25 February 2011

Music, maestro!

Having discussed films and videos, I thought it would make sense to talk about music next.

Can music help you learn?  Certainly, but again, in a limited way.

At all stages of learning, a song or two can help you increase your vocabulary.  But whenever I start learning a language, I find myself blinding mimicking streams of sound and never really getting much out of it.  The best thing you can get out of songs as a beginner is the rhythm of the language.


In order for a song to teach you the rhythm of the language, it has to be in that rhythm, and as you'll know from your own language, some types of music take liberties with the rhythm.  In particular, this is a problem when a foreign genre is brought in.  Listen to English-language "Latin" music from people like Gloria Estefan and Ricky Martin: the rhythm seems very rigid and mechanical, because it's a Spanish-language rhythm, not an English one.  So if you go into a foreign language music shop looking for the type of music you normally listen to in your own language, you'll be selling yourself short.

How about as an advanced learner?
Well, as I said last week, I find films and TV more useful in learning to understand things that I have already learned to some extent elsewhere.  The same goes for songs.  When I should know most of a song, then I can train myself to hear the words.  It may not be very "iPod generation", but I still like albums.  With an album in a foreign language, I start by listening a few times.  Once I've got a favourite song, I learn it with help from Mr Google and the many lyrics sites on-line.
Having learned to sing it, I can hear the words clearly when I listen to it again.

But that isn't the end of it, because learning to hear the words of one song seems to teach me to understand not only the song, but the singer, and as a result, I start to hear more of the words in the other songs.  After a while, I'll learn a second song from the album, then possibly even a third.  By this point, most of what the singer says is pretty clear to me.  (Obviously there's other words I don't know.)

However, the biggest limit to the usefulness of songs is "poetic license" -- every songwriter will play around with language to make it fit the tune, so a song isn't a good model of a language.  For example, in the chorus of the French song La Lettre, Renan Luce ends one line with "jeu" (or, later, "enjeu") and then reuses that as the word "je" for the start of the next line.  It's not "good" French, but it's clever songwriting (and it's a good song).

Don't be fooled into thinking that you can make a whole education out of songs.  Don't even think of songs as too much a part of your "learning", but as a way to fill time between study sessions.


Anonymous said...

I've heavily used music in my study of Korean (including spending time translating lyrics to English for practice), and strongly recommend it (even if only as a way to get addicted to *something* in the target language) but I do have to agree with the potential confusion that poetic license can cause.

Korean sentences end in verbs and generally follow the SOV word order. However, in music lyrics it isn't uncommon to see a sentence ending in a completely different part of speech (likely only due to the fact that it fit the rhythm and/or rhyming better). Korean uses particle endings to signify grammatical function (subject particles, direct object particles, etc.) which makes it much easier to get away with this and still make perfect sense, but it can still be very baffling to beginners.

Another similar issue is that Korean songs often include bits of English in the song (even going as far as having the entire chorus in English for some pop songs). What comes across as particularly odd, though, is when they have a sentence that is part English and part Korean and opt to use English word order for the overall sentence.

Fasulye said...

For me listening to popmusic CDs of my Romance languages while reading the songtext is a relaxing fun game, not serious language study. What more effective is are my guitar lessons that I give. My pupil doesn't speak English and she has to sing songs in English. So I have to write vocabulary lists for her, teach her the correct pronounciation of the English words and translate parts of the sontexts to her. This is of course language intensive for me as her guitar teacher. Fasulye