When learning a new language – any language – there are never enough resources of knowledge. The key to learning is thus to surround yourself with the language, read, write, listen, speak, see it and hear it everywhere. Therefore, it is so much easier to learn English in the U.K. or America than from home. However, most of us don’t have the opportunity to do that. Luckily, there are ways to learn without leaving your house. Using music to do just that is one simple and fun method.
In case you were wondering…
How can I use music to learn English? I can’t always understand the lyrics and I can’t really pick up on the pronunciation when a person sings instead of speaks. Well, there are ways around that, don’t worry. In this article, I will give you some practical advice and recommend some songs that are a great place to start, but first…
Why is music helpful?
In a different italki article, it was suggested that music can inspire you to learn and be a good source for discovering new vocabulary, expressions etc. However, there is more to utilizing music (to learn English) than just that.
I’m an educated musician. In fact, my whole family is made of musicians: my parents, my brother, his wife and her sisters, and my partner. I can’t imagine my life without music. The same goes for languages, as we are a multi-nationality family and it is quite normal to hear people speaking in different languages from time to time. One thing that I have noticed is that there are so many similarities between a language and music, and not just because we use them both to transfer messages and meanings (though they use different ways of communicating those meanings).
Namely, both music and language are focused primarily on sound, although both can be written as well. In other words, when we speak and when we make music we are producing sounds that have some kind of melody, and often, that very melody is responsible for carrying meaning. You don’t need to know the language to understand that a person is angry at you. You can come to that conclusion by noticing that they are speaking loudly and in a high-pitched voice. Another important similarity is that both music and language are learned through imitation, by repeating what you heard. You repeat a melody of the word, putting the stress on the right letter, etc.
Of course, these connections might not be obvious to someone who didn’t go through musical training, which is where the actual music comes in. Singing certain words enables you to attach a melody to the word or expression or, put differently, they “release” the melody of any language. You probably noticed that it isn’t easy to sing in every language – it is known that Italian is much better in this respect than, for example, French. Some historians have argued that the “natural melody” of the Italian language is the main reason why opera appeared in Florence and not in another place.
Also, the music of the song itself relies greatly on the language and how many vowels there are in a word, etc. Just think of an Italian song with long melodies and so many notes sung on one word, versus a French one that has so many words and can even sound more like a recitation than a song. But both sound equally beautiful, even if you don’t understand the words.
English and pop songs
The same conclusions can of course be drawn from listening to a song in English. And no pop song is more popular than one coming from the Anglo-Saxon world – be it North America, the United Kingdom, or any other English-speaking country. Listening to a lot of music in English can be beneficial because:
- You will learn new words and expressions as well as colloquial terms and slang.
- You will get used to different pronunciations and accents.
- You will pick up on the melody of the language.
- Your subconscious will accept the language, it will get used to it, and it will, after a while, make it easier for you to consciously learn words, grammar, lexis, etc.
- Therefore, it is good to listen to music in English even if you are not fully focused on it – and let’s face it, most of us listen to it that way as background music. Your mind will remember the sound of the language and at one point, you will realize that you just know that a sentence sounds wrong, even if you don’t exactly know why.
- You will discover a bunch of new music and be able to better understand the hits you heard so many times but never understood what they were really about.
- Music is addictive. Once you find an artist or a band you like, you won’t be able to stop listening to their music. You will look for more and more, you will want to know what they are saying, and your English skills will keep on improving.
So, I propose the following method of actively listening to music:
- Choose a song (suggestions below).
- Listen to it at least once without reading the lyrics and try to figure out the meaning of the words. You will probably need to listen to the song more than once in order to understand everything. Don’t be discouraged if you only understand a few words at first.
- If possible, listen to the song with headphones. That way you won’t be distracted by sounds from the environment and you will be “closer” to the music and the words.
- You can start with a simpler pop song that doesn’t have too many words and is mainly focused on love, and then build from there.
- Find the lyrics. Many are available at lyrics.com or Metro Lyrics.
- Don’t read the lyrics on their own, but play the song and follow the words. That way, you will connect the sound of the word to the visuals.
- Find the words you don’t understand and try to figure out their meaning from the context.
- Consult a dictionary.
- Repeat with a new song.
- If you find a song that you really like, keep listening to it over and over until you learn it by heart.
- And finally, sing in the shower! Release your voice and enjoy.
If you are a curious person, interested in history, or in learning more about an artist or a song, research them as well. You will probably find reasons for the song being composed or the lyrics being written in that precise way.
Finally, these are some of my suggestions:
For those who enjoy dark humor, I recommend Monty Python - “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. It is definitely going to make you feel better and also reveal some common expressions used by British people, such as “jolly good” or “rotten” (for “bad”). Remember, Monty Python humor is a bit twisted, but it can be a great introduction to British culture.
Pharrell Williams – “Happy” is a big hit that is positive without the dark humor part. I guarantee that you will be singing “Clap along if you feel like that's what you wanna do” for the rest of the day.
Another song that will lift your spirits is Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry be happy”. Not only will it teach you not to worry, it will also help you remember some expressions used to describe life problems as well as certain ways people speak that are technically not correct: “Ain't got no place to lay your head, Somebody came and took your bed”.
“Somewhere over the Rainbow” is a legendary song from the movie The Wizard of Oz, and I recommend you listen to an amazing performance by Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwoʻole, or the original sung by young Judy Garland. Can you understand how we use the expression “somewhere over the rainbow?”
Any song by the Beatles is a good choice if you ask me, but I would recommend “All you Need is Love” (lyrics here), “Penny Lane” (good for learning the present simple tense – what do people do every day on Penny Lane?), or “Hey Jude” (lyrics here), which is perfect for understanding expressions like “play it cool” or “to carry the world on your shoulders”.
Remember, however you choose to learn English, make sure you enjoy it! Music will help you feel the language in which you are singing, it will activate your mind, and it will make the learning process faster and more fun. It is much easier to remember something if you sing!