learning a language with song lyrics

Lately I’ve been doing a little experiment in using songs to learn more Swedish. Previously, I was skeptical about the value of music as a source of language input, but I’ve changed my mind somewhat.

The main issue for me was that there was very little content compared to a book. There are only so many songs available, and they are each rather short, being much less content than a page of text. They also don’t guide you in proper pronunciation as much, because they are sung and not spoken (which is even more problematic in Chinese where the tones of the words get mostly ignored when sung).

There are two reasons that I changed my mind and started using songs and recommending the practice to others. One is motivation. This is the primary barrier to any language-learning quest. If you can keep yourself interested in it for long enough, then you win. Frequently the only reason for losing is lacking that drive to continue. Songs help with this because they’re catchy and therefore listening to them seems less like work and more like fun. This is especially true for people who have trouble getting motivated to listen to an audiobook, but will happily groove to some tunes all day at work.

The second reason is about memory. Songs have extra tonal / musical data in them that will help you remember words and phrases. Any sort of out-of-band information like this will increase your recall of the words and phrases. The tune of the song will act as a mnemonic. The other part of this is repetition. Because of the short length of songs, and their catchy / addictive nature, it’s inevitable that you’ll listen to each song many times over. This will really help drive home whatever lessons you might learn from that particular song. I think almost everyone has experienced getting a song “stuck in your head” such that you can’t stop it from repeating in your mind over and over. This means that your brain is doing its own repetitions, even when you’re not actually listening to the song. Free work!

So how can you actually learn something from the songs instead of just hearing some sounds hit your ears? This depends a bit on your level in the language. If you’re already pretty good, you might just need to listen to the song multiple times and you’ll understand a bit more of it each time. This can be augmented by reading a transcript of the lyrics. For many of us, though, even a transcript of the lyrics is not enough because we don’t know the meanings of a lot of the new words. In this case, just go look up the translation of the whole set of song lyrics using google translate.

What I generally do is search for the song lyrics, and then paste the whole thing into google translate and look through the result. I compare the translated lines to the original lines and try to figure out each of the words in the original, and make sure that I understand each line. Then I cover up the translation and try to read through the whole song again while understanding each line. My goal is to understand as much of the song in the original language as possible, and then go and listen to it a bunch more. This way, each time you listen, it’s reminding you of those sentences from the lyrics that you already put in the effort of understanding.

You don’t actually have to understand the whole song in one sitting, but just understand what you can. You can iterate this process as much as you want, adding to your understanding later. The only necessary part is that you should try and spend some active mental energy on understanding the lyrics rather than just listening to a bunch of sounds over and over again. When the lyrics are sung, you want to understand what was said rather than just enjoying the song.

Have fun!


2 Responses to learning a language with song lyrics

  1. starhedgehog says:

    Songs have been one of my favorite language learning methods for quite long time. I’ve noticed that it really helps to learn the pronunciation and helps with accent reduction. And sometimes I end up learning alternative ways to say some common things.

  2. Warp3 says:

    I’ve been using lyrics quite a bit for learning Korean. They occasionally get “loose” with the grammar and prosody doesn’t really flow the same in that form, but (as you noted) it is hard to beat the built-in repetition and motivation that it offers. Once I learn the meaning of a phrase in a song I like, it is virtually impossible to forget that meaning afterward.

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