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Can You Learn a New Language Through Song Lyrics? Technology Thinks You Can

Music can have a ton of both emotional and psychological effects on the brain. Its mnemonic power has been called upon for millennia, as poets and storytellers fashioned some of humanity’s first works of literature from the oral tradition of singing epics. From Tibet to England, the bards of old could recite hours and hours of verse with the same ease, yet hardly the capacity, that we today quote lyrics without purposefully committing them to memory.

Music is actually at the very core of our learning process since so many of our first moments in life involve hearing music played by our parents, and when we begin learning about the world, we do it through singing (i.e., “The ABCs”). Music makes information stick, allows experiences to sink in deeper, and stay with us longer.

“Lyrics have real power,” says Darryl Ballantyne, Founder & CEO of LyricFind, the first company to push lyrics from the digital black market into legal licenses that benefit songwriters and rights holders. “We’ve noticed that everywhere you see lyrics, you see more engagement. Listening to music becomes a more immersive experience.”

For tasks that rely heavily on memorization, songs can be a useful tool, and that’s why learning a new language could be made so much easier if aided by lyrical comprehension. Not only do new-language learners have to remember vocabulary, but also grammar rules, syntax, contemporary slang, and in some cases, genders! What if music could make all that crucial memorization fun and a little less painful?

New York-based English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher Ernest Barteldes has used music to teach English for years. As a student himself learning Spanish, he found listening to Spanish-language music to be an effective tool. In his classroom, he guides his students in singalongs and lyric-based exercises and uses songs to teach grammar. “Many songs are great to highlight grammar usage. For instance, Beyoncé’s ‘If I Were A Boy’,” says Barteldes.

The song takes a complicated rule — namely, which verb tense to use in conditional phrases — and makes it fun:

If I were a boy,
I would turn off my phone.
Tell everyone it’s broken,
So they’d think that I was sleepin’ alone.
“Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Breakaway’ also does a great job of illustrating phrasal verbs,” Barteldes goes on. The song features phrases like “end up,” “fall down,” and “break away,” so it can effectively teach listeners the meaning and conditional usage of phrasal verbs according to the song’s storyline.

Barteldes also uses older songs to teach topic-related vocabulary and idioms. His students study Queen’s “Leaving Home Ain’t Easy” when learning language related to relationships and divorce, and the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” to understand generation gaps.

Barteldes happens to be a musician himself, which makes him sensitive to what lyrics have to teach us. But since music is such an effective tool, even non-musicians are starting to harness its power for language learning through new digital services that have started to pop up and catch on.

Along with websites like LyricsTraining and LyricsGaps, one such vanguard service is Linguician, an Austria-based company that offers users a musical experience to help them memorize vocabulary and improve pronunciation. “With Linguician, the user can unlock the associative power of music for language acquisition,” explains Alexander Rietzler, Founder and CEO of Linguician.

Searching Bing for the lyrics to Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.”
Linguician users choose from a wide catalog of music videos in their target language. As the video plays, lessons and learning games for vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation are created based on the song’s lyrics. Linguician currently supports languages including Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian, and French.

The lyrics are provided by LyricFind, giving the platform access to the dozens of languages the company has vetted and licensed from thousands of publishers around the world. It’s an original use of the service’s product, one that shows the full and diverse possibilities for lyrics in the digital age. “By using lyrics as a means of teaching, Linguician forges a new and unique path for lyric licensing,” says Roy Hennig, LyricFind’s Vice President of Sales.

Lyrics provide an opportunity for language learning on many levels. Some songwriters use simple words, others more complex language that even native speakers have to lean in to catch. Linguician tailors an experience to fit each user’s language level and needs, tracks which vocabulary and grammar the user has already learned, and monitors what needs improvement. Linguician is still new itself, so there’s a lot of room for improvement on the part of the app itself, but it’s on the way.

The rewards of using lyrical songwriting to learn language go beyond acquiring new vocabulary. Music provides an immersive emotional experience, drawing listeners into another culture and perspective. Lyrics are more than a language-learning hack. They’re the keys that unlock the seemingly foreign, turning a strange new phrase into something we can understand and relate to and something we may remember for the rest of our lives.