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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…
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?