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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