Sing your way to fluency: Learning languages through music

Sing your way to fluency: Learning languages through music

I can't tell you how many of my Japanese friends learned English through song lyrics. Karaoke isn't just fun but can be serious study as well. There's no better teacher than Joey Ramone to show you how to use 'wanna' and 'gonna' correctly.

Learning languages through singing

Learning languages through song lyrics is a great way to sharpen your ear and get some vocabulary and grammar under your belt. Best of all, it's fun, and if you've ever studied a language, you know that fun is important in keeping the motivation going.

Read Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It

Why learn languages through music

Music is great for language learning because, as my friends demonstrated above, you can learn the language the way it's really spoken. People don't say 'want to' as much as they say 'wanna.' While studying a language, it's important to have the real-life, in-context material as well as the text and study material. You can add songs to your arsenal of TV shows, movies, comic books and whatever else you're studying with.

Music and especially singing are great for your pronunciation. You basically have to pronounce it correctly in order to sing a song. In my experience, it's easier to pronounce another language in song than in speech. Maybe this is because it's connected to melody and rhythm. Song lyrics are also slower than actual speech.

Most songs are repetitive. This is a good way to drill phrases in a way that's fun and not monotonous. I don't think Cheap Trick wrote the song with English language learners in mind, but "I Want You To Want Me" illustrates this point quite well:

I want you to want me
I need you to need me
I'd love you to love me
I'm begging you to beg me

That sounds like a grammar drill to me.

Music helps your brain process stuff. If you've ever taught kids, you realize the power that melody and rhythm have in memory. There's research to back this up, like a recent study by the University of Edinburgh Reid School of Music where participants had to learn and try to recall songs in Hungarian. You can read more about it here.

Finally, music helps you learn about another culture and make a connection to it. You can learn about heartbreak in another language and culture. And if you can belt out a classic enka song in a Japanese bar full of middle-aged businessmen, you'll quickly see how cultural barriers slip away. Okay, the alcohol helps too.

Tips on learning through music

  • Pick a genre and artist you like. I never would've learned as much Japanese as I did if I'd tried to listen to J-pop or Japanese hip hop. Japanese punk rock gave me vocabulary I could use and kept me motivated to learn more.

  • Use YouTube to browse. You've never had so much foreign language music at your fingertips as you have now, and it's totally free. You can also use apps and websites like Spotify or Rdio to find hit songs from all over the world.

  • Don't get hung up on understanding everything at first. Listen, enjoy and sing along when you feel ready. When you're all karaoke'd out, you can get ahold of the lyrics and try to make sense of them.

  • Try to find a place that has karaoke in your target language and suck down drinks until you fling yourself onstage and start singing. This is easier to do if you're studying Japanese, Spanish or Korean than Xhosa, Kazakh or Apache, but don't give up the search.

  • Serenade your housemates or family daily with songs in your new language. It's all about repetition and daily practice, even if you only have time for a quick Ramones song.

Do you have any more tips? Let us know in the comments!