Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.
In our last blog post, we started looking at how to use music to master a new language. Specifically, we answered two questions: Which types of songs should you choose? And where can you find them?
Now that you’ve filled some Spotify playlists, it’s time to flip on your Bluetooth stereo and turn up the volume. This week, you’ll actually learn these songs and use them to get a better grasp on the language you're learning.
Ready? Here are some key tips:
12 Tips for Learning a Language Through Music
1. Don’t be shy.
You’re going to sing out loud—a lot.
You’re going to annoy some people, and you’re going to annoy yourself.
Guess what? You have to be okay with that. You’re going to sing loudly, and you’re going to get most words wrong, and you’re going to blast the same song a dozen times. And then a dozen more times. And then a dozen more times.
But you’re also going to have fun.
2. Pick a song that you absolutely love.
You have to love this song, because it will get stuck in your head. After you truly dedicate yourself to learning it—memorizing its vocabulary, playing with its melodies, deciphering its grammar and committing its colloquialisms to memory—it’s going to play on repeat in your head whether you want it to or not.
3. Make sure your song has lyrics online.
Even better, make sure that your song has an online translation readily available, even if you don’t use it right away (which you shouldn’t).
It is a thousand times easier to parse the lyrics when you have the words in front of you. Songs are tricky. Pronunciation gets twisted. Words get shortened. Slang gets woven in and then changed and then dropped.
Especially when you’re just starting out with a language, it’s helpful to read as you go along. (Don’t believe me? Listen to "Focus" by Fortunes. Can you understand every single word they’re saying? And that’s English.)
4. Try to figure out the song’s meaning by yourself.
All of that said, don’t run to the lyrics and the translation right away.
Listen to the song several times.
Try to figure out what words are being said, even if you don’t understand their meaning. Just transcribe the sounds and figure them out later. Use context clues based on the parts that you actually understand in order to decipher the rest.
You’ll be surprised—you understand more than you think.
5. Turn to a dictionary and translation as a last resort.
After you’ve exhausted all your resources and have tried to parse the song from context clues—then and only then should you pick up a dictionary. Look up the words you don’t know, but be aware that you might run into some idioms or tricky grammatical turns of phrase. Use the translation to double-check your findings.
6. Learn meanings, not just words.
When you’re memorizing dry vocabulary lists, it’s easy to focus on rote definitions. Every word has a 1:1 counterpart, and that’s all you need to know.
But songs don’t work that way.
They’re laden with passion and meaning, bolstered by instrumentals.
So when you’re first learning a song, think about what each line means, not just what it says. What’s the singer’s intention? Why do you think they chose a particular word over another?
Later, when you’re having trouble remembering the lyrics of a certain section, you can recall what the stanza means and try to reverse engineer the line itself.
7. Listen to the song until you can sing it perfectly.
This is where the real work comes in. You can’t just sit back and let the song wash over you, hoping that you’ll comprehend it because you looked up a few words in the dictionary. No, the only way to determine whether you really know the song is to sing it.
This will make you painfully aware of the tiny areas where you’re lacking. Maybe you always trip up on a German pronoun because you can’t remember whether it’s dative or accusative, or maybe you always skip the definite article altogether when it comes to Arabic moon letters.
Sing it. Then sing it again. Then sing it again.
8. Queue the karaoke version.
Sing along to the version with lyrics first. But when you feel confident, search for a karaoke track (a quick YouTube search usually does the trick) and run it through a few times. If you can’t find that version, go acapella.
Without the prerecorded lyrics to carry you along, you’ll realize that you might not know it as perfectly as you think.
9. Switch up your playlists.
Learn more than one song at a time! This isn’t a boring memorization drill; this should be a fun way to explore a new language through music.
Scour the "Top 40" until you find a handful of songs that you wouldn’t mind listening to back-to-back, and fill your arsenal. When you get tired of one, switch to another. But remember not to completely abandon any until they are fully memorized.
10. Write your own songs.
After you’ve studied the lyrics of a few songs, try your hand at your own. You don’t have to perform it or even memorize it, but it’s a fun way to see whether you’ve really gotten the hang of the language’s rhythm and cadences.
Feel free to use phrases from the songs you’ve memorized, but twist them to make them your own. The song will probably be bad—but that doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you put pen to paper.
11. Read music blogs.
To practice your reading comprehension and stay abreast of the latest music in your target language, bookmark music blogs. Most countries (and genres) have dedicated fans who post weekly, if not daily. Over time, you’ll start to recognize the artists and, soon, you won’t even need a dictionary to understand the posts.
12. Rock out in person.
If your chosen songs are from a musical, go see the musical. If they’re from an opera, sit front row. If a band is playing, scream along in the mosh pit. Not only will you have fun, but you’ll also have a visceral experience that you can now associate with the songs to strengthen your memory.
You can also practice your new language with everyone else who has shown up to see it, so strike up a conversation or buy a friendly stranger a drink!
Why are you still here? Build your playlist, crank up your stereo and start learning!
And for more unconventional ways to learn a language, check out our blog post on fun ways to improve your vocabulary.