Use Music To Learn A Language

3 minute read

One hobby I've taken up during the quarantine of 2020 has been learning a new language. I've completed a couple language learning courses, but one free, self-directed method I use has proven to be very effective and a gift that keeps on giving: Find music in your target language and learn the language through its lyric translations.

Explore

The first step in this method is the most fun: Explore music in your target language. Create a new, empty playlist in your music streaming app of choice (or just start a list on paper) and add music you come across that you like. You can start with popularity charts, for your favorite musical genres, for countries that speak your target language.

You need to be very selective here; don't add songs that you don't really like. You need to really like a song so that

  1. You actually enjoy listening to the song over and over again and
  2. You're naturally interested in learning the lyrics.

Translate

Great, now you've found some songs you enjoy but you have no idea what the artist is actually saying. This is where the magic of Google comes in1.

Go to google.com and search for the name of the song, the name of the artist, and "lyrics". For example, nunca es suficiente los ángeles azules lyrics:

first page of results for nunca es suficiente los ángeles azules lyrics
First page of results for nunca es suficiente los ángeles azules lyrics

Now you have the lyrics for the song in just the song's language.

At the bottom of the lyrics you should see a button that says "Translate to English"2:

nunca-es-suficiente-los-ángeles-azules-lyrics-Translate-to-English

Click that button and you'll see the lyrics portion of the page change to provide line-by-line translations from the song's original language into English3:

nunca-es-suficiente-translated-to-english-portion

Engage

With your translation in front of you, review it line by line and try to make sense of what you can. First, give each line pairing a read through. Write down questions you have around grammar and vocabulary to capture your gaps in understanding.

Next, play the music and follow along with the words on screen as they're played. I recommend singing out loud. Again, write down questions you have around pronunciation to capture your gaps in understanding.

Why sing? Singing the words like the artist sings them will strengthen your pronunciation and advance your fluency.

In your listening, you may notice that the pronunciation of a given word varies depending on the sounds before and/or after them. Singing provides you with opportunities to practice these irregularities as well as general practice with the sounds of your target language.

Tip: If the words are being sung faster than you can track or pronounce at your current level of fluency, I recommend using YouTube to find and play the song at a reduced speed.

Do this by adjusting the "Playback speed" in the "Settings" of the player like so:

playback-speed

Do this read-listen-sing exercise for the whole song until you're satisfied that you've understood most of the lyrics and have committed most of it to memory.

Why just most? Because it's the best you and Google can do. You're going to encounter translations that are "strange" or just plain wrong for the given context.

mistranslation

At this point, you should have a list of questions from this song that you need to ask a native speaker. Ask them now. The more questions you ask, the more you'll be able to recognize mistranslations in the future and, of course, the more you'll learn in general.

And in the spirit of spaced repetition, don't forget to revisit this song from time to time so you don't forget your learnings. You do like this song after all, right?


In my experience, this has been a powerful way to learn and internalize real-world grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. It's fun and doesn't feel like studying at all. Plus, engaging with music further immerses yourself into the world of the language you're learning. And immersion is the single most effective way to learn a language.

And if you're curious, here is the song used as the example throughout this article:

What's your favorite self-directed language learning method? Tell me in the comments below.

  1. I say "Google" specifically, because I haven't seen other search engines perform translations inline, on the first page of results, like Google does. ↩︎

  2. This button's language will vary depending on the language Google detects for your computer and/or location. ↩︎

  3. See #2 above. This is English, for my computer and location. ↩︎

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