information out.
Have you ever spent a huge chunk of time cramming vocabulary or grammar, only to struggle with recalling what you just taught yourself? Then you’ve experienced this firsthand. Memory is about informative storage and retrieval. What good is it to learn anything if you can never access that information again?
According to Dr. Roediger’s research (along with the work of numerous other intrigued psychologists) music creates a sticky structure that gloms to key information and helps it all get extracted neatly when you need it. It’s kind of like when you’re trying to remember the order of the alphabet and need to sing a chunk of the alphabet song you learned in kindergarten to help you. I know I’d personally be unable to list all 50 United States without the “50 Nifty United States” song I learned in elementary school.
Music is so darn powerful in memory recall that many medical professionals suggest music as therapy for elderly patients with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other degenerative memory loss conditions. Hearing songs that held some sentimental value for them allows them to rediscover long lost memories, things locked away in parts of their brains which have been extensively damaged by their medical conditions.
This beautiful idea brings me to the next benefit music has for language learning.
Music Makes Us Happy
When you’re learning a language, attitude counts. Singing, dancing and music brings joy. The key is to be uninhibited while singing along to your music—enjoy the experience without any pressure about technique, accuracy or sound.
Especially when listening to music that you love, your brain releases dopamine in response. Plus, it’s even been shown to aid those coping with mild to severe depression, lessening feelings of sadness, hopelessness and despair.
Singing and Speaking Are One and the Same
But the benefits of music for language learners don’t just end with general brain-boosting effects. Oh, no—music and language learning are inextricably linked.
In the first years of our lives, it turns out that our soft, squishy baby brains can’t tell the difference between lullabies and nursery rhymes. Our natural sense for syntax comes from every word we hear in the crib, whether it’s sung or spoken. Music and language are all one and the same for us. Lullabies impact the way we start speaking and, likewise, the speech we absorb impacts our singing and musical sensibilities.
Music Defines You
Even if you don’t consider yourself a music-aficionado, you probably know what you do and don’t like. The type of music we enjoy is strongly connected to our personalities.
No matter what kind of music you like, it’s most likely out there in your target language. Choose to learn with the music you like best, and you’ll give yourself a boost of personal satisfaction and enjoyment. This keeps language learning fun and personalized, as it always should be. That’s what’ll give you the momentum and motivation to keep practicing!
Why Music and Language Are a Dynamic Duo
Put simply: Music is a language. Think about it. Even when there aren’t any words set to a tune (or when the song is accompanied by foreign words that you can’t understand at all), you can still grasp what the tune intends to express. Is it a happy, upbeat song meant to make you smile? A love song that makes your heart flutter? A blues song about heartbreak that conjures up rainclouds around your head?
Bottom line, we can communicate through music. While each culture, society and individual has their own spin on music, music is truly a universal human language. It’s a uniquely beautiful form of human expression. It’s only natural that we want to channel music into our language learning.
There are tons of language and culture lessons that can be learned from the diverse music out there:
- Culture. You’ll start to hear common pairings of types of lyrics with types of music. For example, if you hear the fanfare of a national anthem, you know that the words are meant to express a strong sentiment of national pride. What words does this language use to capture and express this feeling? When I first heard the Ecuadorian national anthem (starting with “¡Salve, Oh Patria, mil veces! ¡Oh Patria,” (We salute you, Oh Homeland, a thousand times! Oh Homeland!), that’s exactly the moment I learned the word “patria,” which is often used by Ecuadorian nationals to describe their country in moments of pride—both in speech and song.
- Syntax. Whether you realize it or not, catchy choruses will teach you word order—so you’ll have the building blocks to branch out and use the language authentically.
- Diverse vocabulary. From lofty, poetic language to hip, trendy slang, music has it all.
- Bilingualism. By listening to bilingual music, you can train your brain to switch quickly and seamlessly between languages. That’s an awesome skill for a language learner to have!
The Best Types of Music for Language Learning
- Earworms. An earworm is a devastatingly catchy song—you know, the kind that wriggles its way deep into your brain through your ear canal. They dig in deep and pop up when you least expect them. You’re minding your own business and then—oh, dang—that Britney Spears song is playing in your head again. You may even be humming along or mouthing the lyrics. To find good earworms, consult modern pop music with repetitive lyrics and cute choruses. You can even look for television commercials and viral YouTube-based advertisements in your target language. Like, the only reason I know the word for “lottery ticket” in Spanish is because of this annoying little number.
- Children’s music. It might seem below your language level, but even advanced learners can glean new information from children’s songs. They’re repetitive and easy to learn, and they’re designed for the ultimate new language learners—kids! Absorbing the lyrics of children’s songs will embed proper syntax and pronunciation in your mind, and it’ll teach you essential grammar and vocabulary.
- Modern music. Oh yeah, we love the modern stuff. Modern music grants you important pop culture knowledge which, as we all know, is vital for things like carrying casual conversations, understanding humor and following television programs. Modern doesn’t just mean pop music either—it refers to anything by artists of our current generations. The topics sung about in these songs often point to key political injustices, social issues, trends, modern relationship dynamics and more relatable things.
- Traditional music. While older music can at times be hard to follow due to antiquated language, it can be a goldmine of cultural information. It can also introduce you to more complex and poetic vocabulary. Once you’ve listened to some more traditional tunes, you’ll likely hear remnants of these musical styles in more modern music in your target language.
- Music that you love. It doesn’t matter if you love to listen to it or dance to it—if the song makes you smile or makes your booty shake, use it for language learning. The more addictive you find your study music, the more fun you’ll have listening to it. This will keep you chugging forward with musical study time.
- Music you know well. Listen or translations or unique renditions of songs you already love, or find songs with similar melodies. Familiarity with the tune, lyrics or meaning will give you a headstart learning language with that particular song.
Methods for Studying Language with Music
- Write Your Own Melodies. The lyrics you write yourself can be some of the most memorable. It’s kind of like when you dream up your own mnemonic devices for memorizing things—the most vivid images that stand out in your brain will work better than those that other people tell you to use. Need to memorize a series of grammar patterns or conjugations? Organize them and set them up with a tune that you know well.
- Listen Passively. Keep foreign language on in the background at all times. The key to fluency is familiarity. Your brain needs to learn how to function 100% in the foreign language. It should feel like this new language is normal and comfortable. By immersing yourself in the language with constant background music, you’ll not only become familiar, you’ll start picking up on commonly-used words, phrases and grammar patterns.
- Have a Sing-along. Pull up the lyrics while listening to your chosen songs and sing as the song plays. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the video on YouTube with lyrics written on-screen for easy reading. As we’ll discuss further in a bit, another great option is using FluentU music videos—these come complete with annotations in English and your target language.
- Karaoke. If you live in a major city, chances are pretty good that the community speaking your target language has some cool joints where they love to hang out together. If you’re learning German, find the local pub where the Germans hang out. From there, you can inquire about karaoke night, or make some new friends to invite to your own at-home karaoke night. If you don’t have many diverse international communities in your area, you’d be surprised how often local karaoke joints have foreign language music in their machines. And if you really dislike the idea of stepping on stage or singing in front of others, host your own little party-of-one karaoke night at home. Just type the name of your favorite foreign language songs into YouTube’s search bar along with the word “karaoke.” This will lead you to instrumental renditions of the song with lyrics presented on-screen.
- Dictation. It’s as simple as this: listen and write. Scribble down every word you can catch on the fly, even if it’s only the odd word or phrase every 20 seconds. If you catch 90% of a sentence but are missing a couple of key words, just write down whatever you heard. Don’t stop the music, keep it rolling until the song has played through completely. Then go back again and fill in whatever you missed. The chorus should come together fairly quickly thanks to the repetitions in just one play-through. If you’re really at a loss after a couple of plays, refer to the lyrics to see what you missed.
- Fill in the Blanks. This one’s a little more classroom-style but, heck, it’s very effective. Print out a full sheet of lyrics. Use white out or a permanent marker to blot out some words and phrases throughout the lyrics. If you’re studying gender, blot out pronouns and gendered word endings. If you’re studying verb conjugations, blot out entire verbs or just blot out their conjugated elements.
Resources for Learning Language with Music
This online game is all about learning languages with lyrics. Choose your language, your genre, your song and, finally, your language level. Once you’re in, settle in for a while—this engaging resource reaches another level of seriously addicting.
Watch your chosen music video and fill in the blanks in the lyrics as the music video plays. The game levels span from beginner to expert. Beginners only need to fill in a handful of words here and there. Experts need to fill in every single word. Decide which difficulty level allows you to play casually, without stress, but also offers you a little challenge in terms of problem solving.
There’s no rush to keep up with the song either, when you mistype or fall behind, the song pauses and allows you to catch up.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Music videos, children’s songs, concert recordings and cinematic musical numbers here hold the golden ticket for learners looking to study language through music.
As previously noted, FluentU will give you subtitles in English and your target language. You can toggle these on and off at will, so after practicing with lyrics you can try a freestyle. You can even turn on FluentU’s learn mode to actively practice the vocabulary and grammar within the lyrics. Looking to not only remember some lyrics but totally master them? FluentU’s active learning features like multimedia flashcards and vocabulary lists will take you there.
This program is available in various formats; CDs, MP3 downloads and apps are all available for your educational enjoyment. This one fuses music and language lessons so that they’re completely interwoven.
This isn’t about learning with popular songs and artists, it’s about using little jingles for better memorization. Unsurprisingly, this method gets the job done!
This up-and-comer is currently available as an app for Japanese and Spanish learners. The principle behind this learning program is that the brain absorbs information better when learning and casual enjoyment are layered. So, sandwich up your language lessons with music and games. Join Jamtok as they ambitiously strive to engage your whole brain for enhanced memorization.
Now that you’ve assembled some fantastic resources, it’s time for me to release you back into to the world of language learning.
Sure, language learning can be hard, but now you’ve got the science—and the know-how—to back you up in all your music-based language studies.
Open your ears, expand your mind, boost your brainpower, and start listening to foreign language music today!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.