Music, they say, is good for the soul. As it turns out, it’s good for the brain, too!
You absolutely can learn a language through music—you’ve probably even done it once already. In this blog, we’ll discuss just some of the reasons why language acquisition and music go hand in hand.
Music Helped You Learn Your First Language
Think back for a moment to your childhood. Do you remember singing along to the songs on children’s television programmes? Or reciting the “Alphabet Song” or “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” alongside your classmates at school?
Music has long been a primary tool in teaching young children language because it is a mnemonic device. You wouldn’t have realized it as a child, but all of those songs helped you to learn your first language. The repetition of vocabulary combined with memorable tunes helped to reinforce your memorisation.
By that logic, you can apply the same techniques when learning a second language (or a third, or a fifth). We’d even recommend that you go as far as learning children’s songs in your target language. Whether they’re unique to the language or translations of songs you know, children’s songs are easy to comprehend and repeat.
Music Helps You Learn Vocabulary In Context
Learning a language from a textbook is one thing, but oftentimes the dialogue used in them isn’t exactly natural. Song lyrics, on the other hand, are musical expressions of everyday conversation.
Most modern-day songs use words and expressions you won’t find in any textbook or language programme. Learning vocabulary on its own is all well and good, but is pretty useless unless you know how to use it.
By studying the lyrics from such songs, you’ll get a better understanding of how the language is actually used. Forget the stilted conversations contrived for textbooks; music gives you words in context, teaching you grammar without even trying.
Music Teaches You How To Recognize Tones
Music uses tones and pitch to convey melody and harmony. Tonal languages, similarly, utilise tones and pitch to differentiate between different words. One of the biggest hurdles native English speakers struggle with when learning tonal languages is recognizing the subtle differences between tones.
By using music, you’ll train yourself to differentiate between the notes of the songs you’re listening to. That training then extends to helping you differentiate between tones in tonal languages.
The caveat to this particular trick, however, is that learning vocabulary is all but impossible with this method. Most tonal languages don’t focus on tone when singing in favour of the melody. Native speakers can suss out the meaning of lyrics by context; learners will struggle in that regard.
However, getting the tones of your target tonal language under your belt is three-quarters of the battle. Once you have that, you’ll be well on your way to attaining that contextual understanding that native speakers use!
Music Can Improve Your Pronunciation
Have you ever noticed, when listening to someone sing in your native tongue, that the singer doesn’t really have an accent?
While this isn’t universally true, singers’ accents are often less noticeable when they sing than when they speak. This means that the lyrics typically come out sounding closer to their standard pronunciation. In turn, this means the standard pronunciation is reinforced every time you listen to the song.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Standard pronunciation doesn’t necessarily mean standard enunciation (I’m looking at you, Nirvana). And there’s a whole genre of videos on YouTube dedicated to misheard lyrics.
But as a general rule, singing along to your favourite songs in your target language will help you. You’ll improve your pronunciation through repetition, and the better your pronunciation, the closer to fluent you’ll sound. Plus, singing aloud will do wonders for your confidence, which will translate into you feeling more comfortable speaking the language.
Music is fun!
Nobody likes sitting through a lesson in grammar or syntax, and memorising vocabulary lists is a drag.
Using music to learn a language combines all of those into something you actually enjoy doing. And by enjoying the process, you’ll be more motivated to keep going, even when you inevitably hit that language plateau. You’ll also have an easier time studying, too; music is scientifically proven to help you concentrate.
So… How Do You Actually Use Music To Learn A Language?
There are a couple of different ways to go about it, but here are a few of our favourite methods.
Study Song Lyrics
As I mentioned earlier, song lyrics are a fantastic way to learn vocabulary in context.
By studying the lyrics in the target language, you’ll be able to pick out words you think you might need to work on. Studying them side-by-side with an English translation will help you get a better understanding of how sentences are formed. And once you memorise a song’s lyrics, you can confidently sing along and reinforce those pronunciations!
The best part is, you can use this method with just about any genre of music as long as it’s got lyrics to study. If you’re a musical fan, there’s the added bonus of having professional translations if you choose a production that’s available in your target language, too.
The important thing is that you enjoy the process. It does you no good to force yourself to listen to music you don’t enjoy just to study the language. At that point, you’ll be in the same boat as if you were in a boring lecture!
Make Up Your Own Songs
Teachers around the world use jingles all the time to help their students remember things, and not just in language.
The same concept can be applied to just about any vocabulary list or grammar rule you can think of. If you can put it to a melody, you can remember it. This will make it easier not only to memorise words and grammar rules but also to recall them.
This strategy works best with songs you’ll easily remember. Coming back full circle, the melodies used in children’s songs are great because you can fit just about anything into them. I still remember the quadratic formula because my high school algebra teacher put it to the tune of “Row Row Row Your Boat.”
But it doesn’t have to be just children’s songs, either. Come up with your own lyrics to fit the melodies of your favourite songs and see what sentences you can come up with! You can really get creative here to make it more fun.
Put On Some Tunes While You Study
Learning language through lyrics is fun, but unfortunately not a practical method by itself to become fluent. At the end of the day, you will have to buckle down and do some old-fashioned studying.
That doesn’t mean you have to study in complete silence. Putting on some quiet music in the background can help you concentrate, and help you recall words and grammar. When you hear the song, you’ll associate it with what you were studying at the time.
Some people find listening to music with lyrics distracting while they study, which is a fair point. If you’re one of those people, find a genre of instrumental music that works for you. It doesn’t have to be classical music, either. Alternatively, you could look up some instrumental songs that come from the culture of your language! The possibilities are endless.
Our Final Thoughts On Learning A Language Through Music
They say music transcends language, but few people stop to think about how music can also bridge languages, too. Adding music into your studying routine has proven beneficial in all manner of education, so it only makes sense that that extends to language learning.
Music really allows you to get creative on your journey to fluency. Regardless of your taste in music, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving some of these tricks a try. So what are you waiting for? Get on out there and listen to some music!
Ori Starling is a writer, editor, and translator based out of the United States. Their interest in languages began over 25 years ago, teaching themselves Spanish at a young age from tapes so that they could speak with family. Since then, they've studied Korean, Mandarin, and Japanese, with plans to continue their lifelong language learning journey.