Using Songs To Learn Languages

language and musicWe all love music, so shouldn’t we make it a part of language learning?

I’m a jazz pianist and so songs have always been really important for me. In fact, my first steps in many the languages I’ve learnt have always been with songs.

I would find a song I really liked in the language and then sit down and learn it – often without understanding any of the words!

You might think that learning songs in another language is hard.

But it’s not really, if you follow a sensible process.

Let’s look at the how and why of using songs to learn languages.

What are the benefits of using songs?

  1. Singers’ pronunciation is usually very clear, which makes songs wonderful resources for getting your pronunciation spot on from the beginning. Reception should always come before production, and repeated listening to a song you like, combined with a healthy dose of noticing, tunes your ears into the sounds of the language.
  2. Languages have a natural melody to them, especially lyrical languages like Italian and Portuguese. Talented song writers exploit this and reveal the inner melody of their lyrics.
  3. Melodies are very memorable – you will find words sticking, even those words that you’ve never heard before and you may think are beyond your level!
  4. The language of songs is often poetic and showcases a broader grammatical range of expression than you might expect from everyday speech. If you learn this grammar it will give you lots more options when it comes to speaking.
  5. If you like the song you will instinctively begin singing it to yourself. This can be a useful first step in speaking, and allows you to practice producing the language in a safe environment – there’s no time pressure or interlocutor to worry about. Singing in the shower, anyone?

How to learn a song

I’ve learnt a lot of songs in my time, starting with old standard broadway songs (the basis of modern jazz) in my musical days, moving on to songs in other languages from many different places – sambas, tangos, boleros.

I play a lot of Brazilian music and I must have learnt hundreds of bossa novas and sambas in Portuguese. I’ve also learnt Japanese and Hong Kong pop songs and Mexican boleros.

There are without a doubt a hundred and one ways to learn a song, but one thing’s for sure: it takes work!

Here’s what I do:

  1. Choose your song and make it portable (making it available offline on your phone is the best bet)
  2. Find the lyrics and print them out on a piece of A4 (I like to have them printed, rather than stored on my phone) so I can make notes on the page. Fold up and stick it in your pocket
  3. Listen through many, many times until you’re familiar with the song
  4. Look up anything you don’t understand, if you haven’t already done so
  5. Start to memorise it line by line. Listen to a line, pause it, sing it back to yourself. Do this until it’s more or less right, then move on to the next one.
  6. What I tend to do then is learn up to around 4 lines – or else an entire verse/chorus – then stick with that for a day or two. If you do too much more you risk getting to overwhelm stage and forgetting what you’ve already learnt. Take your verse and just sing it to yourself over and over. You’ll find yourself forgetting bits and pieces the following day, so you just go back and brush up until you’ve got it back.
  7. After a couple of days you’ll have it down, so you can move on to the next bit of the song, then repeat until finished.

The key in this routine is not to do too much in one go. Try to stagger your learning, making sure that you learn each section of the song thoroughly before moving on. Discipline! 🙂

Good luck, and let’s have some YouTube videos of your accomplishments!

What song would you absolutely love to learn in a foreign language? Leave a comment below and let me know – I’d love to check it out!

Image: elaineg

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  • Jerry Bauer

    Excellent post! If I am not mistaken, Moses used songs to teach the Israelites.

  • Cat Ramos キャット ラモス

    Nice tip! I am studying French but I don’t know of any good singers/bands.

    • Hi Cat. There are lots!! What kind of music do you like?

      • Cat Ramos キャット ラモス

        I guess I can listen to anything, with the exception of rap. I will check out the artists that Sebastien suggested. But for genre, I like classic rock and a bit of pop.

    • Sebastien

      I find that’s what’s important. I’m learning mandarin chinese and some of the songs I find are atrocious, like in any languages, so even if it’s in my target language, I can’t listen.
      I’m french, so hey, here are some artist’s name.
      Joe dassin, Charles aznavour, Jacques brel, France gall old time france. Zazie, also france.
      Daran. Not sure. While the accents are different in differents regions, sometimes in songs it’s not obvious at all.
      Fred pellerin. Indochine. Isabelle boulay. Jeanne cherhal. Kevin parent (he has a thicker accent than most, but he does a lot of acoustic, helping to get it more.). Paul piché. Pierre lapointe.
      No rap in there.
      Good luck !

      • Cat Ramos キャット ラモス

        Thank you, Sebastien! This is quite a lot. I will check them out over the weekend. And thank you so much for not putting rap 🙂

  • lanaken

    Olly,

    Try this corny old one to brush up your Italian

    http://lyricstranslate.com/en/Felicita-Happiness.html

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hOYrpUKJ3Y

    If you’re into football there’s this oldie too.

    yricstranslate.com/en/Un-Estate-Italiana-Italian-Summer.html

    Songs are very effective. This short article was written about kids but it is also very appropriate for learners of foreign languages.

    http://music.rice.edu/ycd/res001.shtml

    Here’s another great article

    http://www.everydaylanguagelearner.com/2012/01/30/language-learning-tip-use-music-learn-foreign-language/

    Susannah talks loads of sense in the video too.

    I like your blog.

  • Sydney

    Could anyone recommend some good Spanish artists to me? I would love to learn some songs in Spanish, but don’t know where to start. I like most genres of music, but especially pop. Thanks in advance!

    • brisa dominugez

      I would very much recommend Selena Quintanilla (as she has songs in Spanish as well as English. The same goes with Shakira.), Celia Cruz (If you’re willing to try out some Salsa music), maybe Los Tigres del Norte, and perhaps Marco Antonio Solís.

    • Chryseyelis

      I love the band La Oreja de Van Gogh. They are from northern Spain, so they do have a lisp (it’s the Andalucian accent I believe), but I love their music

  • Juan Pablo Roldán

    I really enjoy listening music and improve my English through it. What I do: Chosen one song wich I already heard many times, I put it in my headphones and i try to write the lyrics that I understand. Then i check the real lyrics and I see my failures. When I have it already done, I sing the song reading and finally I try to write by myself listening again…and the words just are in my head!!!

  • Alison

    A few months ago while looking for songs to help me improving my still poor Italian, I discovered this song… http://chiaraelia.blogspot.com.au/2015/10/il-cielo-in-una-stanza-gino-paoli-mina.html
    I just love it!

    As you mentioned, it takes a lot of time to learn a song in a different language. At first I was scared and I thought I would never be able to do it. It took me a lot to find the right song to begin with. Sometimes they are too fast, sometimes they have difficult meanings. But you just need to find the right melody and listen, listen, listen. Now after several months I can say I know the song and I enjoy it a lot more. I am so excited that I finally made it that I am already trying with new songs.

    • That’s so cool – congratulations! Now, where’s the YouTube video of you singing it? 🙂 🙂

      • Alison

        Haha MY youtube video?? Noo!!! Sorry I misread… I thought you asked for the video of the song I like to listen to! 😉 Only my shower walls are allowed to listen to it. I promise: it is better for everyone 🙂

  • Alex

    That’s really how (and why) I learned English as a teen

    • Very cool, Alex! I did something similar with Brazilian Portuguese. Bossa Nova was my “way in” to the language.