A recent study at the University of Edinburgh’s Reid School of Music indicates that learners’ memory skills are greatly improved when memorising to music.
In this research, participants were asked to memorise phrases in Hungarian, and repeat them fifteen minutes later. Though each group studied in the same listen-and-repeat style, one group heard the phrases spoken, the second heard phrases set to a rhythm, and the third heard phrases in song. The singing group was able to recall far more Hungarian than the other two groups.
Music can be a great asset for language learning and its benefits extend far beyond memorising vocabulary. Below are five ways to use music in your foreign language studies:
Parents from the ‘90s may remember ‘The Mozart Effect’, a fad concept which claimed that children and babies who listened to Mozart became more intelligent later in life. It turned out that the real research findings had been somewhat manipulated by the media. Still, this fad triggered several follow-up studies which found that listening to classical music leads to a temporary improvement in the ability to mentally manipulate images and shapes.
This skill can be helpful for language learners who are studying in a foreign script and need to process different symbols. For language learners who are learning a new writing system like Japanese or Arabic, it may be worth giving classical music a try.
It is common for adult language learners to struggle with pronunciation in a foreign language. Sadly, a big factor can simply be nerves: the speaker doesn’t want to look silly or risk offence by emulating a foreign speaker.
When singing along to a song in a foreign language, however, you must concentrate on the tone and rhythm of the music. This distraction helps you become less self-conscious.
Learning language in song is also a much more engaging way to practise pronunciation than simple listen-and-repeat drills. This means that you are more likely to put in more pronunciation practice time without realising it, simply by playing foreign language music in the car or at home.
When it comes to remembering groups of words, such as colours, numbers, body parts or directions, language learners should look to song for help. The University of Edinburgh’s study shows an effective way of memorising phrases, but this tool of singing new vocabulary can be great for recalling clusters of similar words.
It’s a simple but effective study tool: take a short vocabulary cluster and set that list of words to music, using a common tune like ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’. When set to a tune, the list is easier to memorise and easier to recall, making it a good tool for test-taking situations where learners need to recall groups of vocabulary words.
Song lyrics give learners the opportunity to practise language in context and become familiar with basic forms. They are an accessible and fairly unintimidating way to practise the structural concepts of language like word order or conjugation.
Though it may seem juvenile, children’s songs are a great tool for vocabulary practice. They typically use simple structures, everyday vocabulary, and lots of repetition, making them a great tool for beginner language learners. Pop or contemporary lyrics are useful for more advanced learners who can study colloquialisms and slang.
Linguists have long been researching the correlation between music ability and language aptitude. The findings are consistent: a connection between pitch awareness and phonological awareness. This means that language learners who play a musical instrument are conditioned to better identify and process different sounds in language. A musical ear is a great asset when it comes to learning tonal languages like Thai or Cantonese.
Furthermore, a study in the Journal of Neuroscience found that people who have rhythmic abilities have more consistent brain responses to speech. This means that, with musical training, the brain becomes more attune to processing spoken language. If you already play a musical instrument, your listening skills already have a leg up on other language learners.
Anne Merritt is an EFL lecturer currently based in South Korea. annemerritt.com