How to Learn a Song in a Language You Don’t Know (And Why It’s the Best Thing You Can Do)
I love meeting new people, but I am the worst at remembering names.
I don’t even know the name of my next door neighbour even though I see him every morning and I’ve asked him over ten times…
At this party recently I met a girl named “Leyla.” I found myself singing Eric Clapton’s song in my head. This lead me to forget everyone else’s name that night except hers.
Ever wondered why you can’t remember new vocabulary in your target language, but you still remember the lyrics to a childhood song from twenty years ago? Well, it’s easier to remember songs for many reasons.
I’m sure there are songs in your native language that helped you learn your mother tongue when you were a kid.
How can you use the power of music to your advantage in language learning? Learn a song in your target language. Here's how to do that.
1. Pick a Song in Your Target Language That You LOVE
It’s really important to choose a song that you enjoy – ideally a pop song.
Why? Otherwise you risk getting sick of it and losing motivation. Choosing a popular song is also beneficial as well, since it’ll be easier to find videos and translations online. Plus, we remember the songs we enjoy even more because those are the songs we listen to more often!
How do you find a song? Googling the top charts in the country that speaks your target language: “Top charts [country]”. Even better, write the search in your target language. Or, if you have a friend who speaks your target language, ask them. Check YouTube to make sure it has a lot of views and is popular (you’ll see why later on!).
If you want to challenge yourself, choose a fast rap song. If you’re more of a beginner, choose a simple song.
For example, if you are an English learner, the hardest type of songs would be Eminem rap song, and the easier ones would be something more along the lines of “Stand By Me.” by Ben E. King. If you can’t seem to find a simple song in your target language, don’t be shy to ask a friend or even ask the Fluent in 3 Months Facebook community.
2. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat!
Listen to the song on repeat until you start dreaming about it. Okay, maybe that’s a little much, but really, you need a lot of exposure.
Even if you feel like you’re not learning anything the 50th time you listen to it, you’re wrong. Your subconscious picks up a lot more than you think.
Think about the song “Macarena’ Or “Gangnam Style”? What percentage of those lyrics can you sing along to without thinking? Probably more than you realise.
Finding time to listen to this song shouldn’t be hard. Listen to it at the gym, in the car on your way to work, or even set it as your alarm clock.
Humans remember songs more than addresses, names, or definitions. Why? Songs stick in our head because of their rhythm and rhyme. Also, it’s easier to remember songs because putting them on repeat is enjoyable. Most people love listening to the their favourite songs over and over again. By contrast, read the same dictionary definition over and over again and you’ll quickly get bored.
At this stage, you know you’re ready to move on when you catch yourself humming the melody throughout the day.
3. Write Out the Lyrics by Hand
After you’ve listened to the song a couple of times and decided you like it, copy down the lyrics by hand. Writing it out by hand may seem old school and inefficient, but studies show that taking notes by hand helps you remember what you’re writing.
4. Write Out a Translation of the Lyrics
Every wonder why it’s hard to remember how to spell those random scientific terms you learned in chemistry class? It’s because it’s challenging to remember something that you don’t know. After all, if you don’t know what means, why would you care about remembering it?
This is the same reason it’s hard to remember foreign names such as Kweasibea (Ghana) Le Van Theo (Vietnam) or Menachem (Israel).
Translating the lyrics to your song gives it meaning and makes it easier to remember. Plus, you’ll pick up some useful vocabulary in your target language while you’re at it!
If you want to go the extra mile, before you use a dictionary, try to write a out summary of the lyrics. What’s the song about? Does it tell a story? Putting the lyrics in your own words will help you remember it better. True you may be able to find a version that’s translated for you already, but doing the translation yourself will help you learn the words more effectively. Remember, you get out what you put in. So taking short cuts here will only hurt you.
5. Memorise One Part of the Song at a Time
Now that you’ve translated the song, it’s time to start memorising the lyrics.
How do you do this without freaking out? Break it down into small chunks.
Don’t try to memorise the entire song at once. Instead, memorise a few lines at a time. Start with the easiest part, perhaps the chorus, bridge, or the most memorable lines.
This takes time, but don’t worry, once you learn it, it’ll stay in your memory for years.
Songs are usually formatted as follows, or something similar:
- Verse 1
- Verse 2
Most songs will have a similar format. Some may be simpler, consisting of just two verses and choruses.
If you absolutely don’t know where to start, start with the chorus. Then go back and memorise the rest of the song in order.
Assuming this isn’t your full time job and you’re not a professional musician, I recommend spending at least one week on each section of the song. That means one week on the chorus, one week on the bridge, and one week on each verse. This may sound like a lot of work, but it’s unlikely to take more than ten minutes per day. Little and often is the key!
Let’s take a look at a few hacks you can use to make this process easier…
Memory Hack 1: Let the Lyrics Come to You
Memorising the lyrics is probably the hardest step when you’re using songs in language learning.
But, you can make it easier on yourself by letting the lyrics come to you. My favourite strategy for this is to write out the lyrics and tape them on the wall in my bathroom. Every time I go to the bathroom, I’m forced to look at them.
Another hack is to take a picture of the lyrics and save this as your phone’s lock screen. How many times a day do you look at your phone? I know I check my phone way more than I’d like to admit!
Memory Hack 2: Recall
While learning the lyrics, don’t stare at the piece of paper and try to memorise what you see. Instead, practice recalling.
“Wait, isn’t that the same thing?”
Practice recall by trying to sing the song without looking at the lyrics you’ve written. That’s recalling. Another way you can practice this is by trying to write the lyrics out.
Memory Hack 3: Create Signposts
Another memory trick is to connect song lines to each other using signposts. The best way I’ve found to do this is by remembering the first or last word in each line and connecting them with a story.
For example, if one line ends in “tree” and the next line begins with “girl”. you can use “tree” and “girl” as signposts between the lines. To remember this, create an image in your mind of a girl sitting in a tree. Once you sing the lyric for “tree” you’ll be reminded of this image of the girl, and this will help you remember the next line.
6. Get Singing!
Once you’ve memorised your song, it’s time to practice. A great way to do this is by looking on YouTube for karaoke versions of the song. This is helpful because you’ll be able to read the lyrics as you sing the melody yourself. Practice out loud, just try not to wake the neighbours!
If this is too easy for you, then skip to the next step, which is is finding an instrumental version of the song without lyrics. This will force you to recall the lyrics!
7. Make Lots of Mistakes
When I first started performing live music, I worried that I was going to mess up the lyrics and everyone would hate me for it. After over two years of performing, I realised no one cares or notices if I screw up lyrics, even if it’s from a popular song.
You’re not even performing this, so don’t worry about making mistakes. Sing what you can and if you sing in gibberish for certain parts, that’s okay. Have fun with it!
8. Revisit Your New Vocabulary
After you know the song and can sing it decently, go back and revisit your translation. What new words have you learned? It might be helpful to have a friend or your teacher point out the words that are the most practical.
You’ll be surprised at how many words you’ve learned! What’s more, your pronunciation for these words will be spot on since you’ve been training your mouth for the last few weeks.
9. Use Your Song to Make New Friends
In my experience traveling to over 20 countries, I’ve noticed there are certain levels of excitement when I meet someone who’s from a country that I’ve travelled to.
Level one: I tell them I’ve been to their home country and they’re happy and they smile. We talk about the food, the places to go, etc.
Level two: I say a short greeting or phrase in their native language and they laugh and are impressed almost immediately. This leads to a conversation about why I speak the language and they usually open up.
Level three: On top of level one or two, I mention a cultural reference such as a TV show or a movie. They’re almost always impressed and happy that someone appreciates their culture.
Level four: Sing a song in their language. This instantly blows their mind and I establish a connection straight away. One time after doing this, I got invited to dinner at stranger’s homes after two minutes of meeting them.
Conclusion: The Benefits of Singing in Your Target Language
When it’s all said and done, learning a song in your target language will improve your pronunciation, enhance your memory, as well as add several new words to your vocabulary.
The best part? You can now SING in a foreign language. How cool is that!?