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.
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