20 Nov 2013

Can You Learn Languages Better with a Song?

Music has been found to aid the learning of a new language

People having trouble learning their Latin, remembering their Romanian or digesting their Dutch might be well advised to break into song, as a new study suggests it greatly improves memory skills.

Volunteers in Reid School of Music research at the University of Edinburgh were tasked with learning Hungarian phrases so they could repeat them after 15 minutes. The students were split into three groups, all taught through listening to the phrases and repeating them.

However, one group heard the phrases in songs, one was taught them in a particular rhythm and the other just heard them spoken. The group who had been warbling the phrases remembered far more than the other two, the experts found.

EFL lecturer Anne Merritt, writing in the Telegraph, suggests some practical ways you could use music to help in learning languages. Although you may have grown out of nursery rhymes, singing children’s songs in another language can be a good tool to practice vocabulary.

Beginners will find the simple structures and use of common words helpful, while these songs also use plenty of repetition to help get those new words in your head. If you’re a bit more advanced, learn some modern songs or pop tunes – they could get you using slang and colloquial terms like a local.

Repeating song lyrics can help a learner get used to basic sentence construction and see how language works in context. It can be a fun and less academic way of learning conjugation, for example.

There are some other links between having an ear for music and talent with languages. Experts have found that those who gage pitch well are also alert to phonological matters, so people who play instruments can also pick out and understand different sounds in language. It’s especially handy for tonal tongues such as Cantonese.

That claim is backed up by findings published in the Journal of Neuroscience, which show a link between rhythmic talents and how the brain processes speech, also suggesting some musical training helps listening skills for language.

The University of Edinburgh’s study talked about learning phrases, but singing is also very useful for leaning groups of new vocabulary – such as colours and numbers. The advice is to use a common tune – a folk song like London Bridge Is Falling Down works well – and work the words into it. They’ll be much easier to memorise and remember later than a list on a sheet of paper, especially useful if you’re under pressure in a test.

Some might remember a 1990s craze for getting kids and babies to listen to Mozart in the belief it would make them more intelligent as adults. In fact, The Mozart Effect had been somewhat exaggerated… but it did spark some follow up research that showed classical music can temporarily improve people’s ability to visualise in 3D.

In the world of languages, improved visualisation could help someone process new characters for tongues like Russian and Japanese.

So if you’re getting to grips with a brand new lexicon, try programming some gentle tunes into your iPod, It could be worth a try next time you hit a brick wall.


Sign up to our newsletter

Get our blog articles straight to your inbox.