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.

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