There’s a common classroom phenomenon familiar to most ESL teachers of preteens: arriving at class early one day, you catch your students—even the most timid or confidence-lacking among them—belting out English pop songs with ease, their pronunciation so flawless that you wonder if you’ve stepped into a classroom full of native speakers by mistake. The kids deliver difficult-to-explain slang and colloquialisms with perfect intonation; they spit out rhymes at a mile a minute, barely stopping to take a breath but never missing a word.
These skills eventually start to manifest outside of sing-alongs; in our experience, language learning music aficionados are keen to pepper their speech with the new vocabulary and figures of speech they’ve learned from their favourite songs.
So how do they do it?
A 2013 study out of the University of Edinburgh found that singing can have a noticeable effect on a person’s ability to retain a new language. The study asked the English-speaking participants to learn phrases in Hungarian either through singing or speaking, and then tested the two groups on their ability to remember what they’d learned; the singing group fared better on four out of the five tests. A Canadian study found similar results.
Anyone who’s ever taken a primary school-level language class has probably spent a fair amount of time singing along to the kind of hokey, gesture-heavy tunes that are a staple of language classrooms. (Are there any anglophone Canadians who don’t have the lyrics to “Frère Jacques” burned into their brain?) And while you might have grown out of the nursery rhymes, it’s still a great idea to use music as a tool for improving your vocabulary and pronunciation.
The benefits are multifold; on a basic level, song lyrics can be a great source of new vocabulary and slang. Lyrics are generally easier for people to recall than other words, which music psychologist Vicky Williamson told the BBC is down to three factors: the frequency of our exposure to popular songs, the emotional response music triggers and our instinct to sing along, a habit that commits lyrics to our muscle memory.
Singing also provides practical training in pronunciation, as well as rhythm, intonation and stress—the crucial but often overlooked features of a language that can be difficult to master without ample practice. Singing along to lyrics necessitates imitating the original artist’s patterns of speech—a task that can feel excessive or embarrassing when communicating with a teacher or native speaker, but which naturally occurs without a second thought when it comes to singing.
The next time you’re feeling discouraged about your language progress, perhaps reach for your iPod instead of your grammar book. And don’t worry if you’re no songbird: solo singing in the car or shower still count!
Do you have a favourite song in a non-native language that you like to sing along to? Let us know in the comments!
– By Holly Tousignant