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Why learning a language is like learning a musical instrument

| 17 comments | Category: off topic

Here I am, at the starting stages of speaking a language once again, and I’m reminded of how it felt taking a similar first step into playing the piano and other instruments I’ve learned.

Since my feelings would likely be shared by others, I asked my friends on twitter how learning a language is like learning a musical instrument and I got the following interesting replies:

  • Both are about listening carefully and learning how to reproduce the sounds you hear. Then you add your own style (@pocketcultures)
  • You need persistence at first, and the rewards increase the better you get (@pocketcultures)
  • Schools are surprisingly crap at teaching it (@VladDolezal)
  • FUN!! (@VladDolezal)
  • To learn a language or instrument you need to keep at it. Practice every day, even if only for 10 minutes. (@Erinzita)
  • You can be terrible at it and still find it enriching. (@foxnomad)
  • You need to immerse, listen, produce, practice, understand unique patterning of sounds (@smittytabb)
  • With both, the more you learn the more you realise you have left to learn! (@Radioclare)
  • Both learning a language and playing a musical instrument take patience (esp. from parents/partners) but are so worth it! (@mikeo_s)
  • Practice every day / Practice vs. Use dichotomy / Much fast progress possible with dedication / Personally edifying (@markitecht)
  • Many people say of both that you must have “special talent” can understand/master the info. Silly in both cases. (@TropicalMBA)
  • Perseverance. Life changing. (@shaunchurch)
  • Because both require repetition and practice, and you get better at both with time! Also, because music itself is a language you have to learn before being able to play an instrument! (@iestudiolangues)
  • Both take just hours to start with and years to master (@ikll)
  • ’cause first: you give the unrecognizable sounds, then: you begin to miaow, finally: you play the real music = you speak (@transenter)
  • Like music, you learn rhythm and tone, even harmony, and then put your personality into it. (@randem)
  • You best learn with a good – human – teacher in both cases. (@translatrs)

Thanks to everyone for their interesting responses! A few I’ll add myself:

  • Some musical instruments are quite similar, as are some languages. Learning a new one of these can make it easier, but don’t forget to keep practising the old one!
  • Just because you can read it, it doesn’t mean you can produce it
  • It seems that those who do it well just “pick it up so easily”. What you don’t see is the many many hours of work they put into it to reach that stage
  • Commitment is way more important than natural talent, which simply doesn’t exist for getting the basics and even a pretty good idea of both music and languages. It’s actually just an excuse used by those who both can’t and don’t really want to put real work in
  • When you can do either, doors of opportunities are flung open
  • The sense of achievement when you play… or speak it in public for the first time are unparalleled.

I’m sure there are more – let us know how you see the similarities between these two amazing fields, in the comments!

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  • http://twitter.com/mybellavita Cherrye Moore

    I'm seeing a common theme here – PRACTICE! What a fun idea and great input from Twitterers.

  • http://www.pacamanca.com/ leticia

    I loved the article but don't agree with you when you say natural talent doesn't exist. Different brain areas are responsible for speaking, music, spatial orientation, maths and countless other things, and just like you have nice straight hair and I have “bad” curly hair, I have brain parts that are more developed than your counterparts and vice-versa. You might be able to learn things that are particularly hard for you, but there's usually a genetic threshold over which you just won't get, no matter how hard you try or work. I couldn't make even simple calculations to save my life, but I learn languages and pick accents extremely easily, as you well know. My father would beeline confidently towards our unfamiliar rented car in those endless Disneyworld parking lots whereas I have to park against a wall in order to be able to find it more easily when the mall's crowded, and tend to get lost very easily in general, even in places I'm familiar with. I'm sure I could improve my spatial orientation skills UP TO A POINT, but I'm also sure I'll never be like my father. On the other hand, although he had private French lessons with a French teacher all through his childhood and adolescence and actually enjoyed it, his mother was fluent in French and there was plenty of reading material at home, he never mastered the language; same with English. Different people are good at different things for genetic reasons also (and I'd say mostly), and that can't be changed yet. No one should be put down by the idea that they might not be “language people”, but setting reasonable goals for yourself is important if you want to remain sane.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com Benny the Irish polyglot

    Good point, however I'd argue that no matter how much he enjoyed those lessons, they weren't being taught to him in the best way. I learned Irish for more than 10 years of my life and didn't speak it because of a stupid academic waste of time approach, which had me convinced that it was my fault for being genetically broken with languages.
    Some people have it easier than others, but this doesn't mean without hard work you could achieve the same thing. I've taught 3-D spacial geometry to university students who were convinced they couldn't see it, until I explained it to them in terms they could appreciate ;)
    There may indeed be a limit, but people give up way before reaching their true potential most of the time. Talent exists for amazing achievements in a field, but it does NOT exist to be able to get a pretty good idea of it. That's the excuse mentality I was talking about ;)

  • TropicalMBA

    I love being on your blog! Good times, fun post, good nuggets.

  • http://www.randem.net/ Randy

    I am reminded of a Russian aphorism of which I am particularly fond:
    Кто хочет, ищет возможности, а кто не хочет — причины.

    “Those who truly want something look for opportunities, and those who don't truly want it look for excuses.”

  • Brian_Barker

    As far as learning another language, is concerned, can I put in a word for the global language, Esperanto?

    Although Esperanto is a living language, it helps language learning as well :)

    Please have a look at http://eurotalk.com/en/store/learn/esperanto or http://lernu.net

  • http://www.learnspanishfastcourse.com/ Fast Jay

    Yes, there are a lot of similarities. I think learning a language is like learning any skill, you can conquer the basics in a few months, after that it is a slow process to achieving “masterhood” (depending on your talent of course).

  • http://twitter.com/wendylee86 Wendy Lee

    I am a pianist and a polyglot. I would say the common thread between the two is that they are a bit like riding a bike – once you learn it, you never REALLY forget it. But it does take a bit of warming up to get back into it again.

  • Sean

    I agree with all of these points. Quite curiously, I am also very good with instruments and languages. :D Love the blog Benny, keep it up!

  • http://twitter.com/yuzuruyuzuru Yuzuru

    The way you learn either one of them really isn't all that different after all. I guess if I were do draw my own comparisons, when I started out playing the guitar, my hands just didn't feel all that comfortable at all. They were clumsy, and it was impossible at that point to produce a good sound. Even if I took 10 minutes to position my fingers, that chord wasn't going to sound anywhere near as good as it could. Of course, it was pure determination to want to be able to play at least some of my favorite songs combined with hours (massive amounts) of practice that brought me to the point where I could play some of those songs I really wanted to. In terms of hours of practice, it was something like 10-16 hours daily for 8 months. I'd wake up, play guitar, take a break to go wash dishes and eat, and back to guitar right after to play more. So, what is that? Like, 2,400-3,840 hours of playing time. Not even counting the time that I spent listening to music that I'd like to one day play. And, what actually drove me to the point of quitting wasn't because I didn't like guitar, it's because of boredom! I drove myself nuts with learning crap out of books. I started with one of those terrible books where they give you songs no one's ever heard of, scales, etc. Which, are all important in their own right, but I think of them as the same as studying language from a book. That can only take you so far, and are really, really boring.

    So, to sum it up basically:

    1. Trying to learn an instrument using books is as trying to learn a language using books. Boring and ineffective. Instead, go look up the tabs to your favorite songs, find that part that you really want to play, and get to work. If at the point you've got that one part down, you want to learn another from the same song, do it. But if it's boring, throw it the heck out and find a new part of a song to learn. Go on growing and building a repertoire of these parts, making connections as you go along (“hey, this song uses the same notes/hand positions, etc.”), and then maybe later you go back and learn some technical stuff to help make other connections, or not. It's up to you to study the “grammar” of music. Likewise, in language, I think it's important to find the fun parts, learn them, and then go find more fun parts to learn. Never concerning yourself with “study” and grammar rules, and vocabulary lists, etc. Instead, go and find stuff to gain “localized fluency” in. (Credit to http://ajatt.com for that term). Just like learning your favorite riff from your favorite song at the time, go learn your favorite parts of that TV show, song, book, etc. and then find the next one. Understanding this better now than ever, I may go back and pick up the guitar later on.

    2. Just like it takes time to build up your chops for playing an instrument, it'll take a similar amount of time to gain good sounding pronunciation. That time you spend slowly working through a piece of music to build up that muscle memory to play it at normal speed is absolutely no different than listening closely to something in your target language over and over until you can produce it the way it sounds, tone, rhythm, pitch, pauses, etc. After you get good at it the way it is, as mentioned above, is the time to put your personality into it (i.e. throw in those pinch harmonics, bends, etc.) And, while you may not get the sound of your favorite artists down, you'll most definitely find a sound that is both “native-like”, but that is also uniquely yours.

    3. Learning to read music is not learning to play music. What that means in terms of language is that, learning to read isn't going to help you speak; they're two different skills. You have to learn to listen and understand before you can hope to speak the language. So, what I guess I'm really getting at is that you'll need to give focus to all areas of a language before you can expect to produce it in a similar manner. Want to learn to write? Then read. Learn to speak? Listen, a lot. A. LOT. The nice thing though, is that reading in language learning and in music, can help you learn to understand what you hear. For example, have you ever heard band kids singing their parts, tapping their foot or clicking their finger for rhythm, and just trying to get an idea of what it's supposed to sound like? Well, that's what reading aloud can do for your language. You get an idea of what it might sound like, and then in your listening you are corrected. (In the case of band, you have the instructor to direct how it should sound, but if you're learning an instrument on your own, then you'll want to actually listen to that part many many times to refine your “understanding” of that part. Get that feel for the rhythm and sound.

    So, I guess the reason that I like something like http://ajatt.com 's method for learning languages so much is because it emulates the idea of learning individual parts (sentences), listening a lot, and advocates having a ton of fun and banishing boredom. Just like in learning a piece of music, if it starts to bore you, don't play it anymore (delete that sentence). There's plenty of music (sentences) to choose from to make up for any benefit that it might have provided and to do it in a fun way.

    Excellent, excellent, post. This really made me realize a lot about what I'm doing. I guess I should also mention two other things. One is that you really do have to put in the hours. That 2,400-3,840 hours I mentioned before brought me to a point where I could play circles around my friend who had “been playing his whole life.” This is a good metaphor for the two types of language learners: the one that binges and then has “no-language-days” and the other who devotes every free moment to their language (be it passive listening, reading, etc.) The other thing is that you need patience. Making a language yours truly will come. It's totally possible to pull of your own “solos”. But you need to practice other people's first. Which, to conclude, also means that imitation is really really important for success in either playing instruments, or in language.

    I guess the reason that they are so similar is because our voice is actually considered an instrument, be it for singing a tune or communicating an idea. And a musical instrument can do the same thing: sing a tune and communicate ideas.

    Thanks for this post. :) Sorry to clutter it up with my late night babble.

  • http://twitter.com/yuzuruyuzuru Yuzuru

    The way you learn either one of them really isn't all that different after all. I guess if I were do draw my own comparisons, when I started out playing the guitar, my hands just didn't feel all that comfortable at all. They were clumsy, and it was impossible at that point to produce a good sound. Even if I took 10 minutes to position my fingers, that chord wasn't going to sound anywhere near as good as it could. Of course, it was pure determination to want to be able to play at least some of my favorite songs combined with hours (massive amounts) of practice that brought me to the point where I could play some of those songs I really wanted to. In terms of hours of practice, it was something like 10-16 hours daily for 8 months. I'd wake up, play guitar, take a break to go wash dishes and eat, and back to guitar right after to play more. So, what is that? Like, 2,400-3,840 hours of playing time. Not even counting the time that I spent listening to music that I'd like to one day play. And, what actually drove me to the point of quitting wasn't because I didn't like guitar, it's because of boredom! I drove myself nuts with learning crap out of books. I started with one of those terrible books where they give you songs no one's ever heard of, scales, etc. Which, are all important in their own right, but I think of them as the same as studying language from a book. That can only take you so far, and are really, really boring.

    So, to sum it up basically:

    1. Trying to learn an instrument using books is as trying to learn a language using books. Boring and ineffective. Instead, go look up the tabs to your favorite songs, find that part that you really want to play, and get to work. If at the point you've got that one part down, you want to learn another from the same song, do it. But if it's boring, throw it the heck out and find a new part of a song to learn. Go on growing and building a repertoire of these parts, making connections as you go along (“hey, this song uses the same notes/hand positions, etc.”), and then maybe later you go back and learn some technical stuff to help make other connections, or not. It's up to you to study the “grammar” of music. Likewise, in language, I think it's important to find the fun parts, learn them, and then go find more fun parts to learn. Never concerning yourself with “study” and grammar rules, and vocabulary lists, etc. Instead, go and find stuff to gain “localized fluency” in. (Credit to http://ajatt.com for that term). Just like learning your favorite riff from your favorite song at the time, go learn your favorite parts of that TV show, song, book, etc. and then find the next one. Understanding this better now than ever, I may go back and pick up the guitar later on.

    2. Just like it takes time to build up your chops for playing an instrument, it'll take a similar amount of time to gain good sounding pronunciation. That time you spend slowly working through a piece of music to build up that muscle memory to play it at normal speed is absolutely no different than listening closely to something in your target language over and over until you can produce it the way it sounds, tone, rhythm, pitch, pauses, etc. After you get good at it the way it is, as mentioned above, is the time to put your personality into it (i.e. throw in those pinch harmonics, bends, etc.) And, while you may not get the sound of your favorite artists down, you'll most definitely find a sound that is both “native-like”, but that is also uniquely yours.

    3. Learning to read music is not learning to play music. What that means in terms of language is that, learning to read isn't going to help you speak; they're two different skills. You have to learn to listen and understand before you can hope to speak the language. So, what I guess I'm really getting at is that you'll need to give focus to all areas of a language before you can expect to produce it in a similar manner. Want to learn to write? Then read. Learn to speak? Listen, a lot. A. LOT. The nice thing though, is that reading in language learning and in music, can help you learn to understand what you hear. For example, have you ever heard band kids singing their parts, tapping their foot or clicking their finger for rhythm, and just trying to get an idea of what it's supposed to sound like? Well, that's what reading aloud can do for your language. You get an idea of what it might sound like, and then in your listening you are corrected. (In the case of band, you have the instructor to direct how it should sound, but if you're learning an instrument on your own, then you'll want to actually listen to that part many many times to refine your “understanding” of that part. Get that feel for the rhythm and sound.

    So, I guess the reason that I like something like http://ajatt.com 's method for learning languages so much is because it emulates the idea of learning individual parts (sentences), listening a lot, and advocates having a ton of fun and banishing boredom. Just like in learning a piece of music, if it starts to bore you, don't play it anymore (delete that sentence). There's plenty of music (sentences) to choose from to make up for any benefit that it might have provided and to do it in a fun way.

    Excellent, excellent, post. This really made me realize a lot about what I'm doing. I guess I should also mention two other things. One is that you really do have to put in the hours. That 2,400-3,840 hours I mentioned before brought me to a point where I could play circles around my friend who had “been playing his whole life.” This is a good metaphor for the two types of language learners: the one that binges and then has “no-language-days” and the other who devotes every free moment to their language (be it passive listening, reading, etc.) The other thing is that you need patience. Making a language yours truly will come. It's totally possible to pull of your own “solos”. But you need to practice other people's first. Which, to conclude, also means that imitation is really really important for success in either playing instruments, or in language.

    I guess the reason that they are so similar is because our voice is actually considered an instrument, be it for singing a tune or communicating an idea. And a musical instrument can do the same thing: sing a tune and communicate ideas.

    Thanks for this post. :) Sorry to clutter it up with my late night babble.

  • http://www.focuslanguage.com/ Jean-Paul Setlak

    As a lifelong language learner (French, English, German, Spanish, Italian, Hindi, Punjabi and Mandarin Chinese) and an artist/musician, I have a simple addition to the list. Many people approach language learning as if it were accounting or chemistry. But if you think of a language as music and ask yourself: ” what makes a great musician?” you realize it is his/her love and passion for the intrinsic beauty of the music/language. Similarly, speaking a language is an musical performance. The more committed, passionate and focused the performer is, the faster he/she can learn. Love. beauty and passion… for their own sake … become the most direct keys to success. At least it has been so for me..

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Thanks Kristian! Great post :)

  • http://twitter.com/RMohorovich Richard Mohorovich

    i liked this, ended up checking this out after googling how practicing music is like studying.

  • lux8x

    i’m learning Polish (already fluent in English and Spanish) and learning the banjo as well :) And I see a lot of similarities in the learning process of each. One thing that it’s missing in the list is that both can sometimes get frustrating (when you cannot reproduce a sound the way it should sound, for example).

    But that’s just a little negative thing, I’m having a lot of fun learning both :)

  • Prashanth Ganju

    First of all a great post. But I think you have limited the language to normal spoken languages. The points you have written are true for Computer Science and programming languages as well. I am a developer and I looked at the points and almost all of them can be applied as is to programming languages.