5 Ways to Make Music a Part of Your Language Learning

Today’s guest post is from Shannon Kennedy. She is the blogger/language lover/adventurer behind Eurolinguiste. She is a musician first, but an avid language learner at heart. She speaks French and English fluently and is currently working towards fluency in Mandarin and Croatian. You can learn more about her and her language learning strategies of at Eurolinguiste.

Great music is that which penetrates the ear with facility and leaves the memory with difficulty.” – Sir Thomas Beechem

Why is it that we can recall almost every word to a song when it pops up on the radio as we’re driving, even when it’s been years since we’ve heard it? What is it about music that enables us to remember moments, events, and words that are only evoked when hearing a song? But more importantly as language learners, how can we harness that power and apply it to our studies?

Since its invention, music has been used as a way to teach, to keep records, to communicate and to entertain. It has long played its role in boosting memorization. So why not use this excellent memorization tool to help you with the vocabulary and grammar of the language that you’re learning?

Here are a few ways to utilize music to improve your language study:

1. Learn the lyrics to foreign language songs.

Take a moment to peruse YouTube or TuneIn to find music that you like in your desired language. The desire to learn to sing along is a must! Using music as a language learning tool is more effective if you’re enjoying yourself. A quick way to find music in your target language is to search one of the big record labels for their branch in the country that speaks the language you’re learning (i.e. Universal France, Universal Taiwan) or even Vevo France, Vevo Japan, or Vevo Russia.

I’ve also started to collect songs in the languages I’m learning on Youtube, so if you’re learning French, Croatian, Mandarin, Japanese, or Italian, you might find something that you like there.

Once you’ve found a song or two that you enjoy here are the next steps:

First, learn the words in the foreign language. Look them up online by searching for the lyrics of the song. To help get you started, here are the words for lyrics in several different languages:

  • French – les paroles
  • Spanish – letras de una canción
  • Italian – testo/parole della canzone
  • German – liedtext
  • Mandarin – ge1 ci2 - 歌词
  • Russian – slova dlya pesni

This is one of my favorite sites for transcriptions AND translations of foreign language songs.

Second, translate them into your native language. You can just paste them into Google Translate if you like, but you definitely get bonus points if you make an effort to translate what you can on your own first!

Third, memorize them and sing along! It helps with pronunciation. You’ll also pick up expressions and words that you won’t find in a textbook!

2. Set the vocabulary and sentences you’re trying to learn to the melody of one of your favorite songs.

This is a really great and proven way to help you memorize different words or phrases that you’re trying to learn. When I think of this method, I am often reminded of the episode of “How I Met Your Mother” where one of the characters forgets something important:

Traditions such as oral storytelling were maintained by performing stories in poetic and musical forms to aid the passing down of histories and stories. These stories were often performed in their poetic and musical forms because the rhythmic and melodic patterns helped those telling the stories remember them.

Music can really stick with you – that’s why you can remember the lyrics to songs years after you’ve heard them last. Applying this to language can definitely help you improve your ability to recall words.

One of the best ways to get the most out of this method is to create songs using groups of related words – colors, modes of transportation, directions, numbers, and so on. Using a random list of unrelated words may be harder to remember, even as a song, so it’s best to use several different melodies to memorize multiple lists of words.

But they don’t have to be difficult songs! They can be melodies from your childhood or the chorus of your favorite song. You can definitely get creative.

3. Listen to a set playlist while you’re studying a language.

Scientifically, music helps break information down into patterns and cues that allow us to better remember. But it isn’t just words that music allows us to remember – it’s also events. So turn your study sessions into memorable events by using a set playlist.

Using a specific music playlist as a background to our study can actually help trigger memories that surround previous study sessions, which in turn, help make your current study session more productive.

4. Use songs to practice dictation.

Songs are relatively short – usually about three to four minutes long. They often have repetitive passages too, which makes them great practice for transcription. Choose a song and get your pen and paper ready. As you listen, write down the words.

Be patient using this method! Don’t be afraid to rewind the track as many times as you need. Try to jot down the lyrics as accurately as possible, then look them up online to see how close you are.

5. Find songs you already know in your native language that have been translated into your target language (or translate them yourself).

Children’s songs like “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” and the theme from Sesame Street, or even holiday songs like “Frosty the Snowman”,  already exist in many languages and are a great starting point. They’re often quite short and simple and so learning them is an easy task. Plus you’ll very likely pick up new vocabulary!

How do you use music to improve your language study? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Further Reading:

Do Musicians Make Better Language Learners? on The Guardian

Music is Linguist’s Best Friend on Eurolinguiste

You can find Shannon Kennedy on: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Youtube