The “flow” of fluency: How to freestyle rap in a foreign language

The “flow” of fluency: How to freestyle rap in a foreign language

Benny

While many guest posts here are from people I’ve met in my travels or been in touch with online a lot, occasionally I’ll be sent a topic so damn interesting that even if I don’t know the person yet, it’s definitely worth sharing. Today’s is an excellent example of such a topic, which takes a fantastic twist to language learning of thinking outside the box that I hope will inspire some of you! It combines music and language learning, which is also a passion of mine.

It was written by Idahosa Ness, who writes at mimicmethod.com, and who you can see in the video below, going to a “roda” in Rio. Take it away Idahosa!

While living in Rio de Janeiro last year, I would religiously attend the “Rap na Farani” hip hop event every Thursday in Farani park, a block away from Botafogo beach. In these gatherings, amateur musicians would break off into separate “rodas” or ciphers and rap improvised lyrics over live guitar and percussion instrumentals.

I randomly stumbled upon the event on my way home one evening, and once I realized what it was, I knew I couldn’t leave without kickin’ a little sumthin’ sumthin’ real quick in English. Taking advantage of the fact that I look more Brazilian than most Brazilians, I threw the audience for a loop when I started my rap in Portuguese and transitioned smoothly to an English freestyle:

Ninguem me entende, quando eu falo/ Eu sou americano com sotaque carioco/ oops *carioca, por favor desculpa/ mas deixa-me speak English and I promise you no Bullsh*%t!

English: No one understands me when I speak/ I am an American with a Rio-native (Rio-native intentionally pronounced wrong) accent/ Oops I mean “Rio-native,” please excuse me/ but let me speak English and I promise you no Bullsh*%t

The audience was impressed, but I was disappointed in myself. I had considered myself “fluent” in Portuguese and prided myself on my English freestlying ability, but it took me almost 15 minutes of serious mental exertion just to conjure up those two mediocre bars of Portuguese rap. I had a strong sense that my Portuguese was missing a certain “something,” and I resolved there and then to find out exactly what that something was by hunkering down and stepping up my Portuguese rap game.

Unexpectedly, after an intense week of listening to and rapping Portuguese, my normal Portuguese skills improved drastically. I no longer needed to actively listen or think of things in my head first before speaking.  Portuguese just felt easy to me all of a sudden.

The “something” I was after was starting to take shape within me, and now that I know what exactly that “something” is, I am convinced that it is THE most valuable asset for a language learner to have.

The Difference Between Words and Sounds

This “something” I keep referring to is the unconscious command of speech sound. Whether they’re learning Portuguese, Patois or Punjabi, I always tell people the same thing: speech is NOT a sequence of words, it’s a sequence of sounds. Words are fickle and unreliable as language learning tools. A single word’s pronunciation will vary depending on factors related to the speaker (e.g. region, gender, social class, level of education, emotional state, etc.) and factors related to the context (e.g. surrounding words, grammatical mood, lexical stress etc.).

This is how you can learn a thousand words of vocabulary and still understand nothing that a native speaker says.  It’s not that you don’t know the words, you just don’t have the ability to recognize them in real time.

A more efficient approach is to focus first on mastering all the component sounds of your target language before studying the meanings associated with those sounds. As it turns out, the majority of phonemes (distinct speech sounds) in one language will also exist in the next language. For example, as an English speaker, you already know 22 of the 25 phonemes of Spanish. What makes Spanish sound so different from English is how these phonemes combine and “flow” in normal speech. If you dedicate the time familiarizing yourself with this “flow” before doing anything else, you will develop a mental sound framework flexible enough to incorporate new words and structures regardless of variation in pronunciation.

Lyrical Music as a Means to Building Second Language Flow

Through a process I call Rhythmic Phonetic Training, I train students in the “flow” of their target language by teaching them to sing songs with a perfect accent. Each time they recite these song lyrics, they actively develop the ear sensitivity and speech organ muscle memory needed to process and speak the target language unconsciously.  Indeed, several studies have already shown that learning song lyrics helps develop the fundamental language ability of segmenting word boundaries in connected speech.

My language program is named The Mimic Method because the student’s first goal is to develop an ability to effortlessly and accurately perceive and reproduce native speech, or “Mimic.” As Benny very correctly argues in his Language Hacking Guide, the only real way to learn a language is to put yourself out there right from the start and maximize your amount of language input and output. The Mimic ability optimizes this experience by freeing up the mental resources learners typically waste struggling with pronunciation and segmenting native speech. With the sound-processing on autopilot, you can dedicate more brainpower to acquiring new expressions and structures as you become more comfortable in more contexts.

Optimizing Rhythmic Phonetic Training through Rap

I generally build my Rhythmic Phonetic Training materials around the musical tastes of my students, but the truth is that rapping is far superior to melodic singing as a learning tool. There are several technical reasons for why this is, but I won’t get into them here. In short, because rap more vigorously highlights the natural rhythm and sounds of a given language, the act of rapping is more effective in developing the language student’s mastery of that rhythm and sound.

Think of rapping like language sprinting. Each time you hit the track and do an intense rap circuit around the track (nice pun huh?), you break down your language muscles and regenerate stronger ones with rest. Eventually, normal speaking just feels like a “walk in the park” in comparison.

If you’re like most people, you probably wouldn’t describe speaking in a second language as a “walk in the park,” in which case you probably never even considered the possibility of rapping in a second language. But just like language, rap is nothing more than a series of sounds strung together rhythmically. If you break things down and start off slow, you can learn to rap a song just as you would learn to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the Piano.

Take this line from the song “Somos Pacifico,” by the Colombian Latin Grammy award winning rap trio, ChocQuibTown. First read the line, then listen to it on loop.

NOTE: The audio files  had a little glitch and are now in the void – but fear not, Idahosa is rerecording them. The post will be updated when he is ready with them. 

Si dejaste al que está malo o te lo ha rumbeado?

audio

If you read the sentence in its fully-enunciated form, you will count 18 syllables. But if you count the number of syllables the rapper actually says, you will only count 14. What happened to the other four? They were lost in the “flow” of connected speech.

This is how words can be misleading. In connected speech, certain sounds are dropped or fused into an adjacent word, completely transforming the words themselves. So looking up song lyrics online can only take you so far.  If you really want to learn the song, you first need to learn the rhyhtm.

In Rhythmic Phonetic Training, I use what I call Universal Rhythmic Binary to reduce speech to its most elemental form of stress and syllable. In URB, DA represents a stressed syllable and di represents an unstressed syllable (the syllables with the most stress are emboldened and underlined). Listen to the audio line of URB, then try to sing along with me.  Repeat this until you have the line committed to memory.

DA di DA di DA di DA di | DA di DA di DA-DA

audio

Once you have the rhythm down, the next step is to learn the individual syllables. Listen to the same line slowed down 40% and follow along with the special rhythmic phonetic transcription.  Then listen to and try to repeat after me as I articulate each syllable individually.

SI de HA te KE ta MA lo O te LO rum BYA – O

audio

audio

If you have no Spanish experience, you might struggle with the alveolar trill, or “rolled ‘r'” as it’s commonly referred to. The rest of the sounds in this phrase, however, also exist in English and should thus be no issue.

Now that you know each individual syllable, all you have to do is say them in order slowly and gradually speed it up until you get to the original tempo. At first, this will be awkward and difficult since your mouth has never made these sounds in this combination before. This is why your mouth needs training in foreign language just like your fingers need training for the piano. Try repeating after me while keeping the beat in the audio file below.

audio

Voila! You just rapped your first Spanish line. With proper instruction and sufficient practice, you can learn your first rap verse in just three days. As you progress, you will find that each verse is easier to learn than the last one. This is because all speech draws upon the same limited set of sounds and rhythm patterns, so as you expand your repertoire, you will run into more and more already familiar patterns. Eventually you will be able to learn lines on your own with just a few listens. This level of rhythmic perception is perhaps the most valuable asset you can have for language acquisition. It is also key to becoming the Ill-nasty multilingual freestyle rapper you always dreamed of becoming.

How to Freestlye

It’s one thing to recite pre-fabricated lyrics, but to come up with your own on the fly is something else entirely. Flocabulary, the education company that brings hip Hop to the classroom, has a very entertaining but informative ten-step guide for learning how to freestlye. These steps apply generally to freestyling in a second language as well, but these three steps are particularly relevant:

  • Memorizing lyrics to other rap songs to internalize different individual flows.
  • Having an arsenal of “filler phrases” to help you get from one keyword to the next, and
  • Using items in your physical surroundings to come up with the next keyword you want to rhyme with.

In addition to these general strategies, I’ve created my own special exercises for building freestyle ability in a second langauge.

Exercise 1: Snoop-Doggifying it

Rap icon Snoop Dogg is famous for adding the “-izzle” suffix to the end of words to make everything rhyme with everything. In effect, he made freestyle rapping the easiest thing in the world.

You can achieve a similar effect by rapping your way down a list of rhyming words. Google search your target language’s translation of “rhyming dictionary” and input whatever word comes to mind into the search engine. Start easy by simply chanting each word on the list out loud to a steady beat.  Then, try to go down the list with more complex rhythm schemes.  Switch up the order of words with each attempt.

With this exercise, you are developing the ability to anticipate a strong musical beat and line it up with your keywords, which will vary in number of syllables and stress placement.  Listen to this example of me rapping through the rhyme list for the spanish word “cosa” (thing).

cosa, fabulosa, brillosa, moza, osa, alumbrosa, chistosa, saboreosa.

English: Thing, fabulous, shiny, girl, bear, bright, funny, tasty

 

audio

Step 2: Write your first Verse

Choose a word to input in the rhyme dictionary and learn the meanings of four of the words (this is also a very effective way to learn and memorize new vocabulary). Next, write out four well-thought-out lines with these words as the final keywords of each line. Recite the rap over and over again until you have it committed to memory. Here’s an example with “cosa” again.

Eres una mujer saboreosa/ Pero se dice cuando hay algo brillosa/ se tiene que tener cuidado con esta cosa/ Y por eso yo la dejo, no la quiero a esa moza.

You are a fine woman/ but they say that when you have something shiny/ you have to be careful with that thing/ and for that I’m leaving her be, I don’t want that girl.

audio

Step 3: Improvise on your first Verse

Now using the same list of keywords, try to improvise the four lines. Don’t worry about keeping to a strict meter; take as much time as you need for each line. The point of this drill is to develop your general creative ability. When you first do this, your improvised lyrics won’t differ much from your original written ones, but with each attempt you expand your horizons and thus your general ability to vary your verses. Listen to this example of me freestlying in Chinese (not my strongest freestyle rap language) with the rhyming words hao (good), zhidao (know), pao (run) and zao (early).

Zen.me yang, ni hao?/ wo mei you zhidao/ ni zhei yang keyi pao/ pao de hen zao.

English: How’s it going how are you?/ I didn’t know/ that you could run this way/ run so early.

audio

Step 4: Rap in Phonologically Consistent Gibberish

Phonologically consistent gibberish is nonsensical, made-up words that are made up only of the speech sounds of the target language. The point of this exercise is to develop your ability to “flow” within the sound constraints of the target language without having your native or other foreign sounds interfere. To catch the flow, start with the first two lines of your written rap, then just go into it. It’s okay to throw in real words and phrases, but the most important thing is to keep the flow going whether it makes sense or not. Below is an example of me rapping in English-Sounding Gibberish.

audio

Step 5: Just Do It

Just like with anything else, the only way to really get good at something is to jump in and do it. Start by flowing without worrying about meter, and whenever you get stuck on a word, write it down and look it up later on the rhyming dictionary. When you get more comfortable with this, add a steady meter to raise the stakes. Use the Flocabulary freestyle techniques to make your rhymes more sophisticated and longer lasting. As you get better, you’ll eventually be able to keep a flow going for several grammatically correct bars. From there, it’s simply a game of endurance.

Wait. Why Am I Doing This Again?

A fast growing body of research suggests that our brains acquire musical systems much in the same way we acquire languages. Indeed, several experts have conducted studies showing that musical training increases a person’s language-learning aptitude. Moreover, many scholars argue that everyday speech is analogous to musical improvisation, since both involve spontaneous creation of meaningful sound within constraints. In my own research, I try to apply these new insights to the practice of second language education. Given freestyle rapping’s unique position at the convex of musical and linguistic improvisation, there is no doubt that it has enormous potential as a language-learning learning tool.

But even if learning to freestyle ends up doing nothing for your language skills, how badass would you be if you could start a dinner party conversation with: “This one time at a park in [insert exotic locale here] when I was freestyle rapping in [insert exotic language here]…”

[insert awe and adulation from your peers here]….

While many guest posts here are from people I’ve met in my travels or been in touch with online a lot, occasionally I’ll be sent a topic so damn interesting that even if I don’t know the person yet, it’s definitely worth sharing. Today’s is an excellent example of such a topic, which takes a […]

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  • http://www.whereisjbs.com Jonathan Baillie Strong

    Great idea! I love the idea of mixing language learning with music – I think learning Spanish came more easily to me then say, Italian, because there was already a lot of latino music I enjoyed listening to.. and rapping takes it to a whole new level! 
    I really like how Idahosa went into real detail here as well about the intracacies, I’ll be trying this out for sure!
    Incidentally, if anyone is learning French, you HAVE to check out a rap group called IAM from Marseilles (and specifically their album “L’ecole de Micro d’Argent”) – their music is lirical poetry..

    • Anonymous

      Hey Jonathan.  Glad you liked the post.  I encourage you to sign up to be a beta tester on my site http://www.mimicmethod.com.  Currently I only have Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese available.

      Actually starting a project soon to learn how to rap in French, so I appreciate the recommendation.  Definitely going to check out that group.

      • http://www.whereisjbs.com Jonathan Baillie Strong

        you’re welcome! Good skills on the cavanquinho by the way, like the way you’re rocking Seu Jorge. It looks like we have common interests, I play with a Brazilian samba reggae group in London, speak fluent Spanish and rusty Portuguese.. I’ll follow your programme with interest!

  • http://www.crossingmarketingandit.com Elmer Boutin

    Going through more “traditional” language training, we were often told that you know you’ve “arrived” when you can understand songs and jokes. Music is certainly a powerful learning tool, so this makes a lot of sense to me. 

    • http://www.MimicMethod.com Idahosa

      Hey Elmer thanks for the comment.  I’ve heard a similar quote before but decided to switch it around a bit.  Whenever I learn a new language, I start exclusively with learning the music so that I can “arrive” before I learn anything else.  It makes the whole process a lot faster and natural.

  • Carlos

    nice post…but..none audio files play in Chrome browser. Espero que o erro seja somente aqui. Abraços

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Try to refresh the page. I’ve given direct links after the player in case it doesn’t work for someone.

      • Mikkel R P Wilson

        The direct links don’t seem to be working – they say that the file was removed

        • http://fluentin3months.com/ Brandon Rivington

          Thanks Mikkel. I’ll look into it.

          –Brandon, the Fi3M Language Encourager

  • Dominick O’Dierno

    What great timing for this post!  I have been looking for methods to bring my fluent languages to a near native level.  I also encountered a method by Luca the Italian Polyglot which is very similiar to this, finding audio of native speakers, writing down the stress patterns of thier speech (he uses Chinese tonal markers) and practicing them to “mimic” the speech pattern until you acquire a native like stress pattern.  The only difference is that he uses audio of native speakers in conversation rather than music.  http://thepolyglotdream.com/2011/01/20/native-accent-in-foreign-languages/

    While I like that Luca’s method can be used with any native speaker audio recordings, the Mimic method has the advantages of acquiring the all important “filler phrases” to keep the flow of speech going, and it has all the benefits that come with music practice as well.  Not to mention that music can be quite engaging!

  • http://twitter.com/dukecrawford Duke Crawford

    Love this! Learn to hear new sounds by making them yourself. Muscle training. Physical, emotional connection first. Exactly right. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    Although I am no fan of rap, I think your explanation of the connection between lyrical music and language is excellent. Languages ARE about sounds, melody and rhythm — what we learn so little about in language classes. If we listened to languages at first just to capture the flow of the sounds without bothering ourselves about understanding, we’d be much more successful at capturing the right melody. Once you were in the flow of Portuguese rhythm, it was easier for you to speak.

    I posted on this blog in February  (Music and TV for homework? Really? Yes. Sí. Oui. Да. نعم, http://www.fluentin3months.com/language-is-music/) explaining how to use music and media to learn languages based on my book, Language is Music. No matter how many times I give presentations to language teachers and learners, about the link between language and music, I get dumbfounded faces in my audience, as though I have just told them the sky is florescent green.

    I am making some videos soon for Spanish speakers to learn Portuguese via Brazilian music and explaining to Brazilians (in Portuguese) how to learn English with music and media resources. I will try to remember to link to your site and this post. 

    • http://twitter.com/dukecrawford Duke Crawford

      Confused looks on teachers faces? Lyrics to learn languages? Huh? Maybe they’re all invested into prescriptive rather than descriptive systems. Even FVR and Comprehensible Input zealots yawn or snarl at suggestions to with Sound and/or mimicry. Thankfully you and Benny and Idahosa are *showing* the use of Sound and Mimicry. Dr. Paul Sulzberger has a nice quote about this: ” In evolutionary terms, reading was only invented yesterday, learning language(s) via one’s ears however has a much longer pedigree.”

      • Anonymous

        For those not familiar with Dr. Paul Sulzberger, he did his PhD thesis in linguistics in New Zealand about how people learn Russian. He had one group of students who got to listen to Russian speech before formally learning Russian. The other group had no exposure to Russian at all. Those who spent time listening to Russian before studying it, had an easier time than those who had no experience listening to the language when it came to recognizing individual words in speech when they were formally learning the language. Therefore, the exposure to listening to the language to pick up the melody and sound patterns before learning words and grammar was advantageous to the students. Listening is a major factor in language acquisition!

        • http://www.MimicMethod.com Idahosa

          100% agree with both of you guys.  Few people realize that language is purely a sound activity, so results like the one Dr. Sulzberger found are not surprising.

          What even fewer people realize, however, is just HOW disruptive the premature use of written materials can be.  As I write in my most recent blog post, literate adults have a very strong association of sound to their native orthography.  So seeing something written down instantly inspires certain sounds in a person’s head. 

          If those sounds are inconsistent with the actual sounds of speech, then the learner has already created a dissonance between his conception of the language and that of the native speakers.  The dissonance is made even stronger once the person mispronounces the word and builds this misconception into his motor memory.  Eventually, there is so much deeply ingrained dissonance that mimicry (the only real way to become fluent) becomes impossible.  Which is why 95% of language-learners hit a ceiling before getting anywhere close to native-fluency levels.

          This is something that any musician can sympathize with.  If you practice something wrong over and over again.  It is EXTREMELY difficult to unlearn the bad habit. EXTREMELY DIFFICULT!

          So what formal language instruction is essentially doing is instilling bad habits into students at the most delicate stage of development- the beginning.  

          • http://twitter.com/dukecrawford Duke Crawford

            Ee-Dow-Saw, you’re great! Bertie Segal will love you. She says “Language is Acoustic”. She helped invent TPR. I went to one of her workshops. She’s great. She starts with sound.  

            John Murphy in Georgia will love you, too. I couldn’t find a good youtube of him. http://www2.gsu.edu/~esljmm/ss/objectives.htm is kinda thick, but he can explain a nifty system to count syllables and where words are stressed. He starts with sound.

            I agree with you that reading before hearing and making sounds causes real damage. But there’s tons of evidence that FVR (Free Voluntary Reading) is good stuff. Same language subtitling works in pre-literate India, for millions of people learning to read sounds they know well. It starts with sound. 

            I bet if we hear proper sounds while reading new words, we won’t waste brain cycles guessing how the new words sound. If, without exception, we hear proper sounds while reading new text, if we “see the sounds” in text, we’ll waste no time learning sounds wrong, then trying to unlearn that. 

          • http://twitter.com/dukecrawford Duke Crawford

            Ee-Dow-Saw, you’re great! Bertie Segal will love you. She says “Language is Acoustic”. She helped invent TPR. I went to one of her workshops. She’s great. She starts with sound.  

            John Murphy in Georgia will love you, too. I couldn’t find a good youtube of him. http://www2.gsu.edu/~esljmm/ss/objectives.htm is kinda thick, but he can explain a nifty system to count syllables and where words are stressed. He starts with sound.

            I agree with you that reading before hearing and making sounds causes real damage. But there’s tons of evidence that FVR (Free Voluntary Reading) is good stuff. Same language subtitling works in pre-literate India, for millions of people learning to read sounds they know well. It starts with sound. 

            I bet if we hear proper sounds while reading new words, we won’t waste brain cycles guessing how the new words sound. If, without exception, we hear proper sounds while reading new text, if we “see the sounds” in text, we’ll waste no time learning sounds wrong, then trying to unlearn that. 

    • http://twitter.com/dukecrawford Duke Crawford

      Confused looks on teachers faces? Lyrics to learn languages? Huh? Maybe they’re all invested into prescriptive rather than descriptive systems. Even FVR and Comprehensible Input zealots yawn or snarl at suggestions to with Sound and/or mimicry. Thankfully you and Benny and Idahosa are *showing* the use of Sound and Mimicry. Dr. Paul Sulzberger has a nice quote about this: ” In evolutionary terms, reading was only invented yesterday, learning language(s) via one’s ears however has a much longer pedigree.”

    • http://www.MimicMethod.com Idahosa

      Hey Susanna.  I encourage you to become a member of the Society for Music Cognition and Perception.  If you give a presentation at one of our conferences, I guarantee you’ll get way more heads nodding rigorously in agreement than blank stares.

      Music and language are the two things that people mystify most.  That’s why it’s my mission to demystify the two as much as possible and develop ways for people to learn languages the right way without fleeing to the concrete comfort of grammar books and dictionaries.  

      I hope you’ll follow my blog, as I plan on posting soon about the superiority of rap to melodic lyrics in developing the phonetic infrastructure needed to speak and understand a second language fluently.  

      The first task of the post is to clarify the distinction between rap and hip hop.  The former is a centuries-old musical technique that occupies a special piece of real estate on the sound system continuum, and the latter is a modern musical genre with a lot of stigma attached to it.  

      Rap is just one of many methods for producing musical sound and it can be incorporated into any genre, whether it it be hip hop, rock and roll or classical musical (yes I have rapped over recordings of myself playing bach violin partitas).  So not liking “rap” is like not liking “singing,” or not liking “drums.”  

      Unfortunately, most people consider rap and hip hop to be the same, so the artform has not received the scientific scrutiny it deserves from the academic community. As you can imagine, there are not many 50-cent fans in the linguistics or music cognition field.  

      Anyways, I encourage you to keep an open mind.

  • http://www.MimicMethod.com Idahosa

    Hey Randybvain.  Thanks for the comment.  I totally understand your questions, and these are some of the concerns I address in my language program and will try to explain in my blog.  

    I won’t get into too much detail here, but I will address one thing you said: 

    “We have to be instructed what exactly to do with our tongue and lips and consciously make the effort of not trying to say Polish phonemes. (And the effort hurts…)”

    “The effort” it takes to learn new phonemes does indeed “hurt” when you first start, but that’s just because the learning curve is slow at the beginning when learning new motor movements.  It’s really the exact same thing as learning to play a musical instrument.  You have no idea what you’re doing at first and everything feels painfully awkward, but after some practice doing the basic drills, you one day are suddenly able to strum a few cords or play that piano lick.  If you didn’t put in that initial effort, however, you would’ve never learned anything.

    People are quicker to give up with with new language sounds because the instrument (speech organ) is hidden behind our mouths, so its always been regarded as something mysterious.  Linguists understand the mechanisms pretty well, however, so all it takes is a little know how and the proper training, and you can master any new speech sound in time.

    My first week learning Portuguese, I did nothing but “Velar Pushups” for the muscle in the back of the throat that creates the nasal vowels.  After that, nasal sounds were just as easy to me as any other speech sound.  

    In this way, we have an advantage over children in that we’re smarter, more disciplined, and have a lot fewer phonemes to learn (since children start from scratch).  Within three months of immersion singing and mimicking in Brazil, I was speaking fluently with a good enough accent to fool Brazilian into thinking I was one of them.  

    For a child, that level of attainment takes years, so I say always argue that adults have greater potential for language-learning, as long as we cleverly avoid the traps of native language interference.

  • http://vocabat.com/ Katie

    This is one of the coolest guest posts you’ve ever featured. Thanks for introducing us to Idahosa. I would love to shout from the rooftops how true these two lines are–

    This is how you can learn a thousand words of vocabulary and still understand nothing that a native speaker says.  It’s not that you don’t know the words, you just don’t have the ability to recognize them in real time.

    I would add that you can even have an incredible accent and be able to speak effortlessly and have jaws drop all around you… but if you can’t recognize those sounds when others say them (or not when a group of people is talking casually, only when someone is directly addressing you), you’ll be sitting there among a lot of people feeling very lonely and frustrated. I think listening should be considered the most important skill to focus on! If you’re not content with simply knowing a lot of Spanish (or whatever language), or speaking great Spanish but want to be able to *communicate* well in Spanish (which means a back and forth), you have to be a great listener/understander. 

    Great essay on it: http://www.travelblogs.com/articles/how-i-learned-to-shut-up-and-listen

  • lorenzo

    “several experts have conducted studies showing that musical training increases a person’s language-learning aptitude”

    I read the above article and I must say that based on my experience I don’t quite believe the findings reported there. Last year I read a book on language learning written decades ago by a multilingual Hungarian woman who used to work as a professional interpreter. In it she observed that not a few Hungarian musicians she knew of all spoke their foreign language(s) with a distinctive Hungarian accent despite their ear for music. Also,  one of my schoomates in senior high school had been playing the piano for quite a few years and was (as far as I could see) good at it, and still he had a very bad ear for languages. Indeed, he was terrible when it came to pronouncing English (the only foreign language we would study at school) or indeed any foreign name or word; he was probably the most “phonetically deprived” pupil in my class, which was quite an achievement given that the vast majority of my classmates were bad or very bad at English!

    • http://www.MimicMethod.com Idahosa

      Hey Lorenzo thanks for commenting.  I can see why  you would be doubtful, but be careful not to misinterpret the findings as meaning: “all musicians are better language-learners.”  There are many factors that determine a person’s foreign language ability, so even someone as musical as your friend can perform poorly in a second language, especially if his language instruction was flawed and did not take advantage of his musical talent.  

      All that you can conclude from these studies (and there are quite a few) is that there is a strong positive correlation between musical training and language learning aptitude.  The simplest explanation is that both music and speech perception require processing complex acoustic stimuli, so developing your ability in one domain will, not surprisingly, transfer to the other.

      For example, recent studies have suggested that  musicians are better at perceiving tonal differences in mandarin Chinese than non musicians (both groups having no prior experience with the language).

      As a fluent speaker of Chinese, I can tell you that mastering these tones is the most important first step for anyone learning chinese, and as someone who has learned music by ear since childhood, I can tell you that this first step was much easier for me and my musician classmates than my non-musician classmates. 

      The point is, language is a sound-based activity, so the best system for learning language will be the best system for learning sound.  That’s why I always look first to music pedagogy when trying to improve my own program for language learning.

      • lorenzo

        Thanks for your interesting reply, even though I’m still not quite convinced.  I personally know (at least that’s what I have heard from someone who has lived in China) that the best foreign learners of Mandarin Chinese are native speakers of other tonal languages. Western Africans (including Nigerians), for example, whose native languages belong to the Sudanese family and are tone-based, seem to be particularly good at learning Chinese. Also, I suppose that the ability to recognize a wide variety of sounds  may also be acquired by learning many languages and, especially, by getting exposure to speech as well as by means of musical training.  Furthermore, being able to identify and recognize similar (or almost identical) sounds does not necessarily mean being able to reproduce them well enough. On the other hand, however, I can confirm that language instruction in Italian schools (I’m from Italy) is flawed in many ways, and that’s not just because it fails to take advantage of the musical talent of its musician pupils!

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    This is awesome on a whole ‘nother level.  Very nice work, Idahosa.  I love using music to learn and teach languages and the posts that I’ve done where I use music videos like Shakira’s stuff to teach people have been my most popular by far, as a matter of fact I did a short version of one for Benny a while back…here: http://www.fluentin3months.com/shakira/

    I personally think you can do the same thing with TV shows and movies.  I don’t think it HAS to have a beat or be musical, you just need to imitate the native speaker, though music does have something special about it that makes it easier to remember.

    Excellent work.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    • http://www.MimicMethod.com Idahosa

      Hey Andrew. Thanks for the praise.  I agree that mimicking normal speech also works well, but there’s a practical benefit to using song lyrics.

      Like you said, the addition of a musical meter and more intentional rhythm makes a certain phrase easier to remember than if it were spoken normally.

      But more importantly, the most important thing when building motor memory is REPETITION, and people are much more likely to sing song lyrics over and over again than TV or movie dialogues.

      On the other hand, most of us don’t rap and sing our ways through everyday life (though I often do haha), so a important component of my program is doing exactly what you say once the student starts to get a grasp of the mimic ability. 

      People everywhere sing songs out loud to themselves all the time, so I’m just trying to show them how to do that in a foreign language.

      Best,
      Idahosa

      • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

        “people are much more likely to sing song lyrics over and over again than TV or movie dialogues.”

        THIS is absolutely true.  In fact, most people end up getting a lyric or two from a particular song stuck in their heads and they CAN’T get rid of it even though they don’t even want to think of it anymore, it’s just annoying.

        I hadn’t considered that.

        Cheers,
        Andrew

  • http://www.mezzoguild.com/ Cardinal Mezzofanti

    Any experienced ESL teacher will tell you this is a good way to learn/teach language.
    This is why Jazz chants work so well in the classroom.

  • http://www.visitfloridakeys.com/ Florida Keys Beach

    Well i guess when it comes to learning a language that we don’t know to speak is a challenge in itself, i enjoyed this video thoroughly. That was a great job and i thoroughly admire your recommendations. It was a creative concept must say, thanks..!!

  • http://www.AboutLearningChinese.com Alex Moen

    ha, that’s amazing, I’ve never even thought about this.  I’ve done bits and pieces, but the way this all comes together totally makes sense.  And here I was just listening to pop songs in other languages trying to work on my listening/word differentiation with my speaking, when I should have tried taking that to the next level with my own freestyling, haha.

  • ljrich

    Right now, I’m trying to learn Finnish. I have been for the last 3 years. it’s a slow process for me because up until now, I hadn’t found this website to help in the process. But, I have discovered that listening to music that’s done in my target language helps me to pick up pronunciation and accent. My music of choice is metal (go figure), but I hadn’t thought of the rap being useful for this. Thanks for this idea!

  • http://www.facebook.com/yamandu.costa Carlos José Da Costa

    You are becoming only fluent but influent also, I just searched for freestyle rap and here I am again.

  • Seamus

    Idahosa, this is a
    really interesting method and I would definitely like to try it to make similar
    progress with my French. Which is why I am interested in knowing a little more.
    What did this “intense week” look like? How can I best make the same
    progress? I loved the blog post and think it is a great innovative method.
    Thanks.