Music forms a large portion of a culture’s linguistic identity. Even with music that may not have words, musicians and listeners often have their own cultural language centered around discussing and sharing music. Indeed, without music, it is doubtful that any of us would speak the way we do now, or that language and communication would develop the way we recognize them.
So for language learners, the question is: can music help you learn a foreign language? Like with many questions surrounding language learning, the answer is fairly complex. Even though listening to music was probably a large part of your development within your own native tongue, using it to study a foreign language later in life can be a bit different.
There are many different genres of music, which enjoy varying levels of popularity. There are also a lot of geographically or culturally significant genres of music which may or may not be present in the language you want, (such as Japanese enka, or American folk). Aside from these pitfalls, there is also the question of content, since not all music contains good or varied vocabulary.
So, can music help you learn a foreign language? Well, in order to get our heads wrapped around this, we will need to take a closer look at a few different things. The first thing we will want to look at is the details of language learning itself.
How Humans Learn Language
When you first start out as a baby making your first few babbling sounds, your brain is working in overdrive to absorb as much information as possible. Babies are constantly paying attention to how people look when they talk, how they sound, and how others react to certain sounds that are recognized.
As this process continues, more and more words become recognized, and more informational context is absorbed, which gives rise to structured language. Even still, it takes children a long time to hone this skill and begin speaking like adults. Many humans never actually achieve full mastery of their own language, but that is a discussion for another time.
Once children have enough language learned that they can hold their own, they are then taught specific minutia about the language, and how to use it properly. As they progress, it becomes more and more complex, until they have an ingrained mastery of linguistic communication. Once reaching this point, people are able to interpret language even when it is incorrect, identify new words and understand them passively, and even make up new words based on cultural context and whim.
Obviously, music itself plays a large role in this, but it is by far the only thing shaping the development of young speakers. That being said, it definitely plays a large role in linguistic development.
So How Does Music Tie Into This?
Music with lyrics forms a large part of our linguistic exposure throughout the early stages of development. Most humans are exposed to music long before they can talk, and listening to the music makes up a large portion of the early language learning process. This is why children’s shows, whether educational or indulgent, are typically centered around music.
Although our ability to passively absorb language information tends to kind of slow down as we age, our affinity for music typically does not. Music has been a part of our culture and ability to communicate probably since before humans were capable of speaking actual words. As a result, our enjoyment of music, and the role that it plays in our development, remains a deeply seated part of our psyche as human beings.
Most people, especially those who practice memorization, will be aware of the mnemonic effects of music. Sequences of sound associated with pieces of information make it easier to recall that information when presented with such a sequence. The most obvious example of this is our ability to passively memorize song lyrics, despite only rarely retaining small parts of speech, when it is unaccompanied by music.
In short, music helps us learn things by giving us something to help us remember them. You can probably think of a few words that you learned directly from a song. In fact there is a good example of this phenomenon as it related to language learning that most people will be aware of.
There is a song, by Labelle, called Lady Marmalade. The chorus of this song repeats a now well-known phrase in French: voulez vous coucher avec moi? In English, the phrase translates to will you sleep with me? Many people familiar with the song can probably remember the chorus very easily, which demonstrates the mnemonic effect of music.
That being said, there are many aspects of language that music is not effective for teaching. Indeed, there are even a few areas where reliance upon music for language studies may actually hurt your ability to speak the language properly. In order to get a better idea of what music can and can’t do for us, we will need to take a look at the pros and cons of learning a language through music.
Pros And Cons
There are a few distinct advantages to learning language with music, some of which we already discussed:
- Music provides a mnemonic device for learning language, making it easier and more natural to memorize words.
- There is a wide variety of different vocabulary within music, as long as you keep it varied.
- There are many different genres of music to choose from, with each language typically having their own unique spin on common genres such as rock, or rap.
- Using music to help learn a language can keep you learning quickly without burning out or getting bored.
That being said, there are also a few ways in which learning a language with music can be a disadvantage, such as:
- Most popular genres of music have very little verbal variety. This means that you will learn certain phrases over and over again, without reinforcing other aspects of the language.
- Some genres of music, especially in certain cultures, are instrumental, and cannot directly help you study language. Although it is still possible to study the artists or cultural impact, the music itself has no vocabulary or grammar.
- It is easy to learn atypical dialects, or incorrect words and phrases from music without realizing it, unless you take very careful measures to avoid this.
- It can be difficult for people learning a language to differentiate satirical or ironic content in music, which makes it more likely that you will misinterpret certain words or phrases.
As you can see, while using music to help learn a language can be very effective, there are a number of disadvantages that can have a serious negative impact on your learning if you are not careful. The lesson here is that, just like any other aspect of learning language, one must be careful and responsible in making sure they aren’t reinforcing bad habits.
So What Is Music Actually Good For?
Vocabulary. There is no greater tool for the student of vocabulary than a varied playlist of good music. Listening to music you like, in a language you don’t understand, will teach you some vocab even if you aren’t trying to learn it. The earlier example of Lady Marmalade is a perfect demonstration of this.
As long as you take care to properly research the vocab you learn, and keep the music varied, you will most likely learn a whole lot of vocabulary from music. You can even study by singing to yourself when you are at work or home alone getting other things done.
Another cool thing about this is that while it is easy to learn bad phrases and grammar from music, learning singular words and their meanings is largely insulated against this kind of pitfall. As long as you take the time to study the meanings of the words you are learning, it will be almost impossible for you to reinforce bad habits through music in terms of vocabulary.
Obviously, grammar, irony, satire, and other things in this vein are a little different, but vocabulary itself is one of the easiest things to learn from music. After all, a large portion of our native vocabularies was most likely learned from our own playlists, or the playlists of our childhood.
So, Can Music Help You Learn A Foreign Language?
This is one of the more promising aspects of language learning. Just like with anything else, there are some advantages and disadvantages. However, when studying with music, as long as it is done responsibly and with dedication to progress, there is no reason that it can’t help you along your way.
It’s just a question of whether or not you’re willing to take the time to make sure you’re listening to the right music, and taking the right attitude towards it. When a catchy playlist is a part of your daily studies, it makes learning a language that much easier.