Music for The Language-Learning Win!

Bird-song-phonographHave you ever heard a jingle for a product and couldn’t get it out of your head? (♪ “Get a Jeep, get a Jeep, get it cheap, cheap, cheap!”♫) There are songs associated with all sorts of brands—car insurance, cat food, even law firms. And why do you think that businesses go to the trouble of making up catchy tunes about their services or merchandise? It’s the same reason why preschoolers all over the nation sing the ABC’s: music is a mnemonic device.

What is a mnemonic device?

It’s a technique that enables you to remember something. There are all types of mnemonics. For example, if you wanted to remember the names of all the Great Lakes, you could simply think of the acronym H.O.M.E.S.—Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. Or, if you need to remember the order of operations in math, you can come up with a sentence like Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally (Parentheses, Exponents, Multiply, Divide, Add, Subtract). That uses the first letter of each term to create a more memorable sentence.

Possibly the most popular mnemonic device is music. Last year, British physician Tapas Mukherjee wrote lyrics about asthma treatments and set them to the tune of a popular song. (♪ “You’ll say, ‘Asthma’s really easy, give Salbutamol for wheezing . . . ’”♫) He got the idea after he was appalled to find out that less than half of the staff at his hospital followed protocol when treating asthma patients. After the song circulated the hospital (and the cybersphere), the staff was polled. The number of employees using the recommended treatment had jumped to 80 percent. Clearly, the connection between music and memory is a strong one.

What about music for learning languages?

If you can use music to memorize asthma guidelines, why not use it to help you remember new vocabulary in a second language? According to research from Johns Hopkins Medicine, music and language are processed in the same area of the brain. And in addition to memory benefits, listening to songs in your target language will help you improve your pronunciation, stress patterns, and syntax.

For best results 

To get the most language learning out of your music, consider the following guidelines:

  • It’s best to have at least some sort of foundation in the language first. You don’t need a ton, but if a language is so foreign to you that you can’t tell where one word ends and another begins, you might not have as much success as you’d like.
  • Ask native speakers of your target language for music recommendations. Sometimes it’s hard to know where to get started.
  • Pick a genre that you like in your native language. This one’s obvious: the more you enjoy the music, the more you’ll listen to it, the more exposure you’ll have, more you’ll remember, etc.
  • Find the lyrics and read along as you listen. Sometimes it’s hard know what a singer is saying even in your native language (“Yellow Ledbetter,” anyone?), so once you’ve got the words all figured out, it’ll be easier to sing along and practice your new language.
  • Look up unfamiliar words. If you’re going to be hearing them over and over, it’ll be nice to know what they mean.


What’s your favorite song in a language you’re learning?

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