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Why learning a language is like learning a musical instrument

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

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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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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