IWTYAL 180: Two musicians reveal their language secrets – Part 1

In part 1 of this episode, I chat about the link between music and language learning with my polyglot friend Fiel Sahir.

Episode Summary:

  • What’s the link between music and language learning?
  • What do musicians do differently when they learn languages?
  • Does the type of music you play make a difference?
  • And much, much more…

Watch the full conversation on YouTube:

Resources Mentioned In Today’s Episode:

From Fiel:

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Full Transcript:

Olly: Good morning everybody. You’re in for a real treat today, we’ve got a fantastic, in-depth discussion all about the link between music and language learning. It’s a two part episode, it’s kind of long, so I’m not going to waste any time, we’re going to get right into it. Before we do though, I’d like to thank the fantastic sponsors of the show, the one language company I could not live without, it’s Italki and it’s the place where I get all of my language lessons, my speaking practice, everything. It’s amazing, and you can get a free lesson by going to IWillTeachYouaLanguage.com/freelesson. Now let’s dive into today’s conversation. I’m talking with Fiel Sahir from New York. He is an accomplished musician, he is actually finishing off his music degree right now, and we talk about the much lauded link between music and language learning. Does having a musical background make you a better language learner? Is there any connection at all? It’s super interesting and I began the conversation by asking Fiel to talk a little bit about his background.

Fial Sahir: My dad was a guitarist at some point in his life, so that was always around the house, and being a child of immigrants, money to pay for music lessons is not exactly a priority. So, my mom said let’s just take lessons with Dad, which wasn’t easy, but it was a good thing in the end. That’s how I got started with classical guitar.

Olly: Is that your main instrument, classical guitar?

Fial: Yes, classical guitar. That’s where I’m at now. I finished my undergrad at BMU Conservatory in Boston, and now I’m in Germany studying over there. Going on with languages, they sort of tie in together because I have this love for people in different cultures so much and music and language are both part of the whole culture bubble. When I was 10, I was on a car ride coming home from vacation with family and family friends, and we’re Indonesian, and being an Asian American in the states is not very easy, you get made fun of, so I didn’t want to be Asian per se.

Olly: Is that just New York, or is it everywhere?

Fial: There’s tons of videos online of people complaining about their heritage, which I want to help fix so people can understand each other more, so I think it’s pretty much across the board. Especially with Indonesian because one, nobody knows where Indonesia is and they’ve never heard it before so they automatically see my face and think I’m Chinese, which ethnically I am, I’m the sixth generation outside of China, but as a kid being raised in a house that speaks Indonesian, you don’t want to be labeled as such. So, we’re on this car ride and it was really boring. It was only two hours, but as a 10 year old, “Are we there yet?” The whole car ride, they were just cracking jokes, all the adults, in Indonesian. I was very frustrated because I didn’t understand anything, but I knew it was funny. My dad tried to translate, but every time he translated one, there was two or three more, so we just kind of gave up after a while. Then I resolved I want to laugh, I want to be part of the conversation and I want to enjoy it. This is what life’s about, laughing. That’s how I started, basically.

Olly: So, your parents spoke to you in English?

Fial: Yes.

Olly: How do you feel about that?

Fial: They wanted to make sure that I knew that I was American. This is funny, but most immigrant parents will tell their kids they are from X country, rather than where they’re born or where they grew up and it actually produces a reverse effect. So, the odd thing is with me and my sister, we both speak Indonesian now, while other people that were told they were Indonesian from birth don’t.

Olly: We could really go off on a tangent, but we’re not going to, because we’re going to stick to the topic today. Let’s definitely come back to that another time. A few rapid fire questions. You started learning your first foreign language when you were how old?

Fial: I got inspired at 10 on that car ride, but I finally started when I was about 13, I think, when I went to Indonesia for the first time in a while.

Olly: When did you start playing the guitar?

Fial: That’s a rough question. I started with forced lessons at the age of five, but they were about five minutes every two or three days, because I absolutely refused to. My dad tried everything he could, but I was a rebellious child. So, that’s a rough estimate.

Olly: How many languages do you speak now?

Fial: It depends on who you’re talking to. I would say a basis of five that I can totally converse in and be fluent in. I do speak a little bit of Dutch and Portuguese, and I’m working on Italian using Benny Lewis’ book, which I think is great.

Olly: The five languages that you’re comfortable in are English, obviously, Indonesian?

Fial: French, German and Spanish.

Olly: A lot of similarities with my story there, apart from the mixed heritage thing. I’m kind of white British through and through.

Fial: There’s nothing wrong with that.

Olly: It’s a bit boring, but it is what it is. In terms of music, my main instrument is piano and I started playing piano when I was six. I had lessons pretty much every week for my whole childhood. Wanted to give up many times, went through periods of hating it, my mom forced me to continue, I’m very glad she did. I was learning classical piano, but when I was 16 I discovered jazz and I kind of went crazy about jazz and ended up going to music college. I went to a conservatory in London to study jazz piano.

Fial: Which one?

Olly: The Guildhall School of Music. So, I did a jazz piano degree there, four years, and then went off and played professionally for quite a few years after that. The music gradually died away from me as I discovered various things. We’ll get into that later. Are you still studying, or do you play professionally?

Fial: I’m doing my Master’s right now. It’s kind of a rough spot, because I’m trying to build a block currently. If my friends heard me say this, they’d probably shoot me, but I feel that classical music in and of itself is very limiting, it’s a very niche audience and it doesn’t impact the world. I’ve forgotten who said it, oh Makota Fujimura, this Japanese painter based in the New York metro area, he said, “Art is beautiful, but it’s not necessary, and that’s what makes it beautiful”. As great as music is, I’m kind of leaving that, just as you did to kind of inspire people and speak in the language which they do speak, which is unfortunately not music.

Olly: I guess the major difference there in our two stories, because we both started playing music about the same time at our parents’ behest, I think the guitar’s a little bit different, because the guitar physically is extremely challenging for young kids, whereas the piano is you have to press a key and you get a sound. I also play guitar and I taught guitar for a while, the precision and the muscle strength you need in your fingers on both hands is really tough. I think typically you don’t tend to start playing the guitar as a child until quite a bit later. It’s a bit like singing. Most professional guitarists I know started when they were 10, not that young. So, the major difference with us then is that my language learning started when I was 19. I grew up in an environment with no foreign languages at all, other than the odd family trip to France, where we would all massacre ordering the baguettes every morning. I had no exposure to languages at all, so it happened all of a sudden for me and I had to kind of not only discover how to learn languages, but also why to learn languages. I guess you have a pretty solid reason, pretty clear reason from an early age.

So, we’re talking about music and languages and it’s interesting that you already feel that you’re moving away from music and towards language. That certainly is what happened to me as well, but it took a lot longer for me, I really wasn’t sure what I was doing for a long time. I’d always been learning languages since I was 19, but it took me quite a long time to come to the realisation that the musician’s lifestyle is really not for me. One of the things that I’m always very aware of when I’m learning languages and doing all kinds of things actually, is my musical background. I still remember very clearly what life as a student musician was like and the amount of time that we would spend practicing, the amount of time spent performing and rehearsing the performance and all these things. That memory is always there whenever I take on any kind of difficult task such as learning a language. Maybe by way of starting off this discussion, how would your language learning have been different if you hadn’t had any music in your life?

Fial: For starters, I would say I’m a very non-disciplined person, and I’m always looking for the easiest way out of things in general. Even with Italian right now, I’m just using Benny’s book and maybe listening to a few podcasts and things, but I’m not putting as much effort as one should. The thing is with musicians, as you know Olly, practicing five hours a day is actually not enough. People look at us and go, “How do you do that?”, but we say it’s just not enough. That’s when we learn all these techniques like chunking, which we can talk about now or later, that help us effectively and efficiently use our time, rather than just doing something from beginning to end, which I think many musicians do, and those tend to be ones that don’t go far, because they spend so much time playing their repertoire over and over. The same for language learners. They feel that as long as they’ve gone over a dialog from beginning to end 20 times today it will stick in their brain, but the truth is they have to play with it, they have to shape how they practice.

Olly: Let’s talk about that, because to my mind this is one of the major connections between music and language. When people ask this question, how has being a musician helped you as a language learner, I think most of the time what people have in their mind is accent and your ear, but actually. I’m sure that helps, but one of the main things that I feel I’ve got from music is exactly what you just mentioned, which is the experience of practicing. You talked about chunking, you talked about five hours a day, which for most people doing anything is a crazy amount of time unless it’s work. Talk more about that, the role of practice or what you learned from practice and chunking and how that relates to language learning.

Fial: I’ve noticed a lot of people in the language learning community in general, when they hear the word music, they equate it to song. That’s something, I think we both agree on, that’s not actually what music is. What I try to do personally is to try and make people realise that it’s about using musical techniques. Learn from the musicians themselves, not what they produce.

Olly: Why do you say music isn’t song, or song isn’t music? I know what you’re getting at here, but I’d like to expand on that.

Fial: It’s not limited to songs. When people think of music, they can name songs off the top of their head, but music is a culture, music is a time and space. Like 200 years ago, a person from Germany, Bach, walking around. It’s more than just Rhianna’s new hit or something like that. When musicians talk about music, we will ask further what composers you play, which era is your favourite. Do you like renaissance, do you like classical, do you like romantic? For most people music is as of the past three years, anything beyond that is old.

Olly: So, you’re talking about the role of music in popular culture.

Fial: Yes.

Olly: Sorry, going back to what you were saying before.

Fial: No problem. What I advocate is something that I call stealing from musicians. What art really is, is looking at not only what your profession has, but what everyone else has as well. That’s my encouragement to language learners, that they would look at the way we practice, which we can equate to study. Look at the way we have technique, which can equate to accent reduction, music theory knowledge can be grammar, ear training can be vocabulary. Those are interchangeable. You want me to go on from there, or?

Olly: There was a lot of stuff there. You mentioned the amount of practice that you do in a day and how you’d use techniques like chunking to actually make that effective. What’s the connection there with language learning?

Fial: Let’s take out the guitar for a second. I think the number one thing when people try to learn a language, they go, “Oh, my God, I have to learn French”. Benny talks about this all the time. Don’t think I have to learn X language, think about today I want to order a cup of coffee, or tomorrow I want to go to the grocery store. When we break things down, it becomes doable rather than a pain in the butt and something we fear. For instance, if I was to take this passage on the guitar, it’s an etude by Villa-Lobos, Brazilian composer [guitar playing]. Just that, just that first bar. It sounds really complicated, it’s really fast. When somebody hears that, they go, “Oh, my God, that’s how I have to play? I’m never going to do this”, also if you go around French people and seeing the way they speak and comparing yourself to them. The recommendation is there’s three things you can do that I highly recommend. One is different tempo, two different rhythm, and three repeating notes. We know this as musicians, we don’t do things from A to Z over and over.

Olly: Can you explain the difference between tempo and rhythm?

Fial: Tempo, we would say, is the speed at which you’re playing at. The original temp for this is, [guitar playing] but you could play it as [guitar playing]. Just slow it down so that you can digest what you are doing as you are playing rather than mindlessly practicing. Rhythm, what I would say is what jazz musicians do amazingly is they swing. For instance, if I was to practice this, I would go [guitar playing]. The whole goal of this whole thing is brain flexibility, because when we are able to be flexible, we can fix our mistakes as we’re speaking, because we’re conscious of them. For different tempo, you can use a metronome as well and practice between going slower than normal speaking speed and faster and then you adjust in between. I’m sure you’ve done that as well.

Olly: So, we’ve got tempo, rhythm and what was the third one?

Fial: Repeating notes.

Olly: As a practice technique you mean? Can you give us a quick example of that?

Fial: Instead of [guitar playing], you’ll go [guitar playing]. If I were to do it in English, in a language everyone understands, a different tempo would be saying, “Hello, my name is Olly Richards”. So, speak whale. Think of Nemo, speak whale. For a rhythm, you could say, “Hi, my name is Olly Richards”, put a beat on it and just go on from there. Or you can go opposite, instead of going, “Hi, my name is”, you can go, “Hi, my name is Olly Richards”. The more we drill these different rhythms, our mouths will be looser and then we can speak flawlessly.

Olly: I think the tempo thing is kind of evident enough, because if you do something slowly, then it’s easier to follow what’s going on. The point about rhythm is an interesting one, because as I understand it, and as I used to practice as well, music that is, when you put stuff in a different rhythm, you play around with it. Tell me if I’m following you here or not, but as I understand it, by playing around with rhythm and actually practicing things in a way that aren’t correct, but you’re just experimenting with a different rhythm, what you’re doing is you’re creating a bit of flexibility for yourself. You’re teaching yourself to manipulate the passage of music that you’re actually practicing, which makes you more confident with it at the end. Is that what you’re saying?

Fial: Exactly. Yes, because as we know when we meet our first person to have our conversation with in X language, target language, we freak out. We get unsettled, we get nervous beforehand and the same thing happens when you go on stage, we have stage fright. So, when you practice things differently, what you’re doing is practicing mistakes that could potentially happen on stage. Your brain will have already rehearsed, and thus you can go back and spring to how you’re supposed to play.

Olly: This is exactly what Rachmaninov was getting at when he said in order to truly know a piece for the piano, you have to be able to play the right hand part with the left hand and the left hand part with the right hand. You have to be able to do it, because only then are you fully aware and inside the music you are trying to play. Not that you would ever play the left hand part with the right hand, but it’s the fact of learning to do that, that takes you from the point of only having a surface level knowledge of something to the point where you know it so deeply that you could be in the middle of a performance on a piano in a concert hall in front of 2000 people, you could have a cat jump up on the piano, run past you and totally distract you, but you know it so intricately that however badly your concentration is shot, you are always going to be okay, and you’re always going to be able to get back and continue, because you have that deep, intrinsic understanding of what you’re playing from a harmonic perspective, from a rhythmic perspective, from a structural perspective.

Like in a song, for example, learning the lyrics to a song, knowing one of the hardest things in learning a song is actually remembering which bit comes next. It sounds obvious, but actually the second you stop concentrating is when you’re at risk, because you could have verses with different variations and you have to keep track of what comes next. Just to continue giving examples, one of the things that I often do when I’m learning songs or learning speeches or monologues or something like that is I often practice it backwards. So, if you’ve got something with eight lines in it, once I think I know the piece or the speech or whatever the right way, consecutively, from beginning to end, I’ll start at the end and work backwards. So, I’ll say line eight, then I’ll say line seven, then I’ll say line six, because you are coming at it from all these different angles, which forces your brain to stop thinking linearly and to look at it from lots of different angles so that you kind of have this overall, complete holistic understanding of what you’re playing, and it’s not just muscle memory. Which is a big risk for musicians. You’ve practiced a piece 200 times, you think you know it, but actually it’s just the muscles that remember where to go. If you get distracted or you have a momentary lapse in concentration and your muscles lose their place, you risk not being able to get back there if you’re relying on the muscles alone and you don’t have the kind of mental understanding of what you’re doing. I’ve just said a whole bunch of stuff. Do you want to react to what I’ve just said?

Fial: I think you hit the nail on the head. For more encouragement for language learners, there are people, professionals, let’s say Pablo Casals the cellist, I know he had a huge problem with stage fright. He is one of the world’s most famous cellists in history, but every time he would just freak out, and even him, and he’s performed pieces multiple times, made tons of recordings, everyone knows who he is. So, stage fright is normal, but it’s definitely something we can get over with time. The main problem is muscle memory.

Olly: This is a really nice segue into another area that I think training as a musician gives you a huge advantage in language, which is the experience of performance. I remember the experience so many times of going out on stage and having to perform something to people, and you learn to kind of detach yourself a bit, and you kind of put the music in the foreground. You let the music do the speaking, you kind of slink off into the background and just play that thing and let the music be the object of everybody’s attention. To my mind, it’s very similar with language learning. When you approach someone, you start speaking to someone, I find that if I practice and I’m good at the language and what I’m about to say, then I find that I can kind of introduce myself in this other language and let the language do the talking, so that I don’t feel too embarrassed or too self conscious being in that position, trying to speak this other language, I think that because of the training of playing music in public. Have you noticed anything similar in that respect?

Fial: Oh, yes. There’s something what I call the various stages of filtration in order to help us get over our stage fright. Stage one is basically us in our room. If we’re learning a language, we’re alone with our textbook, and if we go to another stage it could be you with your teacher, who you’re supposed to make mistakes in front of, and you meet them every week let’s say if you’re a musician or doing Italki or something, the sponsor of the show. The next stage would be maybe to talk to a friend of yours. That might be a bit uncomfortable, but at least it is somebody familiar. Then your next stage after that would be going out in public, and just going to your local Mexican restaurant, if you’re learning Spanish. The last one would be going to the target country. Each time you need to build a certain amount of confidence and then as you graduate these levels, when you get to the next one, again you need to build enough confidence to move on to the next one and the next one.

For me, there was this one point in my third year of college, my junior year, where somehow – I didn’t do this on purpose – I managed to book myself performances for all of April and most of May. Playing two and three times a week actually took it away, so it was tons and tons of practice in front of people to the point where it’s as simple as brushing your teeth. We just need to make it natural and say that it’s a part of us rather than something we’re learning how to do.

Olly: You talking about the practicing or the performance?

Fial: Both. I guess mainly performance, because a lot people complain about stage fright, which is normal, but I’ve always been taught that as you do it more, it will go away. It’s always somewhat there lingering.

Olly: I think it’s always there. I’ve given a lot of talks before at conferences and events and things like that and I will always get nervous before I get up and give a talk, no matter how well prepared I am. The only difference is I kind of learned to embrace it, I think. I learned to feed of the nervousness and use that to create some buzz. I think the same is true with music. I guess the thing I’m thinking at this point is if we take classical music as a comparison, take the Vilo Lopez piece that you just played before, how many hours in total would you say you spent practicing that piece?

Fial: I have no idea.

Olly: We’re talking hundreds, right?

Fial: Yes, at least.

Olly: Many hundreds if not thousands of hours practicing that piece, because it’s a beast. I think I tried to play that, but I was never good enough to play that on the guitar. Here’s the difference. In this case, you’re spending all this time practicing this one piece, it’s the same notes over and over again, the notes don’t change, never. With language learning, it’s not the same animal, because the words do change, the grammar does change, the stuff that you say does change. In the sense that when we come to speak a language with people, you never know what’s going to happen. How do you reconcile the difference between learning one piece of music and then learning to prepare for the unknown, which is what speaking a language always is?

How indeed? On that note, on that particular cliffhanger, I will leave you to hear the rest of our conversation. Check back in the next episode where we will carry on and talk more about this topic. If you can’t wait, and you’re impatient, you can find the complete video on my YouTube channel, we recorded the video for this as well. Head over to YouTube, type in Olly Richards, and you will find the recording. Also, if you’d like to read more in depth thoughts about music and language learning, I’ve recently written a big blog post about this where I cover a lot of my main ideas about music and language learning. I’m going to put a link to that in the show notes, so if you’d like to read that, or you’d like to comment on anything you’ve heard today or leave a message for Fial, you can go to IWillTeachYouaLanguage.com/episode 180. Thank you so much for listening and I’ll see you back at the next episode of the podcast.

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  • Alex

    By far one of the most interesting episodes, Olly! We’ve discussed before how we wanted to play together and would love to have a similar chat with you on this topic! As a musician I’ve always been told it would improve my listening, (which apparently in turn helps with accents) but that’s the one I always struggle with the most…!

    • Thanks Alex! I struggle with listening too – in certain respects. Would you consider yourself a perfectionist?

      • Alex

        The listening section has always been my lowest mark in exams. And yes, big time – my biggest flaw and struggle in language learning…!

    • Hey Alex! Glad to see you found this episode especially interesting!

      The irony is that, even though I’m really good with accents, my ear is HORRIBLE!

      Ear training is a slow and painful process for me. I just can’t pick things up as easily, to quote you: it’s my biggest flaw and struggle in music!

      Ear training helps with languages but it doesn’t automate. My guitar teacher has a very strong accent and misses words all the time, but the question to ask is, “are they intentionally learning it or not?”

      More food for thought, for all of us, I guess… Thanks again for listening!

      • I don’t understand how your ear can be horrible but you’re good with accents. Can you elaborate?

        • It’s an oxymoronic dichotomy but there are two main factors: my instrument, and my laziness.

          Classical guitarists are notorious for staying in their rooms because we’re solo. The only time we play with other instruments is usually in a guitar ensemble (doesn’t help) or playing cliche chamber music. Basically a lack of exposure to others stops ear development. Finger dexterity is also so hard to master, that’s all guitarists care about that we neglect everything else.

          This is a nerdy musical discussion that we’d have to talk about in our spare time together haha!