Transparent Language Blog

Language Learning Through Songs Posted by on Nov 28, 2016 in Archived Posts

Listening to music sung in a foreign language is a great way to learn that language. Provided you really understand what they’re saying, that is…

Itchy Feet: High Culture

Unfortunately for us language learners, there are a lot of things that words simply can’t express. Cultural particularities are often among those things – culture is nebulous, it’s not concrete, and that makes it difficult to communicate with simple words. Even if you do find the words, they may not translate to other languages. Culture can be impossibly strange to outsiders, while to insiders it’s so normal you don’t even realize where the line is between culture and reality. It’s just a part of who you are.

That said, it’s not as if popular songs about money, guns and fast women are difficult to translate. These are objects of fantasy and desire for young lads the world over. But I’ve traveled to foreign countries where kids and parents together are singing along to racy songs which, if they understood the lyrics they were saying, would be lobster-red with embarrassment, if not straight outrage. So yeah, it’s awkward to explain to a little girl what the words to her favorite Rhianna songs actually mean. But then, it isn’t my job to teach her about the birds and the bees, is it?

American pop culture has so thoroughly penetrated the global consciousness that many non-native speakers know English swear words and slang before they know how to properly speak. This is a boost they’re given that we native English speakers have to go out and seek; they get the culture handed to them, we have to dig for it ourselves in their languages. And even if you do find songs in the local language, they’re still surprisingly often sprinkled with English terms and phrases – just because English is “cool.”

Aside from occasional potential embarrassment, however, songs are a great way to get into learning languages. Songs can run the gamut from slow and easy to understand, with repeating lyrics and choruses that sink in, to quick, pop-culture-peppered, slang-heavy tunes that give you an idea of what’s happening culturally in that language’s home country. You can easily find the printed lyrics to songs online, giving you another way to crack the code. And of course, it’s fun! I myself have learned to play and sing several songs on guitar in Spanish, Italian and French. Looking forward to finding a German one…

What’s been your experience with language learning through songs?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Elaine:

    I agree totally – I have been learning Italian for a few years and have learned so many new words from songs. Listening to the same songs regularly helps the words to “stick”, and I often take the time to try to make a meaninful translation of the whole song. Sometimes in reading an Italian text I will come across a word that is vaguely familiar and realise I’ve heard it before in a song. If I sing the song to myself (in my head of course!!) I will often be able to remember what that word means! I’ve found it much more useful listening to ballads and easy-listening music over rap and disco-style songs; the lyrics are generally easier to make out and have more meaning.

    • Eugene:

      @Elaine Do you listen Italian opera?

      • Elaine:

        @Eugene Opera, no. I don’t much like it and I find the words hard to distinguish. I prefer gentle pop and easy-listening.

  2. Jeremy White:

    That’s true. I wrote about how you can also learn grammar by listening to music:

  3. richardlanguage:

    “Astronaut” by Sido is a cool German pop song.

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