Have you ever wondered whether you could learn a foreign language by listening to songs? Or are you learning with a set plan, but want to bring something fresh into the process? Whatever your reasons may be, in this article, we will try to give an answer to all those who are thinking whether songs are a suitable way of learning a foreign language. We’ll discuss their pros and cons and tell you what to watch out for when trying to learn a foreign language from songs.
We don’t want to disappoint you, but songs are not a very good way to learn a foreign language. The time you spend listening to them could be used much more effectively. For instance, like this:
In this case, we recommend opting for a more effective method such as listening to podcasts or watching series. Songs tend to be full of metaphors and various stylistic devices. Those might not be very useful to you in normal conversation. On the contrary, in podcasts, you can hear language as it is spoken in everyday situations.
Furthermore, our brain only remembers things it can understand. If you’re listening to a song whose lyrics you don’t understand, you’ll only remember its tune and possibly the chorus, which usually repeats several times.
However, if you listen to a podcast, i.e., a monologue or a dialogue on a specific topic, you might not understand all the words, but you’ll probably be able to summarize the basic ideas from the given episode afterwards. In the case of songs, even native speakers are often left to wonder what on earth the lyrics are about.
Be careful what you write down! Songwriters often make “purposeful mistakes” to make the lyrics rhyme better or make them easier to sing. We could list hundreds of examples in any language, but we’re just going to show you a few in English, so that everyone can imagine what we mean. For instance:
Bilingual books are a much more reliable source of new vocabulary. These are books written in two languages – one on the left and one on the right pages. This means you can easily verify the meaning and translation of new words and phrases.
If you want to sound more like a native speaker, just listening to songs is simply not enough. It’s much better to listen to lots of podcasts, series or audiobooks, in which the pronunciation is much clearer than in songs. Singers often rush and “swallow” syllables in order to fit the lyrics into the tune.
First of all, we’d like to stress one more time that songs alone are not a sufficient listening material. But if you enjoy listening to your foreign language in the form of music as well, we don’t see a reason why you shouldn’t! Despite all the things we said about them, there are some good things about songs as well. That’s why they can be a suitable supplement to your systematic learning:
When we listen to songs in a language we don’t speak, it’s usually not a problem. We simply focus on the melody and don’t pay attention to the lyrics. That’s why you can listen to foreign-language songs even when you are with people who don’t understand them (e.g., at home, in the car with your friend, at work…). Just imagine their reaction if you played an episode of a French podcast instead!
TIP: Listen to radio channels from all around the globe! On the Radio Garden website, you can find every internet radio from literally any country in the world, even tiny ones like Fiji! Simply choose the country whose radio you want to listen to and voila – you can listen away!
If you find a song with a catchy chorus, you’ll definitely end up absentmindedly singing or humming it later. It definitely helps if the lyrics rhyme and the chorus repeats several times. However, this will only be useful if you can understand the meaning of the words and recognize grammatical errors (if there are any). Otherwise, you might just “make the lyrics up” and end up “stapling the vicar” like Peter Kay. 🙂
TIP: Look up song lyrics on the Internet. Simply type the name of the song and the artist into the search bar, add “lyrics” (for English), “Text” (for German), “letra” (for Spanish), “paroles” (for French) or “testi” (for Italian), and hit Enter. Write the lyrics down on a piece of paper or print them out and translate them.
Apart from the purposeful grammar mistakes we mentioned earlier, you should also watch out for the vocabulary used in songs, which might contain lots of slang and other substandard expressions. Of course, that depends on the musical genre. However, in modern songs, you’ll often find vocabulary which is less than suitable for polite conversation.
Moreover, some innocent-sounding expressions can have a completely different meaning to what you may imagine. If you’re not sure about a word or a phrase you found in a song, check it on the Internet. Sometimes, a simple Google search is all you need to do. Look through the results of your search and find out what context(s) the word is used in. For example, if English is not your native language, do you know the real meaning of the phrase “Netflix and chill”?
If you like to sing, learn the lyrics by heart and sing along! You can actually find karaoke versions of many famous songs on YouTube! That way, you won’t hear the singer, just the melody. You will even see the lyrics on the screen in most cases.
If you like music and enjoy listening to songs, it’s only natural for you to look for songs in your foreign language. You can really find a lot of them on the Internet. For example, you’ll definitely discover lots of great music on YouTube! Learners of English have it super easy, but there are TONS of songs in other languages, too! Music streaming services like Spotify or Tidal come with many ready-made playlists, so if you want to listen to Latino hits in Spanish, you can easily find them with just a few clicks.
TIP: Challenge yourself and create a playlist of songs that have something in common. For example, songs about a specific topic, ones that feature a certain grammatical phenomenon or, even better, your favorite songs in the language you’re learning! For example, we’ve created a playlist which only contains songs that have a phrasal verb in the chorus. It features big hits such as “Shut Up and Dance”, “Show Must Go On”, “Never Give Up” or “Turn Off The Light”. You can find the whole playlist here if you’re looking for inspiration! 🙂
Listening to songs is fun and it can be a great way to freshen up your learning, but don’t forget that it’s not the most effective way to improve your foreign language skills. If you’re frustrated by the fact that you’re still watching series with subtitles and even after years of learning, you don’t understand native speakers, it’s possible that you’ve been using the wrong methods all this time. Don’t just rely on short listening exercises that you find in textbooks. If you want to see real progress, you have to regularly do lots of effective listening practice.
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The author of this blog post is Hana Jokelová, member of the Language Mentoring team.
Language Mentoring provides a complete guide for learning any language using simple and often free resources on the internet and in bookshops. It was founded by polyglot, language mentor and author of this website, Lýdia Machová, PhD., in 2016. She's learned 9 languages by herself and she adds another one every other year. Her philosophy is that everybody can learn a language regardless talent, age or other qualities – if they know how to do it.