You grew up learning your mother language through songs. Science says the same approach can be the secret to going deeper in a new language.
We all listen to music for a number of reasons. Classical tracks can soothe the soul after a particularly stressful day at work. Love songs provide a soundtrack to the great romances of our lives (and even the breakups that sometimes follow). Upbeat dance music helps us to get into the mood for a big night out with friends. Meanwhile, a pounding rock anthem can spur us on as we hit the gym the next day and try to work off those beer calories.
However, can music inspire learning? And, more importantly, can it aid you as a language learner? To celebrate World Music Day on Tuesday, June 21, we’re going to look at why you should absolutely be using music to become a more proficient language user. This article will help you to understand the benefits of incorporating songs as an integral part of your learning routine. Despite the obvious benefits of picking up new vocabulary, improving your pronunciation skills and learning useful idiomatic language, we’re also going to focus on how music can act as the inspiration to begin a language learning journey in the first place.
The Alphabet Song
Anyone remember The Alphabet Song? The memorable melody that accompanies learning the alphabet is a firm fixture of early childhood education simply for the fact that it turns a fundamental building block of language learning into a fun and easy sing-along song. It’s no coincidence that teachers of dozens of world languages utilise this catchy tune to help children take their first steps towards becoming literate. Here it is in French, German and Chinese, for instance.
Perhaps you’re also familiar with the nursery rhyme This Old Man. This time, it’s not the alphabet we’re surreptitiously teaching children through the power of song, but how to count from one to ten. Each verse rhymes a number with an object (one and thumb, two and shoe, etc.) to turn number learning into a catchy rhyme, all while incorporating strong visual imagery.
So, why are funny little songs such a mainstay of infant language learning around the world? Well, the answer to that has its roots in how the brain processes music.
Music engages multiple brain functions that deal with emotion, memory, learning and plasticity (the ability of your brain to physically alter in response to stimuli). By the simple addition of a catchy melody or rhyming couplets, we can learn long strings of information (in this case the letters of the alphabet or the first ten numbers) much more easily than we could by simply attempting to memorise them unaided.
In other words, we’re “tricking” the brain into remembering things that it would otherwise struggle to retain.
A simple experiment
Try out this experiment: think about your favourite song and your favourite movie. Now write down all of the song lyrics that you can remember. I bet it’s quite a few. In fact, how many of the lyrics can you remember from other songs by the same artist? Certainly the choruses, and probably many of the verses as well.
As a comparison, how much dialogue do you recall accurately from your favourite film? I’m sure you know the plot pretty well, but the actual lines spoken by the characters? Certainly for me it’s no more than an exchange or two and only includes a few words, despite the fact that I’ve watched my favourite film probably dozens of times.
Imagine now being able to apply that power of vocabulary retention to your target language. By engaging with foreign language music, you’re taking a shortcut to learning whole heaps of new language. Naturally, vocabulary is a very large part of this. Yet, it’s not the only benefit. We learn pronunciation, how to emote with words, sentence stress and much more by engaging with songs in our target language. The benefits of music do not end there, however.
The power of music to inspire
Music often has a unique place in people’s hearts for its visceral ability to evoke strong emotions. This is a major strength when it comes to finding the motivation to learn a language. A friend from Peru once told me that, essentially, his English abilities came from a childhood obsession with The Beatles and that he would fastidiously copy down their lyrics before he even knew what they meant.
Over time, he began to pick up more and more vocabulary until he could incorporate it into his existing speaking skills. Even after years of learning the language, you could still hear the remnants of his early obsession when he’d begin a sentence with a phrase picked up from a Beatles’ song. His language learning was never inspired by a strong desire to master English, it was inspired by a love for a band and an enthusiasm for understanding what these strange Liverpudlians were singing about.
My own language learning took a similar direction when I was introduced to the music of Luis Alberto Spinetta, an Argentinian singer and guitarist who blended melodic rock with jazz influences. Although I was keen to learn Spanish, studying was always a chore until I discovered songs such as Cantata de Puentes Amarillos and Todas Las Hojas Son del Viento. All of a sudden, my language acquisition went into overdrive as I searched for translations of his lyrics and began to pick up vocabulary from singing along.
This perfectly demonstrates the power music has to inspire learning. All of the “sensible” reasons for learning (future employment opportunities, the ability to live in a foreign country, etc.) were nowhere near as effective at motivating my language learning as wanting to sing along to my new favourite songs.
Any learning technique that works
What’s the most effective method of studying? Academics would argue that it depends greatly on the type of learner you are. Are you a kinesthetic learner (meaning hands on, physical activities get your brain engaged) or an auditory learner (meaning listening tasks really work wonders)? Perhaps you’re a visual learner who reacts positively to images and graphics? Or a reading-writing learner who (you’ve guessed it) finds text to be the trigger for learning effectively. These types of learners all respond slightly differently to different types of activities and study routines. Nevertheless, I would argue that the most effective method of studying is the one that you return to time and again, whatever that happens to be.
Music is simply pleasurable. And when your brain associates something with pleasure, it’s more likely to trigger the enthusiasm to engage with it. Whether you’re learning Arabic or Afrikaans, Cantonese or Catalan, you’ll be able to find a rich musical history existing within that language’s culture. Who knows, you may just find your new favourite artist or a song that hits an emotional chord like no other.
So, how are you going to discover this new world of musical delights? Well, italki is the perfect place to start. By providing the opportunity to connect with native speakers from around the world, italki gives you an incredible resource for making musical connections. Why not introduce yourself to someone learning your mother tongue by sending them a list of your favourite songs? Or get in touch with a native speaker of your target language and find out what they’re listening to at the moment? Sharing musical recommendations is a great way of building rapport with people from all over the world.
Maybe you’ve been dying to introduce people to a little known favourite singer or band. Feel free to recommend them in the comments below. Remember to include a song you particularly like and which language the artist sings in.
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