Monday, February 19, 2018

How to Use Music to Improve Your Foreign Language Skills by Irina Ponomareva

Listening to songs is one of the most common exercises for those learning foreign languages and also one of the most popular. Here are some of the most common reasons why.

1. Music Stimulates our Memory

Have you ever noticed how easy it is to learn a song by heart?

It is, in fact, much easier to learn a song in a foreign language than simply trying to memorize the words from a dictionary or from your notebook, even if the language in question is very new to you. Some teachers start introducing their students to songs starting as early as at the second lesson - and it works!

Songs learned this way will stay with you for years, even if you abandon the language, and you will still be able to reproduce them from memory long after the rest of the words and all the grammar is gone. Even a poem would be easier to forget. But when we listen to a song - or, better still, singing ourselves, - the words and their meaning get firmly associated with the music and so stay in our memory.

2. Everyone  Loves Music

We all have our favorite genres and singers, and while tastes vary from person to person, one thing stays the same: listening to the music we love is one of the strongest pleasures known to human beings. No one will deny that it is a lot nicer than trying to memorize the table of irregular verbs from a textbook. And what is enjoyable is in most cases much more effective than something we do under pressure and therefore hate.

We don’t even mind listening to the same song hundreds (literally) of times if we like it and, if singing is among our hobbies, we will also sing it multiple times. And repetition is one of the keys to successful language learning: the more times we repeat an unknown word or phrase, the better we will remember it.

3. Lyrics don’t really have to be primitive

It depends on the poet really. Some lyrics even contain subjunctives, one of the trickiest parts of the grammar of all Romance languages. Trying to learn those from a textbook is sheer waste of time for the majority of language learners. It is much more effective to get used them in the correct context, and songs are perfect for that purpose - along with books, of course.

What next?

Once you have decided to add songs to your daily language learning activities, the question will be how to use them most effectively. If you just listen to your carefully-chosen playlist over and over again in the office while doing your work, it can help a little too - your subconscious will pick up bits and pieces - but when you are consciously working on the language as such, this just won’t do. The point is to try and understand as much as possible, whether by listening or by looking at the lyrics, and then to look up all the new words and to note the syntactic constructs you hadn’t encountered before. At the next stage you might want to repeat the song after the record. If you don’t feel good about your singing skills, speaking to the music will do, though really, who cares? It’s just language learning!

Other Things to Consider

Unless the language you are learning is a tonal language, singing can be of a huge benefit for your pronunciation, but with tonal languages you have to be careful. Music usually overrides the tones, which you should take into account.

If you have found the lyrics in Google, make sure you proofread them before using them, or ask someone to do it for you. Lyrics published online are often as full of errors as an average social network post. 

I just have to mention a recent - and somewhat hilarious - occurrence in connection with learning languages through music. In a linguistic forum a new member posted to a thread discussing this very topic, averring that learning languages from lyrics was not a good idea, because modern music tends to be obscene. According to this member’s information, a language learner was actually beaten for repeating some lyrics without understanding them.

I read the post several times not believing my eyes. My daily playlist consists mainly of Classical Crossover masterpieces sung by Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, Il Divo, Il Volo and many other famous soloists and groups - and that is modern music too. I tried imagining any of these people singing something - in any language - for which I or another person could possibly be beaten. Tried and failed.

The forum member was soon told off by a moderator for making such unfounded sweeping statements. And yet I thought to myself that if I ever write an article on the topic, it would be only fair to address this concern and to add a couple of warnings.

Firstly, if your favorite musical genre tends to come with obscene lyrics, perhaps you should reconsider your tastes, at least temporarily, for the purpose of learning a language. But, if you can’t imagine doing so, then you should be aware of the possible consequences of your choice and take full responsibility for them. Secondly, it’s a bad idea anyway to utter words you don’t understand. If you are unsure of the meaning of a certain expression, you should definitely look it up before actually using it in a live conversation with tough-looking guys.

Additional Benefits

With all the above precautions in mind, music should be a great addition to your language-learning routines. At the early stages, you might find it hard to understand the lyrics, and help from your teacher might be called for, but about half-way between A2 and B1 you should be ready to do it yourself - and benefit from it. At the start you might prefer slow songs, because then the lyrics will be easier to understand without a printed text, but as your command of the language advances, you’ll find yourself moving on to faster stuff. Thus, apart from improving your language skills you will be able to track them, too, by using the kind of music you are listening to as a kind of an improvised gauge.

Finally, the so-called language core - the control center of the language that forms in our brain as we proceed - will be greatly stimulated by listening to songs. The language core is all about the neural connections, in fact, and the stronger it becomes, the more intuitive you get with your target language and the harder it will be to lose it later. 

Irina Ponomareva is a long-time language enthusiast from Russia. Having spent a significant part of her life learning English, she then decided that it would be cool to become a real polyglot and added several other languages to her daily learning routine. During the day she is a technical writer in a large IT company, but after hours she also collaborates with an online linguistic school called Lingostan as a web copywriter.