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How learning to sing can unlock your pronunciation potential

How learning to sing in your target language can help you mimic the acquisition process of a child and unlock your pronunciation potential

Music is a great way to dive straight into immersion learning without needing to use any special tools. It can replace the need for flash cards to drill core vocabulary, allows you to efficiently memorise entire sentences to extrapolate grammar from, works wonders for pronunciation, and most importantly, it’s enjoyable. But what exactly makes it so powerful?

I discovered singing to be an incredibly effective and holistic technique kind of by accident when I first became interested in German back in 2013. At the time I had just recently rekindled my childhood love for The Lion King, and I was determined to learn the lyrics to the soundtrack of my old favourite movie in my new favourite language (i.e. the ultimate intersection of special interests). Listening and singing along to music for a few hours each day in addition to a healthy dose of “regular” spoken audio immersion (mostly YouTube videos and news broadcasts) allowed me to lay the foundations for a native sounding accent which I’m really proud of. Here’s a short audio clip I recorded when I was 18, after just over three years of learning and before having ever visited Germany. More recently my listener intro was chosen for this year’s first episode episode of The Fluent Show (if you’re not already subscribed to Kerstin’s podcast, what are you doing? You absolutely need her infectious passion in your life!)

Much like my work with children, I consider my personal language learning methodology to be very play based. I try to create a rich immersive environment by surrounding myself with the target language and culture, and allow myself to absorb and internalise as much as I can just through having fun discovering and using the language. I do supplement this unstructured everyday learning with more traditional intentional study of grammar, using dictionaries, and making notes, but it is certainly not the focus of my acquisition process.

Learning the lyrics to songs is something people already do naturally, often without even realising it, and which also happens to play a huge role in the acquisition of our native languages. In early childhood education, we purposefully use songs with actions to foster children’s language development, as they help make information and routines more exiting, memorable, and comprehensible. When listening to others recite familiar rhymes like “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” or “The Wheels on the Bus”, where only a couple of words change between each verse, children are learning to look out for small differences between complex sentences. Because music tends to be so repetitive (natural SRS, anyone?), they can soon begin to swap out one or two words for some of their own choosing, essentially using the lyrics as a template like in a phrasebook, to achieve the satisfaction of sharing a new idea using a full sentence, but without having to construct it from scratch themselves, thus building their confidence as communicators. As adult learners, we can similarly borrow fragments of pre-memorised lyrics that we’ve learnt from songs to give us a head start in quickly assembling natural and idiomatic sentences, without necessarily having to understand how all the words and grammar rules interact with one another yet.

Besides paving a shortcut to acquiring new vocabulary and grammar, singing provides us with a unique opportunity to shadow organically. Ever wonder why so many non-native speakers of English seem to have their accent “disappear” when singing? It is easier to mimic pronunciation in song because we’re naturally more inclined to pay close attention to what we’re hearing and accordingly alter our oral posture to copy the example with a lot more attention to detail compared to just imitating plain speech. We can focus on simply recreating the phonemes we hear, without having to worry about intonation or simultaneously constructing new sentences on the fly. By breaking down the individual features that contribute to a native’s accent and speech pattern like this, achieving accurate natural pronunciation in regular speech is far less guess work, and more a matter of simply transferring your singing voice into your speaking one, when you move from placing an emphasis on phonemes (which you’ve already mastered) to then concentrating on prosody.

I also believe music to be such a great learning tool because it’s just so insanely addictive. Songs inherently make even the most incomprehensible of input more enjoyable, because words put to a tune stimulate more parts of the brain than spoken language alone, and leave us thinking about them even long after we’ve stopped listening – who hasn’t had an earworm before?

So how can you start taking advantage of all this?

Find a few songs in your target language sung by someone whose accent you’d like to emulate; you’ll need to get a copy of the lyrics, and a text translation of those lyrics in another language you already know. I personally find Disney songs to be particularly good for this, because they tend to have longer sentences and often tell a linear story, as well as having a broader range of more useful daily vocabulary than most pop music. A really good example for beginners is “When Will my Life Begin” from Tangled, it’s not too long, and it’s basically just about daily routines. You can of course choose really any kind of songs you want, the most important thing is that you’ll be happy to listen to them a lot while you slowly work your way through memorising the lyrics and understanding the translation. Naturally the first song always takes the longest to learn by heart, but you’ll find that the more you continue to add to your mental database and improve your knowledge of the structure of the language, the faster it becomes. One day years down the track you’ll go back and listen to the same music again and realise that what once sounded like incomprehensible nonsense has magically transformed into crystal clear poetic meaning.

If you’re learning a language with a distinguishing phonological feature like tones or pitch accent which disappears when singing, using music as your main source of immersion could have an impact on your ability to perceive and produce this aspect of pronunciation, but I do believe you still can reap a lot of the other benefits of learning using songs, as long as you make an effort to intentionally study and practise normal speech alongside perfecting your oral posture with singing from the get go. The same goes for any language where you feel like you just aren’t pronouncing a certain sound correctly; some intensely focused isolated practice may be necessary in order to get it right. I remember I had to do a lot of persistent gargling for a couple of months before I finally nailed the German R sound.

This technique can be used by anyone at any point in their language learning journey to boost overall vocabulary and comprehension, hone pronunciation of individual phonemes and words, and for complete beginners, to hit the ground running with an amazing accent when it comes time to start having conversations.

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