Learning anything from scratch can be incredibly daunting, and learning a new language is even more so. There’s a difference between casually trolling through Wikipedia, reading every article on the mass marketing of chocolate, and proclaiming yourself a pro in the field. This is a language, a whole other mode of communication. This is different than impressing your friends with vagrant knowledge of cocoa beans. This is impressing your friends with vagrant knowledge of cocoa beans in Spanish. Or, you know, whatever you decide to pick up.
For a complete beginner – and I mean complete beginner (aka you’re not even sure how to say the name of the language you’re learning in that language) – getting exposure through music as a gateway is absolutely perfect and, in my opinion, ideal. It’s accessible, it’s casual, and it’s fun – which is the most important thing. Many of us enjoy learning languages for fun. How sad would it be to have the fun factor immediately slashed before you even start? Not so much.
When I was initially piecing together info for this blog, I came across other blogs that said “yeah, it’s 110% possible to learn language through music”, but they never illustrated how. I’m someone who appreciates a good how-to guide, so I put this together based on my experiences as a language learner. How well does this resonate for you?
1. Start with a song/artist you actually like.
I started learning languages when I was about 10 or 11. I can tell you now that, as an 11-year-old whose favourite thing to do was swap Pokemon cards and not wash my hair, sitting at a textbook and doing grammar exercises was not the first thing I did when I decided I wanted to learn Japanese (it was, however, the second thing). The first thing I did was download a set of songs from my favourite shows and just listen to them. I chose these songs because I was already invested in the show, so an inherent interest was already there. Do not torture yourself by listening to a French song just because it’s in French if you hate it. You’ll get nowhere. You might as well go straight to the textbook method, to be honest.
2. Listen, listen, listen – no pressure.
If you’re like me, you might want to dive in right away and start writing vocab lists with a tab open on Chrome about the writing system and sentence order and an article about grammar and the future tense ugh. Don’t do it. Do not do it. You have to listen to the song, listen to the music, and honestly just relax. As the amazing Khatzumoto says, you don’t just learn a language, you get used to it. The first thing you should do is literally just get used to the language, get used to the sounds, the inflections, how words are put together, the sentence order, etc. It’s not about you being a boss right away. Don’t worry!
3. As you listen, write.
So you’ve listened to that song about a thousand times and you can sing it at will, if asked (note. try to get to the point where singing it wouldn’t be a problem for you. This has nothing to do with your singing ability, but with confidence in what you know). Now, the next few times you listen to the song, try writing out a few words that pop up often and translate them into English/your native tongue. You might start noticing patterns with vocabulary or even entire phrases. This isn’t unique to any one language – I’m sure in English you can pinpoint about 500 songs between the years 2011 and 2013 that overused the word “swag”. Same thing. Sort of.
With your new, shiny vocabulary lists, now’s the time to try your hand at translating this song you love and have essentially memorised. Do not look at an English (or your native tongue) translation of the song until you’ve had a decent chance (struggle) at translating it yourself. Translating is hard work, and even more so with music. Lyrics are poetry, so it’s naturally more difficult to get the tone and intention behind a song, especially if this isn’t your native language. By translating, you will:
learn sentence order (is this language subject-verb-object or subject-object-verb?)
become more comfortable with your vocabulary (if someone asked you to say ‘no, please don’t leave’ a la Korean ballads, could you do it?)
continue to familiarize yourself with the language (have you gotten used to numbers in French yet or is eighty still four-hundred-and-twenty when you close your eyes?)
understand how the language is written/spoken (are people more prone to saying ‘good one, that is’ or ‘that’s a good one’?)
All very, very important things when you’re starting out – and it’s possible once you try your hand at translating a few songs. The more you do this, the more you’ll improve. When I did my first translation, it took me a few hours (with breaks) and that was with a looooot of gaps in verses. Don’t worry if there are some sentences you don’t understand. Go to the translation, find the trouble verses, and try to understand how they came to that meaning.
5. Repeat, repeat, repeat!
Now that you’ve mastered one song, it’s time to move onto another! Do this until you feel comfortable moving onto watching programs with subtitles or the like. If you don’t feel comfortable moving on, then continuing with song and vocab work is not considered failure. Keep trying and your comfort level will increase.
Here’s a soft note/nudge: being comfortable doesn’t mean being able to translate every word in every song ever. Growth only happens in places of uncertainty, so once you find your general comprehension has increased, that would be a good time to move forward.
Remember that only you can gauge your improvement and, while I think language learning should be more fun than it is blood, sweat, and tears, if you don’t feel as if you’re being challenged by a certain song, or a certain method, then it’s up to you to find one that is of a higher level.
A few tips on picking songs:
- Songs associated with animated shows or movies will always have easier vocabulary because of their target audience, so maybe try checking out a radio station and sampling songs from there.
- Try to stick to current (1980-present) music, because vocabulary has changed throughout the years and you want your language learning to be fluid and progressive.
- ‘I can’t find anything, XXXX music sucks’: No. Just keep digging! In every language, there are lame songs. You just have to find the good ones. 🙂
If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions – or maybe if you found there’s a step in the middle that worked well for you – let me know! Now go forth and sing.