Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head? Without meaning to, you’ve memorized one or two lines that just play, and play, and play on repeat, refusing to leave you alone.
If only your vocabulary list would get stuck too! Why can you remember the chorus of “Never Gonna Give You Up,” but not how to say “fork” in French?
Luckily, thanks to various music streaming providers, it’s easier than ever to get your hands on music that will do both: be catchy enough to get stuck in your head, and teach you useful vocabulary at the same time.
Let’s start with the basics. What types of songs should you listen to, and how can you find them?
You have three options (in order of difficulty):
- A bilingual mix of Anglophone musicians and musicians singing in the language you're learning,
- Translated versions of English songs you already love,
- Songs from a country that speaks your target language.
1. Bilingual Mixes
These days, as the world becomes more globalized, English-speaking musicians are quick to enlist popular international artists to hop on their tracks; they’re equally quick to feature themselves on bilingual tracks in order to reach new audiences. Luckily for you, this is great for your language-learning goals.
Let’s look at two examples. In 2017, OneRepublic remixed their English-language song “No Vacancy” with French artist Amir, leading to blended lines such as “J'te remercie/Because of you/There's no vacancy.” They also released versions in Spanish and Italian.
2017 also saw the release of “Despacito,” originally recorded by Puerto Rican musicians Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee. But the song blew up in the English-speaking world when Justin Bieber added his own blend of English and Spanish.
Pro: This is a good way to ease into a new language since it’s not completely unfamiliar. English context clues will help you decipher any parts you trip up on.
Con: Because this isn’t complete immersion, you may be tempted to memorize the English stanzas and tune out the rest. You’ll have to give the second language portion just as much cognitive energy as the English portion, if not more.
These days, many English-language songs are being translated into other languages. Sometimes this is done by official record labels to tap into new audiences, but other times independent fans release covers for free.
Let’s look at two examples. Disney translated their hit musical Moana (often called Vaiana overseas) into forty languages. You can listen to the complete soundtrack in everything from Tahitian to Kazakh to Icelandic. (For more Disney princesses singing songs in their native languages, check this out.)
Meanwhile, the simplest way to find independent covers is to boot up YouTube and search for the name of your language, plus “cover.” You’ll be shocked at the results. For example, have you ever wanted to hear “Numb (Encore)” in Russian? What about “Shape of You” in Chinese, or “Havana” in eight different languages? Buckle up.
Pro: You already love these songs, so it’s an easy leap to love their translated versions too. And because you already have some idea of what they’re singing, it will be an interesting exercise to see how different languages conceptualize the same ideas.
Con: Translations can be less than perfect. On top of that, you’re not really learning about that country’s culture, since these songs aren’t from a country, they’re translated for a country. It’s a bit like eating McDonald’s in France. It might technically be French, but it’s still an American product.
These songs are created by native speakers, for native speakers. This includes artists on a country’s Top 100 list, indie groups you stumble upon in underground concerts or even operas penned hundreds of years ago.
A good exercise is to look up the top artists in a country and work through their discographies. You could also research the artists featured on the bilingual versions of your favorite songs, which we discussed above, and find their profiles on your preferred streaming app.
Pro: This is the ultimate in music immersion. It’s also a good popular culture touchstone so that you have something to talk to native speakers about.
Con: These songs can be trickier to understand than the ones above, because there’s no English counterpart readily available. In some cases, the song might not even have lyrics online, let alone a translation. You may have to do a lot of guess work to decipher unfamiliar words, and some pronunciations might go over your head. And be prepared for unfamiliar slang—for example, the French band PNL mixes the French slang "verlan" (which is like English "cockney") with Arabic words, meaning that even native French speakers have trouble understanding their hit songs.
So now you know what you want to listen to, but where on earth do you find it? Unless you’re in Malaysia, you can’t just click on the radio and expect to hear the Top 40 in Malay.
So where should you look first?
Spotify’s Charts: This lists the 200 most-played songs all over the world. You can filter by country to find out what target-language songs are going viral everywhere from Denmark to Indonesia. You can even see what the top songs were all the way back from 2017.
YouTube Playlists: This is a relatively old-fashioned trick, but it works. Search for “best songs of (year) (language)” (for example "best songs of 2019 Spanish"), and you’ll find hundreds of spliced-together videos or playlists highlighting that year’s most popular songs. This is the most efficient way to preview a lot within a short time frame and decide which ones appeal to you most. For example, here’s a video with the top 100 most popular Spanish songs of 2019.
Last.FM: Like in the Spotify charts, you can see which artists are rising in different countries.
MusicRoamer: When you find an artist you actually like, what do you do next? If you go to MusicRoamer, you can instantly see a web of other artists whose music connects to your faves, to help you follow dozens of musicians in one fell swoop.
Tip: Google search in the language itself. For example, you’ll find more responses if you type “deutsche Lieder” instead of “German song.”
Now that you have an arsenal of music, what’s the most effective way to use it?
In our next blog post, we’ll look at ways that you can use active listening to pick up nuances of the language you are learning.
In the meantime, check out the Rocket Languages Interactive Audio lessons or Travelogues for Spanish, French, Italian and Russian to work on your listening skills.
Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.