Learn Grammar by Singing

There’s a strong link between language and music. I think a lot of people already understand that, maybe even believing it to be common sense. Cognitive scientists have made leaps and bounds in discovering what some of those language / music connections are in the brain. There’s also compelling argument that language and music evolved side by side for humans.

With all of that in mind (pun intended), it’s not surprising that there are polyglot bloggers like Susanna Saraysky suggesting using music to learn language.

A lot of what’s out there, however, is touting the power of foreign language songs to help you learn vocabulary and pronunciation. While this is important, there’s also a lot to be said about creating new music to learn grammar.

Verb Conjugation

Some of the most effective language learning techniques I use today are things I learned from my middle school French teacher, Mr. Planck. Judging by the plethora of complaints about “learning languages in school” and from my own high school language class experience, I consider myself rather lucky to have had such a great teacher at the beginning of my journey into polyglottism.

One of the best things he did was make us sing a song he had devised to memorize the conjugations of the verb être (to be), an irregular verb that you need to get right from the beginning. The lyrics?

“Je suis, tu es, il est, elle est, on est, on est, nous sommes, vous êtes, ils sont, elles sont, sois! sois! soyons! soyez! soyez! And bring it on down, ahahaha, bring it on down. Asseyez-vous….”

(Translation: “I am, you are, he is, she is, one is, one is, we are, you all are, they are, they are, you be! you be! let’s be! you all be! you all be! And bring it on down, ahahaha, bring it on down. Everyone sit down.”)

No joke. That’s the song.

Keep it simple, stupid

Mr. Planck would stand in front of the class, strumming his zither, and he would sing. And we would sing along with him. And it was silly, of course, and the melody was a bit lacking. But it worked.

That was almost 2 decades ago, and I can still sing the song today. Why?

It was dead simple.

The point here is to take something that feels complex, and make it simple. Don’t add bells and whistles, don’t add a bunch of new vocabulary. Just keep it simple, and learning it will also be simple.

So was I surprised in my Latin class at university when we chanted the conjugation for amare (to love) to learn our -are verb conjugations? Not at all. Why wouldn’t we?

Singing at all levels

People might read this and think that this only really works or matters at beginning levels, like the first time that you are learning verbs. But it can be helpful at all levels!

What about those more difficult conjugations that people tend to avoid even as they get more advanced in a language? (I’m looking at you, subjunctive!).

Those advanced verb forms can be tricky, and a lot of people opt for trying to be understood without them. Sure, you can do that, for a while. But if your goal is to really improve in your language, this is a great way to get over the conjugation hurdle.

Use music you know

There was something quirky about Mr. Planck’s odd melody that we all rallied behind, but it just might not have been as easy to convince ourselves to sing it had we come up with the melody at home. And not everyone is good at coming up with a melody. But there’s good news:

You already know a LOT of songs. Ranging from children’s music to pop hits, you have a lot of melodies in your head already. Sometimes the best thing to do is find a melody that fits the rhythm of the conjugation. An example for me is the Persian verb بودن / budan (to be) sung to twinkle twinkle little star. It covers the infinitive, the present long form, and the imperative – Go ahead and sing along:

[transliterated]
budan, hastam, hasti, hast
hastim, hastid, hastand, bāsh

From that, I have a lot of grammar at my disposal already.

But that’s just rote memorizing!

Yes, and no! I mean, sure you still have to memorize the lyrics. But by putting it to song, you are giving your brain more associations, so it ends up being faster and lasting longer.

Not to mention, rote memorizing can be pretty dry stuff. But singing is FUN! Not only do you remember things that you enjoyed better than things that didn’t engage you, but you have a better chance of actually sticking with it if you enjoy it. (Need I state that obvious point again?)

That’s why it can be nice to pick a song you already know. You can enjoy singing it throughout the day, regardless of which lyrics you are singing!

So go forth and sing! Dance while you’re at it! Just make sure you’re having fun. That’s what language learning is supposed to be: Fun. I guarantee you that the people who figure that out are the ones making the most progress.


 

Have any of you used music to help learn verb forms? Does it work for you? What about for noun declensions? Let me know in the comments. I want to know what is (and what isn’t) working for you.

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