Being an English teacher, and a music lover, I have always asked myself if these two skills have anything in common. As a teacher, I have noticed that most of my students that play some kind of musical instrument tend to pick up (learn) the language a lot quicker.
As I have written about before, in the article how to learn English with rhythm and flow, I believe that singers definitely have a huge advantage when it comes to pronunciation, due to their abilities to project their voice in many different ways. But, what about the all the other musicians? Why is it that they always seem to have this natural ability to comprehend a new language faster than my students that don’t play a musical instrument?
Could it be that learning a language and learning how to play an instrument is in some way the same process?
With this in mind I have been doing some research and I stumbled across (found by accident) Victor Wooten, who really helped me understand how learning to play an instrument and learning to speak a language are similar.
Wooten is a five-time Grammy award winning musician and a remarkable teacher. He has been sharing his innovative approach to music with his students from all around the world, and continues to do so until today. Wooten radiates inspiration and has really helped me connect the dots with the similarities between learning to play an instrument, and learning a language.
Let’s have a look what he has to say. (Subtitles are available when you open the video on youtube or the TedEd website)
Besides being blown away (really impressed) by that awesome video, did you agree with what Wooten had to say? Do you think you can apply these methods to learning a second language?
To make sure you have understood his approach to learning music as a language, let’s go through the main ideas he brought up (mentioned) in this video.
Music as a Language
What Are The Similarities Of Music And Spoken Language?
- Like spoken language, music is a form of expression, a way to communicate to others.
- They both can be read or written.
- They both evoke and capture a particular emotion.
- They can make you move.
One thing that separates music and language is that music doesn’t have to be consciously understood to be effective.
What Are Some Misconceptions About Learning An Instrument Or Second Language?
Although most musicians agree that music is a language, it is rarely treated like that by the general public. Like learning a second language, most people think that to learn how to play an instrument, you have to learn a lot of rules, structures, and be taught by a professional teacher.
This approach to learning an instrument, or learning a new language, does work, but it takes a very long time to become proficient.
Why is it important to make mistakes?
Think about when you were learning your native language, did you ever make mistakes? Of course you did, and it’s going to happen when learning a second language as well.
You should embrace (enthusiastically accept) the mistakes and see them as an opportunity to learn. The most important thing is that you are trying. If you make a mistake it doesn’t mean you are stupid, and it doesn’t mean you aren’t a good learner. Have fun and don’t worry about what other people might think.
Wooten says to think of learning a language as a child playing air guitar: there are no wrong notes.
Take a look at Benny the Irish polyglot talking about his experience with language learning and embarrassing mistakes.
Should I Avoid Speaking English With Advanced Learners?
Definitely not! Again, think about when you were a baby learning to speak your first language. Did you get to hear and speak to more advanced speakers, or did your parents just let you speak with other babies?
The same approach is necessary for learning a new language. You need to have as much exposure to the native language as possible to really accelerate you learning process. If you could only speak to people who had the same knowledge of the language as you, you would be an adult by the time you had completely mastered the language.
Wooten uses a musical example and says that being able to communicate with proficient speakers, is like being able to jam (play music with others in a relaxed and spontaneous way) with experienced musicians when you are still a beginner.
Try to find these situations when you are around fluent, or more advanced English speakers and take advantage of the opportunity to jam with them.
Do I Have To Know All The Rules And Structures Before I Can Speak English?
A child speaks their first language for years before they even learn the alphabet or any kind of formal structure. Having too many rules at the beginning can slow down the learning, demotivate them, and cause confusion.
Don’t be so strict about the structure.
At the beginning, you need to be motivated and inspired to learn. Later in the process, you can go back and have a closer look at some of the more theoretical aspects of the language to get a deeper understanding and compliment what you’ve learned through experience.
How Often Should We Practice?
You should be practicing every day.
Wooten suggest encouraging beginners to play more than they practice, and the more they play, the more they will practice on their own.
This is a great way to approach learning a second language. The students should be USING the language in a relaxed and playful way, instead of just practicing it in a structured environment. The more they use and have fun with the language, the more they become inspired to practice and study by themselves.
Music comes from the musician, not the instrument. The same goes with communicating. It comes from the speaker, not the language they are speaking
What’s Your Opinion About This Approach To Learning?
After watching the video and contemplating some of Wooten’s ideas, do you think that there are similarities in learning to play an instrument and learning a new language?
From listening to Wooten’s ideas, I am certain that the reason why a lot of my English students, who are also musicians, have a tendency to learn faster, is because they have already been through this similar learning process.
All of these are key points to learning an instrument, and they are totally applicable to learning a second language. From my experience in using these methods with my students, I have seen that they are very efficient. Not only do they really accelerate the process, but they make it a lot more interesting.
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Here at Real Life English, we truly believe that the best way to learn a language is to find ways to make it part of your life, like with music. This comes from our own experiences learning other languages and from observing some of the best language learners in our international community.
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Like this article? Check out some other articles related to music:
- English with Music: Somebody that I USED TO Know (Goyte)
- Learn English with Music: U2 & the Present Perfect
- Fun and Simple English: Learning with Music
- Learn English with Rap: Slow the Flow (Ugly Duckling)
- Learn English with The Beatles: Yellow Submarine