on April 26 2010 07:48 am 5

Using Songs to Learn a Foreign Language: Get More From Your Pop Music

Some people discount using songs to learn a foreign language because most genres of songs use only basic vocabulary and simple grammar. The argument is the text of pop music and other common genres isn’t varied or complex enough to provide enriching exposure to the language.

No, it isn’t and that’s exactly why songs are such an effective way to learn. The proof is out there. Heaven only knows how many people around the world got started with English by listening to the Beatles. I’ve seen even upper intermediate learners use lines from songs to grasp what a grammar concept “really means.”

If you know what’s going on at each stage, you can squeeze more out of your listening.

Here’s more or less how it works:

  1. Songs are enjoyable even when you don’t understand a word, so you listen to the same material again and again…and again. Try that with Pimseur.

  2. With so much repetition and because of the slowish speed, you eventually notice a certain “sound patterns” (words, that is). You get curious and look the words up. Obviously, this is a lot easier with some languages than others.

  3. If you’re studying, you’re also learning more words from your course book, phrase book or other learning material. You start to pick out those words in songs, too. You might see the names of songs translated and pick up words and phrases that way, too.

  4. You keep listening for pleasure, so you’re getting lots of review. You don’t forget the words you’ve looked up. This is the value of the limited vocabulary. You’re also hearing the words in a natural, native context with native pronunciation.

  5. Eventually you know enough words that you can pick out whole phrases.

  6. Listen some more and you have those phrases memorized. Heck, you may even have whole songs down pat. You can even sing along and work on your pronunciation.

  7. By this time, you probably know little chucks of grammar like “for you” (pronoun in the dative case), “your eyes” (possessive), or “I love you” (present tense verb and a pronoun in the accusative case). The form and correct, native usage is well ingrained in your mind.

    When you do crack open your grammar book and look at the part on “pronouns in the dative case,” you already know how to use “for you.” Dative schmative–you know what it really means. The grammar book is just providing clarification of something you already instinctively know.

But Songs Can’t do it All

First of all, you need music you genuinely like, not just tolerate. Otherwise, you’re not going to get enough repetition. Depending on your taste for the culture’s music, finding those songs may be an uphill battle.

Even if you find them, you won’t learn from passive listening. It takes curiosity and at least a little effort. At the very least, you have to actually look up those words you pick out. It’s hard to overstate this: be curious!

Another problem is that we don’t speak the way we sing. The intonation is different and singers sometimes shift the stress on words to fit them into a rhythm. Just because you can understand songs doesn’t mean you can understand speech at a natural speed.

And, of course, if you stick with pop music, your vocabulary will be pretty much limited to romance. Despite these drawbacks, because songs make such and easy and enjoyable way to memorized chucks of language, though, they make a handy way to start.

If you haven’t yet found songs you like in the language you’re learning, keep looking. Browse YouTube, listen to online radio and note the singer of each song you like, and ask around for suggestions.

Related posts:

  1. How to Learn Foreign Language Vocabulary When You Have No Time to Study
  2. Learning a Foreign Language: Tips for Learning Grammar
  3. Foreign Language Vocabulary Learning: Which Words to Learn First
  4. Three Ways to Improve Your Ability to Listen for Detail
  5. Learn a Language Fast with Audio Courses

Filed under Grammar,Listening

5 Responses to “Using Songs to Learn a Foreign Language: Get More From Your Pop Music”

  1. Very nice summary of the plusses and minuses of listening to music!

    I’d just add one more drawback: people who speak tonal languages (like Chinese) tend to completely ignore tones in songs. That means you might think your singing “mom” when in fact you’re signing “horse”. Of course, it’s usually obvious from context, but nevertheless you’re not getting a repetition of a native speaker’s tone when you’re listening to music.

  2. Amelia says:

    Thanks for your comment and input, StreetSmart. I don’t have much experience with tonal languages, so I overlooked that. I appreciate your bringing it up. John at GlobalMaverick has written about his experience using songs to learn Chinese, but I don’t think even he covered that fact.

  3. pop music says:

    I uses movies with subtitles to know the other country languages.

  4. J. MI says:

    This is so true. I really wanted to learn Korean and Japanese, so I would listen to pop music in those languages. When I would hear a certain phrases I would look them up. I also get excited when I hear words I have learned on my own in songs. The only drawback I think of immediately is that sentences in songs aren’t like sentences just spoken. There also rules about formal and nonformal words that aren’t used in songs. I think it also helps to try watching Shows or movies in the language you are learning. You should probably try some more formal learning too, like out of book, just to get a hold of grammar and rules. Even if that way is a bit more boring…

  5. Amelia says:

    Thanks for your comment, J. Yes, you can’t really learn a whole language from songs, but you can certainly pick up phrases and improve your listening skills. And like you say, its a fun way to review words you’ve learned elsewhere.

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