Music and Language Learning

I take the position of many scholars before me that the study of foreign languages is inextricably part of a lifelong learning journey towards awareness of self and environment.

As a study, formal or informal, we seek measurable improvement by evaluating a variety of approaches.  Responses to the question “how does one best learn a foreign language?” range from the cold plunge of immersion into a foreign culture, to systematic autodidactic techniques, and arguments often arise about the importance of Input (reading and listening) vs. Output (writing and speaking), and the roles of Grammar and Vocabulary in learning. Perhaps one aspect of Foreign Language Learning which most acknolwedge, however, is the importance of Context, whether “context” is defined as a word in a sentence in a work of fiction or even as a real spontaneous experience on location in a foreign country.

For me, and for many people I have met, Music is an essential ingredient in the context of Life. Music provides a backdrop and accompaniment for real and imagined experiences. Music can carry lyrics on its melodies and transmit cross-border messages, but music itself also moves and touches us profoundly, nestling mysteriously in the depths of our memories.

I believe that people have a unique capacity for retaining and recalling lyrics and melodies, particularly the lyrics and melodies of songs they liked, found catchy, and/or had sung themselves. This seems to me to be a form of “effortless” learning: our brains can retain and recall the information often without any having made any deliberate attempt to force that information into or out of our heads.

Many academic learning modules as well as marketing campaigns have made use of familiar melodies or “jingles” as vehicles for retaining and recalling “hard to memorize” or foreign information.  I find this to be a kind of camouflaged infiltration into the body.

In foreign language learning, however, we are interested in more than just smooth word deliveries into our memories. We also seek Authentic cultural representations of the language; while music has the power to transport us beyond the world of words, its lyrics can simultaneously bring us down to Earth to the root of how a native language is actually used.

This task to broaden and deepen our relationship to music and language requires, at least, the combination of 1) proper Materials and Instruments, 2) time and attention devoted to the exposure and digestion of a variety of sources, and 3) a mindset based on open, observant improvisation.   This blog is primarily focused on providing filtered materials, which then require the attention and improvisation of language learners.

This last requirement, improvisation, is often overlooked in learning modules, or, in some cases, repositioned as positive thinking or attitude.  Rather than focus on attitude as an outward declaration, I propose the embrace of improvisation as an mindset open not just to the interesting and unpredictable, but also to spontaneous and fortifying tests of value that decorate our daily lives.   Thus, I try to select live versions of the songs whenever possible, and  I recommend that people make their own performances, live or via YouTube, as way to enliven this spirit of improvisation.

The goal of this blog is thus to make the learning of foreign languages more effortless by combining our capacity for retaining and recalling lyrics and melodies with our cognitive desire to understand how language is really used by native speakers in a contemporary creative fashion.

How to use this blog to learn or appreciate foreign language music:

1. Watch and Listen
Click on the YouTube link and watch and listen to the song. I try to select live performances, if possible, but sometimes official music videos are of better audio/video quality. Hopefully you’ll enjoy at least some part of the experience.

2. Original Lyrics
Using another window, follow along with the original lyrics and watching/listening to the song. Don’t worry about meaning at first. Instead try to get a general feel of How the song is. If the alphabet or writing system is different from that of our native language, try to connect the Way the lyrics look on the page to the Way the words are pronounced. If you want, you can even start singing along.

3. Original English translations
Here you may want to experiment with what works for you. For example, you can follow along with the English translation while listening/watching. You can also read the English translation a couple times through, just to get a feel for the meaning of the song. Note: I do not necessarily attempt to translate artistically, but rather directly in order to provide a thoughtful reference for a study of the Original lyrics. For this reason, I recommend using the translation in accordance with the section on Vocabulary and Etymology.

4. Vocabulary/Etymology and Grammar
Reading through the Original lyrics, use the translated lyrics and selected list of vocabulary and etymology to help link meaning to the foreign text. I try to show how some vocabulary is related to other human languages in order to expand the context and facilitate memory. I also provide grammar topic notes in order to explain potentially confusions and also to provide a fixed background or context for certain phrases and ways of constructing sentences.

5. Chords
Grab your guitar (or sit at your piano) and start playing and singing along, unless you are ready to make your own cover video for YouTube!


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