How to absorb a foreign language with music

I love traveling. And I love connecting with people I meet abroad. That’s why I love learning foreign languages.

For me, learning a new language is not about textbooks, flashcards, endless lists of vocabulary, and weird grammar rules.

For me, learning a new language is about communication. It’s about relationships, and meeting people you connect with. 

 

Failing first

I tried so many different approaches over the last few years.

Apps, flashcards, textbooks, speaking online, conversations in real life, games, … you name it.

And none of those worked great for me. None of those truly made me a better language learner. Sure, most of them work… over a long period of time. But, first, I was bored. And, second, I always want to challenge myself, to push my limits. When I start learning a new language, I know it’s going to take time. Yet, at the same time, I’m willing to do whatever it takes to accelerate the process.

I’m not talking about hacks or shortcuts here. I’m talking about asking yourself what truly works. Like the 80-20 principle on steroids.

Of all the different approaches I tried, I couldn’t find one that I enjoyed and that really worked for me.

Until I decided to discard everything.

Until I decided to forget everything I knew about language hacking.

Until I decided to go back to the basics and to keep it simple. And when I say simple, I mean f*cking simple. My method boils down to only one thing: Memorize songs.

 

A simpler approach

Let me explain. Memorizing songs is exhausting. In fact, memorizing anything is exhausting. Even in your native language. So what do I mean by memorize songs exactly?

When you love a song, you listen to it over and over and over again. Until it becomes natural for you to sing along, without really thinking about it. You can’t say that you know the lyrics by heart, because you still need to hear the music to be able to sing along. You’re not in parrot mode. You need that small musical hint to spark your brain and to suddenly remember the lyrics. See what I mean? I’m sure you can name a song or two (your favorite songs I suppose) where you’ve experienced this situation. And that’s what I mean by Memorize songs.

I tried learning lyrics by heart. But it was arduous, and I didn’t enjoy the process. Instead, you keep things simple, you sing along, and you repeat (A LOT!). And you naturally absorb the song. It’s easier said than done of course. You need massive repetition in order to absorb a song. But the more you listen to it, the more you sing along, and the more you feel at ease with the lyrics and the language.

 

The step-by-step method

  1. Find a song in your target language (YouTube, Spotify, Soundcloud, …). I usually start with Disney songs (just type “[title of your favorite Disney movie] [your target language]” in YouTube). Then, search for “[your target language] billboard” to find the most popular songs in your target language at the moment. Maybe you won’t like any of them, but that’s just a starting point. That’s just you putting your foot in the door. Finding one artist will give you the opportunity to find many other artists of the same language.
  2. Find the lyrics and their translation (Lyrics Translate, Musixmatch, YouTube, Google, …).
  3. Listen to the whole song once, without lyrics. Just to feel it.
  4. Now start with the last line. Listen to it several times, with and without lyrics. Repeat what you hear, with and without music. Until you can sing along without looking at the lyrics.
  5. Then move on to the previous line. Repeat the same process, and when you feel comfortable, sing the two lines together with the music. Don’t feel bad if you need to look at the lyrics! Chill. Enjoy the process, use the lyrics if needed. The goal is simply to absorb the song, and to feel good while singing along.
  6. And so on, until the first line of the song.

 

Why starting with the last line?

Because you naturally repeat the first lines over and over again. You hear them more often than the last lines. That’s just the way it is. The gravity of music I guess. First lines come first. So, force the process, and start with the last verse, with the last line, to bring balance to the force. It may feel weird at the beginning, but you’ll get used to it.

 

When you think about it, it’s not really about memorizing songs. It’s more about absorbing songs. To eventually absorb the language.

There’s no magic here. How did you learn your mother tongue as a child? Massive repetition. Massive exposure. The good news is that now you’re a grown-up. A child needs several years to absorb her mother tongue. You, instead, need only a few weeks, or a few months, to absorb a new language. Your brain is already fully functional. And you’ve developed your ear and the different muscles in your mouth, jaw, tongue and throat to repeat what you hear.

Now you may be wondering: “Ok cool kiddo, but how do you think I’m going to learn vocabulary and grammar?!”

Well, how did you learn vocabulary and grammar as a child? By spending hours reading a textbook? Or playing with flashcards? Or simply by getting massive exposure and repetition to your native language via your parents and relatives?

If you look at learning a foreign language like downloading a huge file into your brain, then absorbing a new song is like downloading 1GB of this huge file. And you’re going to need dozens, maybe hundreds, of these small components in order to get the whole file.

 

Absorb songs. Have faith in the process. And you’re going to absorb vocabulary and grammar naturally. It may seem like magic, but it’s not. All you need is some songs, the lyrics, and a translation.

Give it a try. And see how it goes.

Worst-case scenario: You end up being able to sing a bunch of foreign songs, and you become the center of attention at every party you go to.

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