How music helped me learn languages

Back in 2015, I was fortunate enough to go on a school Spanish exchange to Salamanca. As is the case every year, us fourteen-year-old Brits were astounded at how the Spanish students were strides ahead of us in terms of speaking their second language. Many spoke English as though it were their mother tongue and showed a sophisticated awareness of complex phrases, while we were struggling to manage anything more than “sí”. However, it soon became apparent how these Spaniards were so much better than us.

Our exchanges spent their free time quite literally immersing themselves in the English language. After school, they would watch hours of American sitcoms – most of which weren’t dubbed but instead had Spanish subtitles. Most shockingly, they listened to English music non-stop. The family I stayed with often had musicians like Ed Sheeran or Adele playing in the background of their house and until then, I had naively never considered how prominent the English language was outside of the English-speaking world. No wonder we couldn’t compete with our Spanish contemporaries – they actively immersed themselves in another language every day.

The repetition and catchiness of songs help us to remember snippets of information. For instance, if I were to ask you what letter comes before ‘L’ in the alphabet, you would likely start singing the alphabet song

Without a doubt, language immersion is the single best way to learn a language. Although watching international TV shows and movies offers huge benefits, it is music which provides the best means for language learning. There is something about it which is simply universal – after all, what do chart toppers like ‘Gangnam Style’ and ‘Macarena’ have in common? No one cares that they cannot really understand what the lyrics mean – it is their rhythm and catchiness which attracts us. Gloria Estefan was right: “The rhythm is gonna get you.”

Many linguists swear by studying with music because it stimulates memory. The repetition and catchiness of songs help us to remember snippets of information. For instance, if I were to ask you what letter comes before ‘L’ in the alphabet, you would likely start singing the alphabet song. Catchy jingles like this are engrained in our minds as children to enable us to learn huge amounts of data with ease. Other popular examples include: ‘I ate and I ate and I was sick on the floor’ to remember that ‘eight times eight is sixty-four’, or ‘in fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.’ It is therefore unsurprising that music can offer a more successful alternative for retaining information, such as new vocabulary, than meaninglessly reading vocab lists from a textbook. For instance, I remember learning the word ‘corazón’ (Spanish for heart) due to its common usage in music.

It makes studying fun a necessary task during the frequent frustrations that come with learning a language!

Beyond the memory-related benefits of listening to music, exposure to the sounds and tones of the words is equally advantageous for the language learner. When we listen to songs we like, we tend to start singing them, and in doing so, it is natural for us to reproduce the sounds in the way that it is originally sang. For instance, if you were singing ‘Party in the USA’ by Miley Cyrus, you would probably be subconsciously pronouncing the lyrics with an American accent, so as to imitate the original sound. This transfers to languages as it is far easier to make your British accent less pronounced by copying the music you hear. My Spanish mentor and friend, Maggie Kemp, has always preached the value in listening to music to aid language learning: “It’s much easier to pronounce another language in a song, rather than in speech, as songs are repetitive and offer a great way to learn phrases. This is fun and not so monotonous… plus, you’ll learn a lot of grammar and vocabulary! When Luis Fonsi released ‘Despacito’, everyone singing it would do so word perfectly.”

Music has not only helped me to develop my Spanish accent but also offers a great means to reduce stress, foster positivity, and relax. It makes studying fun – a necessary task during the frequent frustrations that come with learning a language! As a Spanish student at university, I regularly listen to such music and have a specific playlist for it on my Spotify account – as do many of my fellow language students. Artists like Pablo Alboran, Ozuna, Shakira, Enrique Igesias and CNCO are personal favourites – I even went to a Pablo Alboran concert in London in 2019. Listening to this playlist has always helped me to get into the right mindset – in fact, I have made it a ritual to listen to Spanish music just before a language exam or assignment to get in the zone.

Ironically, music from Latin America was one of the first things that drew me to the language. Although I am biased, I find its colourful, lively style of music to be the best by far – listening to it, you can’t help but feel good! It is so exciting, upbeat and boasts some of the catchiest songs in the world. You only have to watch shows like Strictly Come Dancing to realise the enormous influence that this music has had on our culture, with Latin dances like the salsa, cha cha, samba, tango and paso doble being among the most popular to watch. Others may prefer international music like K-pop, Bollywood, reggae – the list is endless.

Music is a very personal thing and if you are looking to use it as a tool for language learning, I would recommend listening to the style that you enjoy. Whether that be rap, pop or more traditional songs, the benefits extend to all genres and it is far better to listen to what you like. Put it on in the background to normalise it, go through the international charts, branch out, and simply immerse yourself in different types of music. Even if you are not learning a language, it can still be really refreshing to listen to songs that you usually wouldn’t. At the very least, it may provide some much needed entertainment and relief from the stress of everyday life. Music is truly an outlet like no other, and it offers great opportunity to increase your fluency in another language.

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