Do you love music in English, and would like to use your passion for music to improve your English?
Not only is music is one of the most fun and effective strategies you can use to learn and improve your English, but it also helps you connect with English speaking culture, make new friends, and it makes your experience of the song much better.
Whether you understand the lyrics or not, English music is everywhere, and it’s a good idea to start paying attention to the lyrics and using them to learn. One extremely fluent Brazilian member of the RealLife English International Community recently wrote in our forum:
I’ve been studying English for a long, long time. I can both understand and make myself understood by people when I engage in conversations. Reading is not an issue, and I can also write quite reasonably in English. Accents are generally not a problem—I’ve talked to chaps from different parts of the world and it went smooth. There’s this one thing that seems impossible to me though—I think I’ll never be able to listen to a song and grasp the fucking lyrics.
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My advice to anybody who finds themselves in the same situation: just relax and look up the lyrics. I’m a native English speaker and I don’t know what they are singing about half the time (or more depending on the singer).
I’ve also experienced the phenomenon from the other side, with Spanish and Portuguese songs. But if you make an effort to understand the lyrics, trust me when I say that YOU ARE LEARNING, and it will consistently get a lot easier. This article will cover:
- The value of understanding the lyrics.
- English music is everywhere: cultural imperialism and learning English.
- Tips on how you can start taking advantage of music in your learning.
Before we go on, I highly recommend watching this music video. The song seems really dramatic, but he’s really singing about NOTHING. I guarantee you will laugh your ass off, and it will help clarify everything we’re talking about.
Funny as it is, we all know this is true. So what does this say about listening to a song you don’t understand?
1. The Value of Understanding the Lyrics
As the above “Dramatic Song” pokes fun at, we all know that English speaking music can be enjoyed without understanding the lyrics. But as the song points out, an artist could sing about nothing and rise to the top of the charts. It sounds like a cruel joke on the non-native speaker, but it’s the truth about pop music.
What if you started to pay attention to what they’re saying? This is where you can take advantage of the language. This is the essence of a language. The words start to communicate something to you on whole new level, and you start associating them with your own life. This is where absorbing a culture through passive listening (being brainwashed) becomes an active process in your own life (learning a language). So, how can learning the lyrics help you improve your English (or whatever language you are learning)?
Lyrics are not easily forgotten. You listen to them over and over again throughout your life. Once you learn them, they are going to stay with you, and you are going to review them over and over because you ENJOY it. If you learn just one song per week for a year (which would take up very little time), that’s 52 songs full of new vocabulary and phrases that you will never forget.
3. Pronunciation Practice
Songs give you perfect pronunciation models. As you learn to sing them, you are practicing your pronunciation, you are imitating native speakers, and you are learning how to speak better. The rhythm naturally leads to better pronunciation, better intonation, and more fluency.
4. Listening Skills Improve
When you start paying attention to the lyrics your listening skills naturally improve. Once you learn a few songs, you’ll start gathering an immense repertoire of songs and vocab. Just the fact that you start caring about the lyrics will activate your listening skills and listening to music in English will become an enjoyable learning exercise.
5. It’s Practical & it Complements What You Already Do
You probably already like certain songs in English. You don’t need to change your life around. All you have to do is print out the lyrics and use a dictionary to look words up that you don’t know. You can also put the lyrics on your ipod or iphone and read them as you listen.
6. Grammar Practice
Another huge advantage is that you get to practice your grammar. Some of the most intelligent grammar questions my students bring me come from songs. You can probably even map the entire language into pop songs and drastically improve your grammar by learning the lyrics to your favorite songs.
7. Correct Collocation
Collocation is the cultural context and placement of words. It’s what sounds natural to native speakers. It usually doesn’t have much logic to it, and it’s almost impossible to teach. It is something that’s acquired with time and contact with the language in authentic cultural contexts. Songs tell stories, and these stories teach correct collocation which you hear over and over again and incorporate them into your own way of speaking.
8. You can teach your friends what the songs are saying
You get to teach your friends what the songs are really saying because you understand the real meaning of the songs you like. When you dedicate yourself to learning the lyrics, you start needing to know what the song is saying, because you realize that your experience of the song is always incomplete without understanding the lyrics. You realize that many of the things people think the songs are saying really aren’t true, and when you teach them it will deepen your own understanding of it.
English Music is Everywhere!
We could talk about the negative consequences of globalization all day long, but for people learning English, the fact that it is universalizing English speaking culture through music and TV shows is really pretty awesome and convenient. With music, which seems to be the most natural and relaxed doorway into any language, the rhythm permits the listener to transcend the confines of the lyrics and enjoy the feeling of the song and glimpse the culture. And learning the lyrics takes the experience to a whole other level.
As a native English speaker, wherever I go, I have this sense that people everywhere know my culture already. The interesting thing is that they really do. I constantly run into people who know more about English speaking music than I do. My natural tendency is to feel embarrassed about this, but then I accept that English speaking music and pop culture belong to the world and not to any one language or country.
Living in Brazil, which has one of the most incredible music cultures in the world, I always ask Brazilians to imagine what it would be like to travel to the U.S.A. or Europe and find out that everybody was already familiar with your famous musicians, your TV programs, and the rest of your pop culture. Take a second and think about that.
Call to Action
Select 10 songs in English (or whatever language you are learning) that you love and want to understand better, and print them out right now. It’s better to print them out because you can write on the paper and take it with you. If you have an ipod or iphone, it’s really easy to attach them and read as you listen to the song.
Commit yourself to learning the lyrics to one song per week. Once you have learned the lyrics, review the songs that you’ve already learned a few times a week (this won’t be difficult).
If you have any questions or confusions about lyrics or certain expressions, feel free to COMMENT below. There are a lot of people eager to help.
Finally, HAVE FUN. Realize that learning English music can be a perfectly natural, enjoyable, rich part of your daily life.
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