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This is a guest post by the author of Language is Music: Over 70 Fun & Easy Tips to Learn Foreign Languages, by Susanna Zaraysky. She speaks seven languages (Russian, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Serbo-Croatian) with perfect or almost perfect accents because she used music, TV, radio and movies to supplement her language classes/self-guided learning. She has also studied Arabic, Hebrew and Hungarian. Susanna has taught English as a Second Language and Spanish using music and the media. Susanna’s book covers how to use music, TV, radio, movies, podcasts, language exchange, cultural activities and other day-to-day tasks to learn a language. This blog post only covers part of her book, the listening section.
I speak seven languages with excellent pronunciation and almost native accents. I didn’t reach those levels of conversational prowess from a classroom. I got there because I LIVED my languages instead of purely studying them. Languages are a living creature not grammar charts and vocabulary lists.
I was staying in a hostel last week in Costa Rica, where a young Dutchman residing in the hostel was enrolled in a one-month Spanish language class fours hours a day, five days a week. What did he do when he was done with class? He’d come back to the hostel, read his Spanish grammar book or listen to Dutch or English music and watch TV. He was never outside speaking with Costa Ricans or listening to the language!
I told him about my learning methodology and told him to stop listening to English and Dutch music and get Spanish music. I told him to get out of the hostel and speak to the locals. He didn’t even know where to get Spanish music. He came all the way from the Netherlands to Central America and didn’t actually speak in Spanish outside of his Spanish class. He could have done the same back at home. Of course he wouldn’t be able to buy mangoes and pineapple as cheaply as in Costa Rica, but his linguistic experience might be the same.
Please! If you’re going to invest time and even money in language learning, make the language part of your life. It will be more fun and you’ll learn a lot faster.
Find radio stations, podcasts, have the TV on, or listen to music in your target language.
Here are some listening tips:
1. Tune your ears
Learning a new language means you have to change your key and tune. Dancing the cha-cha to waltz music is like speaking a new language while still using the rhythm of your mother tongue. Let yourself take in the sounds of the language as though you were listening to a new piece of music.
Even if you are just a beginner and barely know any words, you can still learn by listening. Pay attention to how people speak.
Does it seem like they are reading a phone number or rattling of a list of numbers? Are they angry? Happy? Sometimes, you have to shut off your brain and inclination to interpret and analyze. Listen to the words spoken to you and listen to your intuition.
2. Relax and listen to music in the language you are learning
Music engages more parts of your brain than language does. That’s why you get songs stuck in your head of commercial jingles. You’re more likely to remember new words if you hear them in a song than if you just read them in a book or hear them spoken.
Find music in your target language that you like. It doesn’t matter if at first you don’t understand the lyrics. Pick music you like. You may start singing along without even knowing what you are singing. That’s fine. You are not only learning the rhythm of the language, you are learning new vocabulary.
Relax and close your eyes. Turn off the lights. Lay down or sit in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and listen to the music. Don’t try to understand the words, just listen. You might fall asleep or day dream. Give yourself the time to simply listen and not do anything else. Your mind needs to be calm in order to absorb the sounds. Your ears need no other distractions to let them properly hear all the high, medium and low frequencies of the language. Do this regularly.
- Passive and active listening
Here I take partial issue with Benny’s post on the futility of passive listening. I see a value in passive listening only when combined with active listening. It can help with pronunciation and getting the right melody in one’s sentences. As Benny said, just having the radio on in the background will not lead one to fluency. No way.
I thought that I spoke Portuguese like Tarzan because I had mostly taught myself the language and had only taken two basic classes in adult school. For years, I listened to Rádio Comercial Portuguesa, the Portuguese radio station in San José, California. The radio station served the Portuguese immigrant community from the Azores Islands. While driving and being stuck in traffic, I listened to their local advertisements for Portuguese companies that ranged from plumbing contractors and construction supply companies to Portuguese “padarias” (bakeries). I could care less about construction companies and their wonderful supplies, but I listened to the announcers just to get a feeling for the rhythm of Portuguese and to learn vocabulary. Since the community was very religious, the station broadcast Catholic mass in Portuguese. I am not Catholic and was not keen on learning the “Our Father” prayer em português, so I sometimes paid attention and sometimes was too focused on driving to really focus on the liturgy.
The result was that, despite the fact that I had few opportunities to speak Portuguese, I was passively learning it for years. To be honest, when I started with the Luso tongue, I already knew three other Romance languages (French, Spanish and Italian) so I could understand a fair amount without straining myself. However, I did acquire many new words without realizing that I was learning.
In 2006, while living in New York, my Brazilian roommate Carla invited Silvia, her friend from Brazil, to visit during Christmas. Silvia barely spoke English. I had to speak in Portuguese, even though I was embarrassed of what I thought was my Neanderthal-like command of the language. To my and everyone else’s surprise, sophisticated words and long sentences came out of my mouth with ease. Carla and Silvia commented that my accent sounded like it was from Portugal. I found out that I knew much more Portuguese than I thought. All those years of listening to fishermen’s songs and Catholic masses paid off. I spoke Portuguese! I had been reinforcing the vocabulary and sentence structure rules that I had learned by just listening to the radio. The music was inside of me for years.
Turn on the music while driving, doing household chores, cooking, gardening, etc. Even if you are just passively listening to the music, the rhythms of the language will become more familiar to you. Exposure is key.
When you first start listening to radio broadcasts, the announcers may sound like they are emitting a stream or storm of sounds and not individual words. In time, you’ll hear familiar words repeated and will learn to distinguish them.
1. Make it fun
Think of speaking sentences in Japanese as singing a song. It’s a lot more enjoyable than only concentrating on grammar and vocabulary. When you get frustrated with the language, remind yourself that it’s just a game.
When US figure skater Sarah Hughes was the surprise gold medalist at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, journalists asked her how she won it despite all the stress and media attention. She said she was just having fun on the ice and didn’t let herself cave into the pressure of winning. This is a great attitude to have to keep your cool. There will be times where you won’t understand or will mispronounce things. Laugh it off. Learning can be enjoyable.
2. Write down the lyrics as you listen
Listen to music with the lights on, your eyes open and a pencil in hand. Write the lyrics of the songs while listening. You will have to pause the music and rewind or repeat many times to get the words down. Some words will be hard to write because they may be idioms or slang that you haven’t learned yet, but just write as much as you can understand. Remember that songwriters sometimes employ rarely used words just to make the song rhyme. They often play word games and compose their lyrics with words that sound alike or may even be spelled the same way, but have different meanings. Don’t be frustrated with obscure words. Compare the lyrics you noted with the original song and see how well you were able to understand the song. Some CDs come with the lyrics inside the CD case. If you don’t have them, look for them online on lyrics websites.
Once you have your version of the lyrics and the original, you can see how much you were able to understand from listening to the song. Use your dictionary to translate the words you don’t know.
If you can’t locate the lyrics on the lyrics websites, just type in the name of the song in quotes in a web search. For example, type “New York, New York” and “lyrics” in the search. But if you’re looking for a foreign song, search for the translation of the word “lyrics” in your target language, rather than the English word “lyrics” as native speakers would post words from the song in their own language. (For example, “letra” in Spanish or “paroles” in French.) Some songs may be popular but are more obscure from mainstream media and only fans themselves would have posted the lyrics online but they might not use the word for “lyrics” for their posting. They might just write the words of the song and the song title. So if you don’t know the song title, just type in the lines that you do know and you might find the entire song posted online.
3. Make a vocabulary list with words from the songs
To visually reinforce what you are learning from listening to music, write vocabulary words from the songs you are learning on flash cards or pieces of paper. On one side, write the word in your language and then write the word in the other language on the opposite side. When you are waiting in line in the grocery store, you can pull out the flash cards and study your new words. If you study one song a week and reinforce your learning by practicing your vocabulary with flash cards, you will quickly learn new words and have fun along the way. If you are high-tech, you can make flash cards for your computer, phone or IPod using Quizlet or another free flashcard service or use the SRS system Benny recommends for a time-released flash card system that tests you on words “a few minutes after the first time, then a few days later, then a few weeks later etc. always at the time you need to see it most to make sure it is constantly fresh in your mind”.
4. Imagine the lyrics in your head
If the song is a story, then close your eyes as you hear the music and think of what the songwriter is talking about. Create the story in your mind as you listen. You’ll retain the words from the songs better than by just memorizing them from a vocabulary chart. You will be more apt to use the words when you need to communicate. For example, the famous New York, New York song speaks of someone coming to New York and seeing the city is alive, even at night. Imagine someone arriving in New York city, or another big city, and seeing the city full of bright lights and action. People are walking around, eating in restaurants, and drinking in cafes. The streets are full of cars and buses.
Do this type of a visualization exercise to make the music come alive for you. Utilize your imagination.
5. Listen to the music in your head
When you hear songs in your head, you usually hear the music in its original form, without your accent. Relax, close your eyes, and play the song in your mind. Be your own stereo. You are letting your brain get used to the sounds of the language and recreating it in your mind before you try to sing it yourself. Singers hear the notes in their brains before they open their mouths and sing.
6. Watch television programs in the language
This may be the first time in your life when watching television is your homework. Take advantage of the opportunity!
Let’s say you are learning Spanish. You have found a local Spanish language TV station in your area or you are watching the a Spanish language news channel like Univision (Spanish language station in the US) or BBC Mundo. Even without knowing all the words, you will be able to get the gist of some of the news reports. The images and video footage of events already tell you what the news announcers are talking about. Tune into HOW they are speaking and the words they are using to describe the images on screen.
I did this exercise in a class of American 12 year olds whom I taught who had little or no exposure to Spanish. They were shocked at how much they understood the short video news clips I showed them about the salmonella outbreak in August 2010 in California, the Chilean miners caught underground, and a literature program in Argentine prisons. They could follow the story line and explain the main points. Believe me, you’ll learn new words without actively realizing you’re learning because you’ll be following the story line. It’s best to watch news in a foreign language after you already know the relevant news from a source in your own language. This way, you already know the context and will better understand what the news announcers are talking about.
If you’re learning Spanish, Portuguese or Korean, there are some popular soap operas from Latin America and South Korea that you could get hooked on and learn via melodrama! I’m totally serious. I’ve met people who’ve learned Spanish and Portuguese by watching telenovelas and other TV programs.
If they are learning French or Arabic, france24.com has great news articles that are directly translated, so you can watch them in one then another language. Deutsche Welle has videos online in both English & German and audio and text news in many other languages.
My parents didn’t have money for private tutors or expensive language classes abroad, so I supplemented my regular language classes in school with the media. Or in the case of Serbo-Croatian, I learned it just by living in Sarajevo.
Music, TV, movies, radio and the Internet offer a plethora of opportunities to get into the flow of a new language without having to spend a dime on tutors or expensive overseas classes. My goal is for people to be polyglots and I know for a fact that it doesn’t take money, living abroad or one-on-one classes. It’s all about passion and dedication. Find your groove in a foreign tongue or get hooked on a foreign TV show and enjoy your road to fluency!
Find more tips about learning foreign language using music, TV, radio, film, television and other low-cost resources in Language is Music. The books are available on Amazon , BarnesandNoble.com and via order through your local bookstore (in the US).
Make sure to share your thoughts with us on using music to learn languages in the comments below!