Who remembers a TV commercial jingle from their childhood better than what their spouse or parent told them to get at the grocery store yesterday?
We can all remember certain melodies and songs better than we can rattle off a list of vocabulary words or pronunciation rules our teacher taught us in French class this morning.
I broke my CD player replaying the difficult guttural sounds from my Al Kitaab pronunciation CD for Arabic. I had to press rewind so many times to hear the letters and pronounce them. I would have been better off listening to a fun Egyptian Arabic pop song by Amr Diab and registering those sounds to a melody rather than learning them in isolation on my CD player.
Music imprints sounds in our memory much better than a pronunciation lesson in class or a CD that ends up breaking our CD player from overuse.
Music is an essential element of the human condition. Neuroscientists have shown that music engages more parts of our brain than language. Some stroke survivors can sing and dance to music but can barely speak. Music gets deep into our psyche and memory. It sticks. Conjugation charts and vocabulary lists don’t stick. (Read Dr. Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia for more information on how music effects the brain. This book made me realize how I learned languages using music.)
Harness the power of music to make foreign languages stick.
I know how powerful music is because I studied 10 languages and speak seven (Russian, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Serbo-Croatian, and French) with perfect or almost perfect accents. I was able to do this because I listened to language like music and internalized the prosody and melodies of the languages. I also studied grammar, but it’s a lot easier and more fun to study grammar rules when you actually like the language you are learning. Plus, you remember the grammar rules better when you know verses from songs that display these rules, irregular verb conjugations, idioms, etc.
Unfortunately, many foreign language classes focus primarily on written exercises and rote memorization. Some people who try to learn on their own bury themselves in grammar books only to find themselves unable to speak well and comprehend native speakers. I’ve met people who have spent more time than I have studying in a language class or on their own. But when we were in the country where our target language was spoken, they were almost inept at speaking and understanding, while I was conversing freely with native speakers. Why? I used music and media in the target language to make the language part of my life.
Below are some suggestions from the over 70 tips in my book, Language is Music, on how to put the fun in language learning using music, TV, radio, movies, the internet, and other free and low-cost resources.
- Shut up and listen!
No, this is not your mom speaking. When we are babies, we listen for almost a year to our mother tongue before we start speaking. As adults, we are too eager to start speaking as soon as we delve into a new language. Give yourself time to just listen. Let the language sink in.
- Relax and Listen to Music in Your Foreign Language
Find music in your target language that you like. Write the lyrics of the songs while listening. You will have to pause the music and rewind or repeat many times to get the words down. Some words will be hard to write because they may be idioms or slang that you have not learned yet, but just write as much as you can understand. Compare the lyrics you noted with the original song and see how well you were able to understand the song. Some CDs come with the lyrics inside the CD case. You can also find lyrics online on websites like Lyrics.com, A-Z Lyrics Universe, SmartLyrics,com, eLyrics World, or Yahoo! Music. Once you have your version of the lyrics and the original, you can see how much you were able to understand from listening to the song. Use your dictionary to translate the words you do not know.
- Listen to the Radio or Podcasts in the New Language
When you start listening to radio broadcasts, the radio announcers may sound like they are emitting a stream or storm of sounds and not individual words. In time, you will hear familiar words repeated and will learn to distinguish them. You can actively listen to the radio attentively and take notes, listen to it in the background or just close your eyes to listen without straining yourself to understand.
- Find YouTube videos
Go on YouTube and find music in your target language that you like. Some videos even come with subtitles in the target language or in translation. Look for the lyrics of the song by doing a search online. Type in the name of the song and “lyrics”. The videos may also help you understand what the song is about. This is especially important for visual learners.
- Watch TV Daily!
Let's say you are learning Spanish. You have found a local Spanish language TV station in your area or you are watching the national Univision news. Even without knowing all the words, you will be able to get the gist of some of the news reports. The images and video footage of events already tell you what the news announcers are talking about. Tune into how they are speaking and the words they are using to describe the images on screen. Even if you cannot watch TV all the time, it is all right to do things around the house as you listen to the TV in the background. Even though it is not at the forefront of your consciousness, your brain is still processing it and getting used to the flow of the language.