Jukebox Language Learning: Music Can Make You Multilingual

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By Susanna Zaraysky
Photo Credit:Jackie Bucci

Do you want your kids to naturally pick up various languages?  Great!  How about turning on the stereo?  It will be much easier.

I know this from experience.  My parents drilled me on Russian grammar when I was a kid and I hated it.  But I went on to speak seven languages (English, Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Serbo-Croatian) with perfect or almost perfect accents.

How did I do it?

Answer: Music and other media!  Honestly!

Yes, I did study grammar, but I got into the groove of my target languages by passively and actively listening to lyrical music in those languages.

You can do the same to help get your kids learn a language while having fun at the same time.

Why Use Music?

Music is fun. We are all musical beings even if we can’t dance to save our life or we can’t even sing “Happy Birthday” in tune!

It is one of the easiest ways for children to learn. Most of us remember the ABC song we learned as children, but it is not uncommon for people to forget what their spouse asked them to buy at the grocery store, much less remember the order of the periodic table. Perhaps if there had been a “catchy” tune presented in our chemistry classes, we just might be able to recite that table as adults.

Music sticks. Let the sticky power of music get your target language to stick in your children’s brains.

1. Change the way you think about music

Think of your target language like music. In his book, Musicophilia, Neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks has shown that music engages more parts of the brain than language. Your children are more likely to remember new words if they hear them in a song rather than memorizing a word list.

Children seem to remember musical tunes and jingles quite well. If you allow your children to listen to music in other tongues he/she will automatically sing along without any understanding of the meaning.

When you find the English translation of the foreign language lyrics, talk to your kids about what the songs or lyrics are about. If the song is about eating foods, show the foods to your child and have them touch the foods to have both a visual and tactile experience of the new word.

2. Listen first

There’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth. Listen first, speak later, then learn the grammar and write.

Don’t rush your kids into speaking. Let them learn the sounds of your languages first.

It does not matter if at first they do not understand the lyrics. They may start singing along without even knowing what they are singing. They are not only learning the rhythm of the language, they are learning new vocabulary.

Have your kids relax and close their eyes. Turn off the lights. Let them lie down, sit in a comfortable position or play. Do not ask them to try to understand the words, just let them listen. Their mind needs to be calm in order to absorb the sounds. Their ears need no other distractions to let them properly hear all the high, medium and low frequencies of the language. Do this regularly.

3. What kind of music?

Find music in your target language that your kids like. Your child might prefer children’s music or the latest pop stars that you can’t understand why anyone would like.

Let your kids get music they like. They have to like what they are listening to. It’s best to find songs that tell a story so the kids can learn a story line. Obviously, don’t pick music with profanity or content you don’t think is appropriate.

Resources for music online:

4. Write Down the Lyrics


For those with children who can already read and write, have them listen to music with the lights on, eyes open and a pencil in hand.

Have them write the lyrics of the songs while listening. You might have to pause the music and rewind or repeat many times to get the words down. Some words will be hard to write because they may be idioms or slang that your children have not learned yet, but have them just write as much as they can understand.

Compare the lyrics your children wrote with the original song and see how well they were able to understand the song.

Some CDs come with the lyrics inside the CD case. If you do not have them, look for them online on the lyrics websites listed below.

Once you have your version of the lyrics and the original, you can see how much your children were able to understand from listening to the song. Use a dictionary to translate the words you do not know.

Lyrics websites:


5. Find You Tube videos

Go to YouTube and find music in the target language that your children like. Some videos even come with subtitles in the target language or in translation. Type in the name of the song and “lyrics.”

The videos may also help your children understand what the song is about. This is especially important for visual learners because they can see the story being told by the lyrics and better understand what the song is about and match their new vocabulary to the images on the screen.

Learning languages is a multi-sensory experience and you have to use visual, tactile, audio inputs to go along with reading and writing.

So go forth, turn up the music and turn on the language-learning!

Susanna Zaraysky speaks seven languages (English, Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Serbo-Croatian) with excellent accents because she learns languages like she learns music. She has also studied Hungarian, Hebrew and Arabic. After teaching English in Argentina, Bosnia and the United States, she realized how to make foreign language learning fun and easy through listening exercises and music and wrote the book, Language is Music.

About Susanna’s Book Language is Music:

Susanna wrote the book, Language is Music with over 90 tips on how to learn foreign languages with music, movies, TV, radio, the Internet and other free and low-cost resources because she learned to speak seven languages with perfect or almost perfect accents by using music and the media. Learning foreign languages can be fun and she is a testament to this. There is also a Spanish translation of her book: El Idioma es Música. You can find out more info about Language is Music and El Idioma es Música online at: www.createyourworldbook.com.  The books are also available at Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com and via order through your local bookstore. Get the e-book version on Smashwords or on the Amazon Kindle site.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Anke May 4, 2011 at 12:43 am

Music certainly helps, but like Susanna says, it’s about pairing it with other media and learning experiences, e.g. touching objects, doing the actions to bring the sounds (words) to life. We found one CD that we loved http://shop.nationaltrust.org.uk/products/children-039-s-favourites-cd/527/ and we’ve played that almost on repeat on car journeys. Our toddler still loves the CD and is getting very good with both words and actions. however, would this help him actually ‘speak’ the language, i.e. move on from reciting a set sequence of words to using them proactively? I have my doubts, and it would certainly require a lot of thought to get a spread of songs that cover a lot of everyday vocabulary.

Will it help with pronounciation, intonation and language flow / rhythm? Undoubtably.

My father taught himself English through Beatles songs, but it was my mom translating words and sentences that helped him understand and proactively use them. I have teenage memories of sitting down with my friends and translating pop songs with a dictionary, but without the extra dimension (in this case the dictonary) it would have meant nothing. I also have near perfect pronounciation in Spanish through having listened to lots of Latin American music. However, my grammar – despite a degree in Spanish – is pants, so the bottom line is that I still can’t speak it properly, no matter what’s on my CD Player / Ipod.


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