Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Use music, TV, movies, radio and the internet to ingrain your target language in your brain

The following is a guest post by Susanna Zaraysky, author of Language is Music, of which I recently received a free review copy. Susanna speaks seven languages (English, Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Serbo-Croatian) and has also studied Hungarian, Hebrew, and Arabic. She has taught English in Argentina, Bosnia, and the United States.

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.
  1. 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.

  2. 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, 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.
Make your new language stick!


  1. While I also recommend using music (e.g., this tip), there are some drawbacks to music:

    - Music generally obscures intonation and, in tonal languages, tones are generally ignored completely.

    - Music will often take poetic license with grammar rules, so you should be cautious when learning grammar rules from music.

    - Music is often focused on romance, so if music is a major component of your exposure, you're vocab will be tilted towards the lovey-dovey (this actually worked out pretty well for me in Japanese).

  2. There are two points in the above with which I'd disagree:

    1. Rather than shutting up and listening, I'd recommend getting out there and trying to use your language. You should be doing plenty of listening, but waiting a year to speak like a baby is not necessary at all for an adult.

    2. Writing out the lyrics to a song you're listening to sounds like a painful, time-consuming exercise to me. I'd rather get the lyrics off the net, look up the words I don't know, and the listen to the song, having already looked up the words so that listening becomes a review of each of those words. An initial listen-through before looking things isn't a bad idea either.

  3. I'd also add a couple of points to your tips:

    1. Background noise isn't limited to music; podcasts and radio work just as well and, if they're spoken speech, even better in some ways.

    2. Regarding looking up the lyrics of foreign-language songs, I'd recommend putting "lyrics" in the target language. You'll have a tough time finding a lot of, say, Chinese songs using the English word "lyrics".

    3. If you can't find the lyrics with the title + the word for "lyrics", or if you don't know the title, listen to the song and try to pick out a few phrases, put each of those phrases in quotes, and throw them into Google. It's often easy to turn up lyrics doing that. Here's an example for the English oldies song Blue Moon; lyrics are the first hit.

  4. By the way, if anyone's wondering what "prosody" is (as I was), here's what Mac OS X's dictionary app has to say about it: "the patterns of stress and intonation in a language".

  5. Everybody always just says, "find music in the language." Finding good music in my target language hasn't proven so simple.

  6. Vincent, you don't have to listen for a year before speaking. But I think it's important to dedicate time at the beginning of the language learning process to listen. That time will vary per person.

    As for being tone deaf, I have a friend who is legally deaf. She is from Germany and lives in San Francisco. She can feel the beat of music and she can speak. As a kid, she played the flute in Germany. Her English teacher (in Germany) says that my friend learned to speak better English than other kids who had better hearing than she did because she had some musical background. You don't have to be in tune all the time. We are all musical beings even if we can't keep a beat. There are people with zero musical abilities and who are tone deaf who still appreciate music. It's the ability to listen and appreciate that's key. You don't have to be a Julliard graduate to do this.

    Yes, a lot of music is romantic. But you can find many political songs and other lyrics with social messages. It's a matter of finding what you like.

  7. Absolutely is my experience bang on. Although music itself does not help me or songs for many of the same reasons Vincent mentions. In fact reading about the very studies that highlighted brain damaged people being able to sing but not talk put me off, I find I can learn songs easily but the language used in the song is not available to me at all except to recite it back. To make it available I have to study the lyrics and then I may as well study a story or joke or something else.

    The 'music' and the sounds of the language itself though, absolutely agree. I hastily explained in this post a long time ago: the post was read by Paul Sulzberger who kindly sent me a copy of his Thesis that is described here: and agreed that I was in-line with his understanding, Susanna I suspect you will find this interesting, I can also send you a copy of the thesis if required.

    Bear in mind I started learning languages for the first time in my late 30's, my recent Thai experiment (which will be public soon). I would think you need considerably less than a year perhaps down to a week or two to a dedicated, experienced language learner, but I will be making my best case soon for why (for many people) starting to speak from day one is bonkers and damaging.
    Of course if you have to, then you have to but that works for most things (including the 10 commandments).

    Thank you for this post!

  8. Just read some reviews of Susanna's book, might have to get a copy :)

  9. What is ur opinion on providing a few links. i.e. "Here are a few of my favorits..." whenever u r suggesting services/tips/resources on your blog

  10. Oh, I see. I just realized why there are things such as nursery rhymes. You can almost sing the words and sticks because of the melody. Thanks!

  11. I thought it was going to be some boring old post, but it really compensated for my time. I will post a link to this page on my blog. I am sure my visitors will find that very useful. Thank you!