How Listening to Music Can Help You Learn a Language

Learning a language, or multiple languages, is often something we do for academic or professional purposes, but it can also be a great hobby. Apps such as Duolingo and Babbel have made it far easier and more rewarding to make language learning a part of your daily life. There are many different techniques for all kinds of learning, not all of which will work for everyone, but one big thing that can help you on your language learning journey is listening to music. We’ve all experienced the earworm phenomenon: having the words of a catchy song stuck in our head no matter what we do to try and get rid of it. Could music be a helpful tool for learning a language?

 

Generalising based on the experience of learning English as your mother tongue, I’m sure we can all remember being or have been aware of children starting to learn to talk, and the ways in which we teach them. During this process, we often use music as an aid to keep them engaged and to help them remember things. For example, I challenge you to recite the alphabet without automatically going into the tune of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ - have a gold star if you can! There are so many videos available on YouTube with songs and nursery rhymes for children, many of them specifically dedicated to helping them learn new words. During foreign language lessons in school, songs are often used as a way to help students to remember vocabulary and grammar constructions. In addition to these anecdotal examples of music in language learning, research has shown that we use the same part of our brain to process music and language (Kunert, R. et al., 2015), which shows there can be a close relationship between music and language learning.

 

I have been learning French for more than 10 years, and in both junior and secondary school my teachers used songs to help us learn particular language and grammar points. In secondary school and in my current degree, I have also studied music from a cultural perspective, which is a great way to learn more about the countries of the language you’re learning. 

 

When learning a foreign language as adults, we probably don’t want to listen to nursery rhymes (although they can contain some interesting vocabulary!), but songs for vocabulary and grammar learning can be a helpful way to help these points stick in our minds. However, with the online world at our fingertips on our phones, tablets, laptops and computers, we can access a huge variety of songs in the language(s) we’re learning, from current chart-topping hits to songs from decades ago. So how can you use music to help in your language learning?

 

  1. Start with music that has simple lyrics.

When you’re not a highly advanced learner, it’s a good idea to start with slower songs with simple lyrics, perhaps with some repetition or vocabulary that you already know. This will help you to recognise the sounds and words more easily, and make it easier to remember.

 

  1. Listen to music in genres that you like.

Find songs in your target language that are in similar music genres to those that you like in your native language. This will make it more enjoyable to listen to, and make it more likely that you’ll want to listen to them again.

 

  1. Listen to music from a variety of genres.

Of course, as you discover more new music in your target language, you may find yourself enjoying new and different genres. This is all part of the joy and may help you learn a wider range of vocabulary, as well as gaining some more cultural enrichment.

 

  1. Find the lyrics online to read as you listen, or watch music videos with subtitles.

It can be quite hard to make out every single word in songs in your target language, especially the faster ones. Luckily, it’s usually fairly easy to find the lyrics to songs online, so you can read them as you listen and pick out the words more easily, plus make more sense of the actual meaning of what they’re singing! Watching music videos with subtitles is another great way to help you pick out individual words. If there are any particular words you think will be particularly handy, being able to see how they are spelled is very useful. If you have a way of recording new vocabulary, include the words you learn from songs!

 

  1. Have a sing along!

Once you feel like you’ve got a good grip on the words of a particular song, or a few songs, find a quiet place and time to try singing along - as quietly or as loudly as you like! This will really help your pronunciation and make it more likely that the words of the song, and therefore the vocabulary, will stick in your mind. Don’t be disheartened if it takes some time for you to be able to get the words out fluently and in time with the music, just keep persevering.

 

  1. Listen to current popular music and music from the past - as far back as you can find!

Listening to music from a wide range of eras will provide you with an even larger array of vocabulary, as well as give you some more cultural and historical awareness. Current music will often contain slang words, which can be very linguistically interesting, but you may need to be careful how and when you use them! Older music may contain more dated vocabulary, but this can be good to know if you want to read older literature in your target language.

 

  1. Incorporate music in your target language into your daily routine.

Different people will be learning a language for many different reasons, and will also have different amounts of time available to dedicate to it. Language learning apps have been developed to help you progress in your language learning with only a small amount of learning time each day, but listening to music is a great way to extend that time. You can incorporate music in your target language into your daily routine by saving albums, creating a playlist of your favourite songs or finding someone else’s playlist (for Spotify users, Duolingo even have some dedicated playlists for language learners (Spotify, 2022)), and then listening to these throughout your day. The daily commute is a great time to do this, when you go for walks, while cooking or cleaning, and any other time that works for you!

 

So now you know a bit more about the links between music and language learning and how music can help you in your language learning, I hope you will either continue or set out on your learning journey with music as an extra tool in your belt to help you progress. Happy listening and learning!

 

 

References

Kunert, R. et al. (2015) Music and Language Syntax Interact in Broca’s Area: An fMRI Study [Online]. Available at https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0141069 (Accessed 13 December 2022).

 

Spotify (2022) [Online]. Available at https://open.spotify.com/user/6hscr8wxxatl2rc6t7jyg6qld?si=27d1d858703d47ea (Accessed 13 December 2022).

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