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3 Hidden Links Between Music And Language Learning - I Will Teach You A Language

3 Hidden Links Between Music And Language Learning

music and language learningWhen I tell people I did a music degree, most people assume there is a link between music and language learning.

The predictable response:

“Being a musician must really help with learning languages!”

For a long time, I never really thought about this.

But then it occurred to me…

I’ve been a musician all my life and studied in one of the world’s top conservatoires for 4 years. (I did a degree in jazz piano, in case you were wondering!)

If being a musician did indeed help me learn my 8 languages… how would I know?

After all, I don’t know what it’s like not to be a musician.

Furthermore, if there were a connection between music and language learning, it’s always struck me that there are no positive implications…

The last thing people need is another excuse: “It’s alright for him… he’s a musician! But me? No talent.”

However, the more I’ve been asked about this, the more I’ve thought about my musical training and how it has impacted my language learning.

It strikes me that there are three areas in which being a musician might be beneficial to language learning, and the language learning process:

  1. Ear training
  2. Knowing how to practise
  3. Performance

In this article, I’m going to explore these three areas, based on my experience.

I should note that I haven’t played music professionally for many years.

I still play from time to time, but it’s mostly for fun… and rarely in public!

If you’re interested in learning songs as a language learning method, read this article.

1. A Musical Ear is Sensitive to the Sounds of Language

I’ve often been told I have a good accent in the languages I speak.

Accident or design?

Well, one of the key principles of learning pronunciation in a foreign language is this: In order to produce a sound accurately, you must be able to hear it accurately first.

In other words, you can’t have a good accent in a foreign language unless you can pick up on the nuances of the language when you listen to it.

  • Can you hear that the Spanish “D” is softer than the English equivalent?
  • What about hearing the quality of the Arabic A’yn (ع) deep in the throat?
  • Can you identify the difference between the two rising tones (2 & 5) in Cantonese?

In music, ear training and aural tests are a central part of formal training from a very young age.

Singing and playing go hand in hand.

A common test I had as a kid, for example, was to listen to a melody sung by my teacher and replicate it immediately on the piano, or vice versa – all by ear, without ever seeing the sheet music.

Later, I would learn to harmonise chorales in the style of Bach, away from the instrument.

As a jazz musician, I became an expert at improvising; playing music in groups where there was nothing but a set of chords to go by.

Even now, if you play me a song on the radio, I can sit down at the piano and replicate it note-for- note without ever seeing the music.

It would be silly to suggest that such intense music training doesn’t have some influence on my accents in the languages I speak.

And I feel it, too.

For example:

  • I can easily hear small variations in individual sounds or phonemes, and how they differ from English, helping me to develop good pronunciation.
  • In the tonal languages I speak (Cantonese & Thai) I tend to remember, first time, the tones associated with each new word I learn, helping me to sound less “clearly foreign” when I speak.
  • My ear is acutely tuned to the rise and fall of speakers’ voices in other languages (their intonation), helping me to develop a convincing accent and persona…and I have trouble not instinctively imitating all these linguistic elements when I come to speak the language.

There’s another interesting aspect of this.

It’s common for first-time language learners to feel silly or embarrassed when speaking a new language, due to the unfamiliarity of a different accent.

Think of an English person learning French, finding themselves needing to speak with a French accent for the first time, having previously only ever mocked French people speaking English with an accent.

Such a person will feel very weird inside when the shoe is suddenly on the other foot, and I think this accounts (at least in part) for those cases of people who appear to refuse to make any effort to “do the accent” in a language they’re learning.

In my case, I’ve rarely experienced that.

As I tend to be so aware of the sounds of a new language, and of my own voice when I try to speak it, it feels totally wrong not to try to imitate it as closely as possible.

2. Musicians Know How To Practise

When you sit down to learn a new piece of music, there’s a long road ahead.

The audience, of course, only ever gets to hear the finished product.

You might have found yourself listening to a classic music recital at some point and thought to yourself: “How does she do that? What incredible talent!”

Talented she may be, but you might also be shocked if you ever saw the inside of a practice room in a serious music college.

Yesterday, I was flicking through a book of Beethoven Sonatas and was suddenly reminded of the complexity of the pieces I used to learn.

A sea of black, dozens of pages, thousands of notes.

The first time you try to play such a piece, it doesn’t sound great.

Even after a few dozen hours of practice, it still doesn’t sound great.

First, you have to learn the notes. (All of them.)

Then, once you’ve learnt the notes, you have to interpret the piece in the right way, so it sounds good when you play it!

It is not easy.

Each stage of the process requires a different approach, and takes a lot of discipline and patience.

Musicians know how to practice.

They approach a difficult task with perspective.

They turn up, day after day, week after week, slowing taking something that was unfamiliar through a systematic process of familiarisation, practice and rehearsal.

Musicians don’t expect to get it right first time. They know it takes time, but that the rewards are there for those who persist.

The parallels with music and language learning are clear.

Whether it be a complex grammar point, a set of difficult vocabulary, or pronunciation that is difficult to get right…

If you have a musician’s temperament, you’re comfortable with the difficulty facing you, and are up for the task.

You know that with regular practice everything gets easier.

Discipline is not a problem for you – you turn up every day because… well…that’s just what you do.

Now, in my music days, one of my big weaknesses was that I wasn’t particularly disciplined at practising.

I had friends who were, and I was always envious.

They would improve far faster than me.

My language learning has also suffered from a lack of discipline (although I’ve learnt to make up for it in other ways).

However, despite this, I think my experience of music as a kid gave me a good, healthy perspective on practice.

It has helped me approach language learning with patience and perspective, without yearning for quick-fixes.

3. Learn To Perform & Be Ready For Anything!

There was one important element of the practice process that I left out in the last section…

Preparing to perform.

You see, it’s not enough to just learn a new piece of music.

In the practice room, if you slip up you can go back and pick up where you left off.

But you can’t do that in a concert hall.

Practising the performance itself, to the point where you’re confident enough to walk out onto a stage and perform it flawlessly in front of a critical audience…

Well, that’s a next-level skill!

You need to uncover the mistakes you’re likely to make at different points in the piece, and systematically eliminate them from the performance by careful, methodical practice.

In language learning, the stakes are rarely so high.

However, language learning is performance.

There are countless times I remember being in situations abroad where I felt very much like I was performing…

  • Meeting groups of energetic Brazilians and speaking to them in Portuguese without letting the energy drop.
  • Starting a conversation in Hong Kong and giving a first impression that’s strong enough to stop them switching immediately to English.
  •  Being a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Westerner in Japan, but using body language that’s appropriate enough to make the locals feel comfortable talking to me

…it’s all performance.

In fact, I have an introverted side to me, and my natural state is certainly not to perform in front of people!

(Although I’ve been told I give the opposite impression in my videos – the power of performance!)

So, I’m sure that my experience of performing music to audiences has helped prepare me for the difficult task of coming face-to-face with foreign people in foreign countries and doing my best to talk to them as an adult, despite only having a mediocre command of the language.

It’s a bit like public speaking when you’re not completely prepared…

You step onto the stage, worrying about all the terrible things that could happen…

But as soon as you start to talk, the concerns evaporate and you slip into performance mode.

Being a musician trains you to detach yourself emotionally from the situation.

You – the person – blend into the background.

It’s the music that is the object of everyone’s attention, and it’s the music that you focus on as you perform.

At certain times, when speaking foreign languages, I’ve had the distinct feeling that it’s a different version of me who’s standing there, talking, in the moment.

As if I’m projecting a different persona.

I think this is what people mean when they ask the related question: “Do you have different personalities in the languages you speak?”

The answer is definitely “yes,” but there’s an element of performance there that’s impossible to deny, and I wonder if my musical training has enabled me to pull that off.

Who knows… but I think there’s definitely something to it!

Conclusion: Music and Language Learning

In this post, I’ve talked about three elements of musical training that seem to have parallels with learning a foreign language:

  1. Ear training
  2. Knowing how to practise
  3. Performance

For me, language learning is a skill and an art form – not a “subject,” as it’s usually presented in the education system.

To learn to speak a foreign language fluently, motivation, emotion, self-discipline… they all matter just as much as the vocabulary and grammar you learn in the classroom.

And to that extent, I think there is a lot to be learnt from the path of a musician.

But, what if you’re not a musician? Or have no musical training?

Are you doomed to a life of mediocre language learning?

Of course, the answer to that is a resounding “no.”

The skills and behaviours you need to learn a language successfully – just like music – can all be learnt.

And the best way to learn is with regular study, self-awareness, humility and the willingness to make mistakes.

Do you have a musical background? What’s the link between music and language learning for you? Let me know in a comment below!

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  • Robert Johnson

    Hi Olly,
    I am a professional classical musician, and, yes, I think all the skills you mentioned above are very helpful for success in language learning.

    Certainly, if your ear is attuned to subtle differences of pitch or pronunciation in another person’s voice, that is helpful.

    Yes, consistent practice is the key to success: true for all endeavors of life.

    Performance in language learning is not being afraid to join in a group, make your mistakes, laugh a little bit and continue to improve.

    All that being said, there are many musicians who seem to have no skill at a foreign language. Or, if they must speak another language by necessity at work, they often butcher the pronunciation and/or make even the most basic grammatical mistakes, such as gender articles and nouns not matching.

    For me, my Brazilian colleague has been invaluable in helping me improve quickly, with my pronunciation especially. He has a great ear for language and can imitate back to me what I just said and then let me hear how it sounds correctly.
    So, I would add, a great help is having a native speaker give you feedback on the language you are learning.

    • Hi Robert, thanks for your comment – great to have other musicians chiming in!

      “All that being said, there are many musicians who seem to have no skill at a foreign language. Or, if they must speak another language by necessity at work, they often butcher the pronunciation and/or make even the most basic grammatical mistakes, such as gender articles and nouns not matching.”

      I wonder if in these cases, the people you refer to have simply not tried yet. Perhaps if they were to develop an interest in languages one day, and truly applied themselves, they might do very well.

      I’m reminded of languages I only have a passing knowledge of, and have not taken particularly seriously. In those cases, I’m sure I make equally embarrassing mistakes as your acquaintances!

  • Marco Guidotti

    Definitely one of my favourite articles from your blog! 😀
    As a musician, I agree with you 100 %, and I can notice how important it has always been having a good ear for me! I’m sure that this is the reason why my strongest skill has always been Listening, even during my very first days learning english!
    I remember how amazed I was when I found out that I could listen to an entire hour of a brand new podcast episode and understand the vast majority of what was said, or the fact that I was able to figure out subtle differences between accents from different places, different intonations and, more in general, the fact that I could easily manage all the other things that you point out in the article without too much effort. What a wonderful feeling! 🙂
    I’ve also noticed (as you say) that there’s a strict relationship between the ability to improvise in music and the ability to be prepared, to keep the conversation going and get your point across (one way or another) when you’re having some difficulty, without the need to slow it down or even stop it! 🙂

    • It’s funny, I’ve always felt that my listening skills are weak. But I guess that’s what’s so interesting, we’re all so different, in spite of the similarities!

  • Douglas Lusby

    Hi Olly,

    Not the same thing as music, but part of my double major was theater. After reading your article, I found myself reflecting on that.

    Though only a small part of that time was spent in an actor-training program within the theater department at my university—before I decided it wasn’t for me and ‘fled’ 🙂 to do the remainder of my degree with the German department—it had an impact. It was a short period but part of a transitional phase of my life at that time.

    It seems a funny coincidence that when I have participated in language classes, I seem to do better than average in certain areas—even though I tend to struggle and shut down with what one might call ‘typical classroom exercises’. I’m not saying I’m great at these particular things, just that I seem to have an easier time with them than most people I’ve been fortunate enough to study and learn with:
    – Willingness to speak and risk making a fool of myself
    and not especially caring when I do make a fool of myself
    – Letting the ‘culture and voices’ of said language ‘in’ and picking up on mannerisms and accent

    Anyhow, it struck me as funny, even though it was only a short time in my life a long time ago. It might have nothing to do with that time at all, but it was amusing to speculate about. 🙂

    • Hi Douglas! Yes, I had been running these thoughts around in my head for some time so I thought it would be interesting to put it down on paper and see what came out.

      I suppose that drama, like music, requires you to develop an awareness of how what you’re doing is perceived from the outside, and actively working on improving that. It’s something that most people would never do in the course of normal daily life.

      I have always believed that language is theatre, but that’s another discussion!

      • Douglas Lusby

        Thanks for the reply, Olly!

        I wouldn’t want to put forward that my short period of study and involvement in that long ago would compare to those who stuck with it—or experienced professionals in the field—but that’s sounds reasonable to me from my limited past experience. Maybe some professional actors might have an opinion they’d wish to share. But certainly the performance aspects, I think, would fit that, yes.

        I do remember some acting students back at my university seemed to be very good at paying attention to certain details about people in day to day life. A character study habit, maybe…? It’s almost as if running into some random eccentric person could be, for example, an ‘opportunity’ for them. How the person moved and other mannerisms, how they spoke and the ‘melody’ or rhythm of various utterances. As if they were trying to channel the person’s details, let the ‘voice’ of the person in, or something like that…

        So in a way (trying to think of comparisons), learning a language sometimes feels to me as if I’m going through the struggle of being a child all over again. Learning to speak, learning to find this ‘new other voice’ and create this ‘new other self’ that would eventually—in theory—be better able to speak and conduct themselves in the context of that language and culture. So, I can see some some parallels, I guess.

        That reminds me. I came across what I think is a great quote from Eva Hoffman while reading a book by someone else. I sadly haven’t read any of Hoffman’s books, but it was some quote about the appropriation of ‘other voices’. It was in regards to her having moved to the USA as a young person—about looking back on how the process of acquiring her American English and her English ‘voice’ felt.

        Have you come across it before?Anyhow, I thought it was good quote.

        • No, I haven’t heard of it. Another one for my ever-growing list of books to read.

          I think you’re spot on with the comment about being a child all over again. The only difference being that we are far more self-conscious, which I’m not sure is an advantage!

          • Douglas Lusby

            Me, too… I want to find the book the quote came from and read it now. I’m not sure but I think it might possibly be from:
            Lost in Translation: Life in a New Language (1989)

            Thanks for the reply, Olly! Keep up the good work with the blog!

  • Great article. Here’s some more anecdotal evidence for you: most of my ‘best’ students happen to be musicians. I’ve noticed that musicians tend to get a feel for the rhythm of the language as well as being able to tune in to the subtle sounds with more ease than their classmates. Memory for language patterns seems to be strong too, as well as word retrieval skills. Also, when doing listening tasks, the musicians are skilled at picking out individual words they don’t know, and being able to retain and repeat these words in order to ask what they mean. The non-musicians say they only ‘hear’ the words they already recognise and comprehend, with the unfamiliar words turning into mush. I have no scientific evidence to back this up, mind you. These are purely my observations as a tutor.

    • Personally, I feel that the music has a less tangible impact on my languages than what you’re describing. I would struggle to draw a link between music and my word retrieval skills, for example. However, like I said in the article, I’ve got nothing to compare it to. That’s the trouble, isn’t it, this is all very anecdotal! 🙂

      • I think that my musically-inclined students would say the same thing, but I definitely notice a difference from a teacher’s perspective.

  • dandiprat

    interesting article. Maybe I should have worked harder on music at a younger age.

    • Music and the arts are often the first things to be phased out when school budgets are tight. It’s scary to think about the general dumbing down of the population without the arts to stimulate and enrich their minds.

  • Lidian Pow

    My daughter is a musician and speaks 3 languages. Languages come easily for her.

  • John Rupp

    I used to play jazz trumpet and I have often thought of the parallels to learning a language. I not only agree with your observations totally, I would add that the long-term practice of chords, scales and arpeggios are what allowed me to be fluent in improv sessions with other musicians; having a musical conversation as well as a collaboration, if you will. Much like the repititive practicing of phrases, conjugations, etc., all contribute to that ‘improvisation’ that is a verbal conversation without having to think about how something is said.
    …John in Colorado

    • Hey John. Great observation. A teacher at college once asked us what improvisation meant, and one of my classmates answered: “truth”. That always stuck with me.

      I think of it this way:

      Inside our minds we have certain things we want to express, be it a melody (music), or an idea (language). That represents “truth”, in so far as we understand it.

      Therefore, when it comes to scales and harmony (in music), and grammar and syntax (in language), the challenge is not to see what we can create with those tools. The challenge is to achieve such mastery of these elements that the technical aspect is no longer even a consideration; we can think a thought, or conceive of a melody, and effortlessly express it using our language or instrument.

      In that sense, improvisation is truth. I think that’s what you’re saying, too, when you say “musical conversation & collaboration.”

  • This was awesome Olly! So glad to be a part of the future of this discussion and seeing where it goes 🙂 There’s so much ground to cover!

    I can’t wait till we tackle the talent question at some point. I look forward to hearing from the other musicians out there that happen to learn languages as well!

    • I was discussing the “natural talent” question over dinner tonight. It’s a really tricky one.

      • We’re gonna have to tackle this one in a new post/episode aren’t we? 🙂

  • Sarah Barrett

    Hi Olly
    I love this!
    Singing is my favourite way of learning a new language. I went from knowing no Mandarin to leading a Chinese New Year class for young kids in six weeks. Five songs and a few basic phrases. It was such a thrill, especially when Mandarin speaking children were much more animated in public than thier parents had ever seen before.

    I’ve been interested in the link between music and language for a while, do thanks for giving me some clarity through your blog.

    I’d love to know if there are any ways you’d like to collaborate with our Lingotastic family.

    Speak soon

    Sarah

    • I began learning Brazilian Portuguese simply by learning Bossa Nova songs in my bedroom. I remember looking up the words of the songs one by one. It was slow going, but definitely helped me become familiar with the sounds of the language from the start.

  • Laurie Hughes Nation

    When I was in school, my mother told me that it wasn’t surprising I did well in music & math because they’re both languages, and I was good with languages.
    Made sense to me.

    • Interesting. I never thought of maths as a language. In what way do you see it as a language?

  • ElfinW

    Great post !

    I was a musician too and I have never noticed music helping me in any way. However, I do “feel” the music, the sound of each language I take up, in ways I notice other people don’t.

    With my students that is another matter. The ones who are musically oriented have an incredible advantage. They pick up words even if they don’t know them, they are able to mimic intonation much better whereas non musical ones don’t.

    Actually, I could go on and on.

    Now, some of my very good students are not musical at all ! I am just saying that my musical ones tend to have advantages in some activities.

    Given that I focus on listening and pronunciation skills, it’s easy how that would stand out.

    I think you raised some great points in this post !

    • I’ve also heard many teachers observe that their musical students are among the strongest. It’s also interesting that you focus on listening and pronunciation… two very musical elements!

  • Julia Miller

    Hi Olly,
    Great article and as a classical pianist I can relate to many connections between language and music and I do think being a musician helps, at least a tiny bit, to be better in learning languages.

    • Thanks Julia. I also learnt classical from the ages of 6-20 (ish), so it’s been interesting thinking about how classical training differs from jazz. There’s a lot of overlap, but the improvisational element seems like a big difference. I think classical teachers should do a lot more work on improvisation with their students – the ear training benefits are immense.

  • Syntropy

    Hi Olly,
    I’ve always admired the German culture, so I decided to learn Deutsch. However, I’m having some difficulties to start learning it properly.

    You said in one of the comments below that you began learning Brazilian Portuguese listening to Bossa Nova. Do you think it’s possible to learn German with a similar method? Or is it necessary to use other technique, once the 2 languages are quite different?

    • Well, it worked for me because I was in love with Brazilian music. I was also learning the guitar. So I was happy to spend weeks on end learning songs. I worked hard at it. Any method can work if you’re really prepared to put your heart and soul into it.

  • Justin Hockey

    Yes, yes, and YES! As a school teacher with a music degree, working with EAL learners, and learning Korean, this is all so true. I’ve been told I am very good at picking up accent, and I certainly apply all the aspects of musical training to learning a language and other areas of learning: aural acuity, practice, and performance. Wow! This article sums up SO much of my teaching and learning philosophy!!! Thank you.

  • Dallas Smith

    I’m not sure if this has been mentioned in another post…As a musician who loves to travel and immerse myself in the language and culture of the countries I visit, I always take my flute (easily portable) with me. I try to connect with other musicians and perhaps learn some of their music. Sometimes, I play music with people with whom we share no common spoken language. Certainly the developed music skills of improvisation, disciplined practice, and performance skills can be applied to learning a language. I play several instruments and regard learning a new instrument as similar to learning a new language. Thanks for your encouragement.

  • Jordan Meredythe

    There is definitely also a connection between music and science – the parts of the brain used are the same! I taught science and noticed this in my students. I wonder if there is brain research on the music/language learning phenomenon? And if the brain localities are the same? Then if there could be a way to strenghten those parts!