Language Learning Tip: Use Music to Learn a Foreign Language

In early December I was pleased to be able to meet today’s guest author Susanna Zaraysky for lunch here in Istanbul.  Susanna is an accomplished language learner and a bit of an expert in using music to learn languages – something I haven’t done a lot of.  I am excited to have her share her expertise with us today.


I can listen to music to learn languages?

Is this a joke?

No, I am totally serious. You do have to learn grammar eventually but music is absolutely key in learning languages. I speak seven languages and listening to lyrical music in these languages was fundamental to my being able to copy the melody of these languages and remember pronunciation and vocabulary.  The science of language learning shows that not only is the previously considered “critical period” of language acquisition longer than previously thought but that multilingual people are “mental jugglers”. Music is a way to keep your language juggling fluid and natural.

It’s so simple. Yet sometimes it feels like I am talking to the wall when I tell people how lyrical songs can help people learn language.  I’ve given presentations about my book, Language Is Music, to the US State Department (the Foreign Ministry of the US), various universities and to the Defense Language Institutein Monterey, California and I got many dumbfounded looks from language teachers when I explained how to use songs to teach language.

Really? I can use songs to teach grammar?


The neurological links between language and music are vast but the basic thing to remember is that music activates more parts of the brain than language does, on both the right and left sides of the brain. So if you remember something to a tune, you are more likely to recall the information than if you just read it or heard it spoken.

Have you ever heard a song on the radio that you haven’t heard in a decade and you surprise yourself by singing all the lyrics?

Music and catchy jingles can stick in our minds for years while names of people, places,  verb conjugation charts and memorized data disappear.


Just yesterday, I was writing an email to someone in Spanish and telling him that I needed to dust off my Thai cookbook to remember the recipe for Thai coconut milk soup for a Lunar New Year party with my friends. I’d never used the word “dust off” in Spanish before, but I recalled it from the song “Aunque no esté de moda” by Silvio Rodriguez, where the singer says:

“Desempolvemos algo las pasiones lejanas algo de aquellos sueños sin ventanas.”

(Let us dust off something from our distant passions,something of those windowless dreams). 

My words about Thai coconut milk soup were not as poetic or romantic as the words from the song, but it was my memory of the song lyrics that made me think of the word “desempolvar” in Spanish.

Music makes the puzzle of a foreign language come together

What happens when you hear something in a song is that you are opening yourself up to the greater global picture of the language. Then when you learn what the words mean by using a dictionary or reading the translation of the lyrics or just guessing from the context, you are putting the puzzle of the language together. If you start with the puzzle pieces (grammar rules, conjugation charts, vocabulary lists, etc), you may end up using those puzzle pieces as a sleeping pill rather than as means to learning the language. Let yourself breathe in the language with music so you can get a rhythmic introduction to the language.

Music wakes up your brain to remember words

Songs are awakening the language capacity of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who suffered brain damage caused by a bullet that passed through the left side of her brain, causing her to lose expressive speech. As you can see in this ABC News special report about her recovery,  songs are helping the former Arizona Congresswoman regain her speech.

As the Nightline Special says, “When the music fades away, the words stay”. After listening to songs, Representative Giffords remembers the words from songs that she previously could not say. The music activates her memory of the words and ability to pronounce them.

If songs can help someone with brain injuries regain speaking abilities, then music can help everyone else learn languages. No more excuses!

Tips on listening and using music to learn languages

1.  LISTEN then talk

Watch this video to understand the fundamentals of how to listen to a foreign language to learn. This five minute video can save you many hours of painful work later on to polish your accent. If you listen first to your target language, before speaking, you have a better chance of having good pronunciation. If you launch into speaking from Day One, you are likely to be speaking with a poor accent and it will be hard to rewire your brain later on to produce different sounds after you may have solidified your speaking patterns.

  • There’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth. Listen first, speak later, then learn the grammar and write.
  • Don’t rush into speaking. Learn the sounds of your languages first.
  • It does not matter if at first you do not understand. You may start singing along without even knowing what you are singing. You are not only learning the rhythm of the language, you are learning new vocabulary.
  • Relax and close your eyes. Turn off the lights. Lie down, sit in a comfortable position or play. At first, don’t try to understand the words, just listen. Your mind needs to be calm in order to absorb the sounds. Your ears need no other distractions to properly hear all the high, medium and low frequencies of the language. Do this regularly.

Academic proof of why listening first makes sense

Dr. Paul Sulzberger, did his PhD thesis in linguistics in New Zealand about how people learn Russian. He had one group of students who got to listen to Russian speech before formally learning Russian. The other group had no exposure to Russian at all. Those who spent time listening to Russian before studying it, had an easier time than those who had no experience listening to the language when it came to recognizing individual words in speech when they were formally learning the language. Therefore, the exposure to listening to the language to pick up the melody and sound patterns before learning words and grammar was advantageous to the students. Listening is a major factor in language acquisition!

2.  What kind of music?

Find music in your target language that you like. Seriously, it’s not uncommon to find language teachers who aren’t familiar with contemporary music in the language they are teaching and play old songs that don’t resonate to their student’s ears. You have to like what they are listening to. It’s best to find songs that tell a story so you can learn a story line. Stay away from music with profanity or inappropriate content.

3.  Find You Tube videos

Go on You Tube and find music in the target language that they like. Some videos even come with subtitles in the target language or in translation. Videos may also help you understand what the song is about. This is especially important for visual learners because they can see the story being told by the lyrics and better understand what the song is about and match their new vocabulary to the images on the screen.

4.  Write the lyrics

After listening to the song(s) several time to get used to its sounds and melody, students 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 haven’t learned yet, but just write as much as they can understand. Compare the lyrics they noted down with the original song lyrics that you will provide them and see how well you were able to understand the song. Some CDs come with the lyrics inside the CD case. If you don’t have them, look for them online on lyrics websites.


If you can’t locate the lyrics on the lyrics websites, just type in the name of the song in quotes in a web search. If you don’t know the name of the song, type in the refrain or the lyrics you do recall.

5.  Make a vocabulary list with words from the songs

Prepare a vocabulary list from the songs and quiz yourself. Delete certain words from the verses of the song and fill in the blanks.

6.  Sesame Street for beginners

If you don’t think that Sesame Street is actually a viable option for anyone over the age of five, think again. The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California which trains staff from all branches of the United States military in different languages shows Sesame Street in Arabic to its Arabic language students. If GI Joe and GI Jane can learn to speak al- arabi with the Arabic equivalent of the Cookie Monster, then so can you! I don’t know if the Arabic Cookie Monster eats baklava or cookies, but his message can reach you.

Note: Sesame Street has various international versions available on You Tube from Russia, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Egypt, Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil, Palestine, Jordan, Bangladesh, Japan, India and France. The best way to find the videos in those languages is to do a search for Sesame Street and the name of the country or language. If you know the name of the program in the specific language, like Plaza Sésamo in Spanish, then use that name in your search on You Tube.

How have you used music as part of your language learning?


Susanna Zaraysky speaks seven languages with native to near-native accents and is the author of   Language is Music, El idioma es música in Spanish), a short and easy-to-read book on how to learn foreign languages using music, TV, radio, movies, the Internet and other free and low-cost resources. 

Find Susanna on her website or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Picasa, and on YouTube.

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28 Responses to Language Learning Tip: Use Music to Learn a Foreign Language
  1. mezzofanti
    January 30, 2012 | 8:08 am

    Great advice, Susanna!

    I had a Hungarian guy working for me a few years ago in Ireland who had atrociously bad English, yet when he sang English songs on his guitar you would have thought he was an American. His singing accent was absolutely flawless. It says something about the effect that music has on language learning I’m sure.

    I also completely agree with you about just listening at the beginning. This is an approach I’ve taken with Irish (I started teaching myself a few weeks ago). I spent the entire first week just listening to TV and radio in Irish Gaeilge to tune my ears before opening my mouth.

    • Susanna Zaraysky
      January 30, 2012 | 8:54 am


      @mezzofantiI’ve been asked before about why some people can sing well in another language but can’t speak it with as good of an accent as when they are singing. I think the reason is that they are not consciously making a link between their singing in their target language and their speech. If teachers don’t make the connection for students, not all students will realize that songs can effect their spoken and written language. The listening component is also lost to many teachers and language learners as there isn’t enough time in language classes for students to just listen. So those wishing to speak another language have to take time to listen on their own.

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  3. aliceayel
    February 1, 2012 | 2:31 pm

    Great tips Suasanna, thank you. As a teacher of Spanish and French, I try to use music in my lessons as often as I can because my students really enjoy it. Last year, I started every lesson with a song. My students would listen to a song and follow the lyrics (here is my post about it:

    It worked very well. Unfortunately this year, I had less hours to teach and had to follow a curriculum, so I didn’t have enough lesson time to repeat this experience. As part of regular homework, your tips would be great for my students.

    • Susanna Zaraysky
      February 1, 2012 | 6:51 pm

      @aliceayel Alice, Thanks for your blog piece. I wasn’t familiar with Susan Gross before. Even if you can’t work on songs in class, you can have your students find songs they like, decipher them and sing them in class for extra credit and do a presentation to the class explaining what the song is about and what they learned. I did a karaoke/MTV video contest once in a Spanish class and the kids had a lot of fun dressing up and singing. Even if they can’t sing well, they can try or lip sync.

  4. JoelJosephson
    February 2, 2012 | 1:17 pm

    Thank you Susanna.

    I am involved in 2 European funded projects that are also using music in language learning. One is totally new so only a Facebook page so far.

    PopuLLar – Music and Language Learning PopuLLar is a European education project that will use popular music to motivate language learning in secondary school students. You will find an introductory video on the Facebook page.

    Folk DC – Digital Children’s Folksongs for Language and Cultural Learning The Folk DC project is designed to motivate young language learners to engage with language learning through Folk songs in 10 European languages. The project culminates in a simultaneous, live concert in 5 countries, streamed over the Internet to audiences all over Europe.

    • Susanna Zaraysky
      February 9, 2012 | 8:44 pm

      @JoelJosephson Thanks so much for these links. I didn’t know of these projects before. It’s wonderful that kids in Europe are getting such early musical exposure to foreign languages. The challenge in the US, where I live, is to expose children and adults to foreign language media as almost all of our radio and TV broadcasts are in English.

  5. Wiktor
    May 4, 2012 | 2:10 am

    Hey, I’m reading this post and listening to Paco de Lucia – just after my recent trip to Spain – and I’ve got another idea: music as the motivator.
    Good music can fascinate you enough to convince you to learn the language of its country of origin. I’ve got this now with Paco, and every now and then with Welsh.
    If your iPod shuffles a foreign-language song into your playlist every now and then, it’s a gentle prod – a reminder that this is the language you should be learning. And if it’s a good song (why would you listen to bad songs, anyway?), it’ll motivate you.

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  12. Galina Zenin
    November 16, 2012 | 9:17 pm

    Great article and fantastic comments. I agree that music is powerful and should be used as ofen as possible for learning or improvenig languages. I am an educator and am teaching English to children through music. I have seen amzing results and believe that music should be part of every curriculum in all educational systems.

  13. Dave Swenson
    December 3, 2012 | 5:59 pm

    How about using music to learn about music? Here’s an example:

  14. Beth @ GEOS Languages Plus
    February 12, 2013 | 5:35 am

    This is great and so true! Not only does music help us learn new words and the grammar of a language but it helps us with pronunciation, too (plus it’s a lot more fun than flicking through a textbook!)

  15. Study English
    February 23, 2013 | 9:41 am

    So true, thanks very much! I’m going to recommend this technique to all my students (and use it myself when I’m learning foreign languages as well)!

    Monica V

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