Use Music to Learn Context

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how you can learn grammar patterns by singing or chanting them to a familiar tune. It’s a helpful technique, one that I still use today, but it has its limitations.

Mainly, the technique works well when you have lists, like verb conjugations, noun declensions, or related terms like numbers and months. I mean, who DOESN’T know how to sing their ABCs? But what about when you have different usages of words, and knowing the word by itself isn’t good enough? You need a context.

Thankfully, singing can help you here too.

Phrases over words

A lot of polyglots praise sentence memorization over word memorization. And much of the time, they are right to do so. After all, if you know that nach and zu can both mean “to” in German, that doesn’t tell you which one you use to say you’re going to Berlin (ich gehe nach Berlin, btw). But if you memorize the sentence, you understand a usage for that word. You’ve built context.

That doesn’t mean memorizing conjugations or word lists doesn’t have value. Of course it does. We are a pattern recognizing species, and with the right lists you can easily swap out different words in the right contexts. But, you still need to learn the right contexts!

Sentences are boring!

That can be true. Sometimes learning random phrases can be boring, but the odd thing is, we do it all the time. How many song lyrics have you learned before? How many seemingly random phrases have you sung, often after passive repetition? We memorize phrases and sentences all the time, excitedly, because we are also a musical species.

We also learn grammar, context, and vocabulary through songs starting at a young age:

  • “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands” (conditional phrases)
  • “The wheels on the bus go round and round” (idiomatic usage of “go”)
  • “Old MacDonald had a farm” (the past tense)

But it doesn’t stop there. As we get older, the songs we listen to (sometimes) get more complex. The context often gets more complex as well.

With Musical Context Comes Culture

Learning children’s songs and music created by natives gives you a window in to the culture as well. If you learn that German children’s song “Mein Hut, der hat drei Ecken”

or that Brazilian samba “Mas Que Nada”

you now know a song that millions of Germans and Brazilians (respectively) know as well. It gives you insight into the worlds they grew up in.

But it’s not just popular culture that you can learn about. You can use music to learn grammar while delving into a specific part of the culture that interests you, such as hip-hop, opera, or in my case Capoeira. For a little under a year now, I have been practicing Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art done to song. There are hundreds of Capoeira songs out there, and as I have been learning them, I have not only learned more about the culture of Capoeira, but I’ve learned helpful grammar patterns.

In the beginning of the chorus of the song “Sou Capoeira”, for example, we have these lines:

Sou Capoeira
Olha eu sei que sou
Eu vim aqui foi para jogar

I’m capoeira
Look, I know I am.
I came here to play

The last line helps me remember that the past tense of vir (to come) is vim, while also reminding me that one doesn’t fazer (do) Capoeira, one jogar (plays) Capoeira. Grammar and context, while bringing me closer to the Capoeira community.

Then what should I learn?

The quick answer? Learn music you like! If you feel like learning a children’s song because it’s fun, learn it. If you really like an old Edith Piaf song you heard in a French movie, learn it.

If you like the music to your favorite Korean Drama, learn it. If you learn it, you will probably find yourself singing it throughout the day, and it’s not worth it to learn a song that you really don’t like.

Sometimes the songs will be hard, particularly if you are newer to the language and there is a lot of new vocabulary. In that case, it can be nice to just learn the chorus at first, so that you have a head start for later. You can always come back and learn the verses after you’ve gotten better at the language. But don’t let that dissuade you from learning the whole song if you want to!

The key is to just sing the songs. Really learn them, so that you don’t mess up the lyrics. Learn what the words mean so that you know how the song is supposed to feel. And if something doesn’t make sense, don’t fret about it. It’s just music. Better to have fun and sing than to get frustrated and throw in the towel. Enjoy yourself.

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:

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.