I’ll never forget the time my college Spanish teacher made us all choose songs to sing out loud in Spanish. Singing out loud was not something I was accustomed to in English, much less in Spanish. I chose Manu Chao’s “El Desaparacido” and practiced all week in my dorm room. Mercifully, somehow I was forgotten and I never had to perform in front of my class. One boy, who was very quiet and hardly ever spoke, sang a beautiful rendition of “Ojala” by Silvio Rodriguez. I had not heard it before and was absolutely haunted by its beauty. It is now one of my favorite songs, and I’ve learned all the words and can basically translate the song into English.
I don’t remember much else from that Spanish class, but more than anything, the music helped me set up a foundation of how to take Spanish and apply to my small corner of the world. Not only does music immediately contextualize a foreign language, it makes learning and speaking (or singing!) much more fun. Music can be a wonderful tool for learning another language and expanding your cultural fluency at the same time. Here’s how you use it.
1. Start With Children’s Music
Nursery rhymes, poems, and simple children’s music are easy and digestible ways to pick up a new language. Not only are they catchy, but they tend to have lots of repetition. 15 years later, I can still sing “Mon âne, mon âne / A bien mal à la tête / Madame lui fit faire / Un bonnet pour sa fête” (my donkey, my donkey, has a headache, Madame made him a hat for his party) from my first-ever French class. Yes it’s silly, but if I ever come across those words in French, I always know what they mean. Every language has its fair share of traditional children’s songs and lullabys, and you can find them easily with a quick Google search.
2. Find Other Songs In A Genre You Like
Look for songs in a genre you like. A nice place to start might be browsing the “Top 100” charts in your chosen language. If you like classic rock or time-honored folk music, search for the “greatest music of all time in (language).” Find the most famous musicians in your language or the country that speaks that language. I know I’ve definitely learned some handy French words and phrases from Serge Gainsbourg and Carla Bruni. When you start exploring classic musical icons, you learn new music but you also get a window into a new culture.
3. Look Up The Lyrics As You Listen
Usually if you hear a song in a foreign language, you aren’t going to pick up on all the words. Songs use slang and casual phrasing, so you probably won’t be familiar with everything the artist is saying. That’s why it’s helpful to read through the lyrics as you listen to the music. Do this a few times, and you’ll actually understand what’s being said.
4. Translate All The Lyrics You Don’t Understand
Even if you think you understand the general gist of the song, take the time to put those lyrics into a translator online, or find English translations of the lyrics. You might be surprised at the new levels of understanding that are created when you can see the full song written out in your native language. Then, go back and listen to the song again, while looking at the English translation. Can you follow along reasonably well?
5. Sing, Sing, Sing
The final (and perhaps dreaded) step is to sing your newly-acquired song. If you’re too embarrassed to do it in front of other people, just practice in your room when you’re alone. You’ll find that after going through this detailed research process, you’ll be at least partially able to sing along. Knowing a song in another language is a great test of all of your skills - it’s reading, comprehension, and speaking all in one. You’re even telling a story when you sing out loud.
The best part of learning through music is that it really doesn’t feel like studying. You’re absorbing culture, vocabulary, and grammar, without even realizing it. Many of the world’s most famous musicians were multilingual bl(Mozart spoke French, Italian, and German - coincidence? Don’t think so!). Your brain works best when it’s associating words with other stimuli around you - pictures, people, places, and sounds. So learning through song is doing your brain a huge favor - you’re allowing yourself to store and process large amounts of information with relative ease.
At Fluent City, we won’t make you sing out loud in class (unless you want to!) but we’re pretty great at finding creative and innovative ways to help you become multilingual. Check out our upcoming classes today.