Singing lyrics is a great way to practice a foreign language…or is it?

By | July 6, 2020

When learning a foreign language (or anything for that matter), the more you can interact with the material, the more likely you are to maintain focus and retain what was learned. For example, in order to improve conversation ability, the best way is clearly to have frequent real conversations with native or fluent speakers. But what if we lack the opportunity to have such conversations?

One method that I have seen used by many Japanese learners is singing Japanese songs in order to practice pronunciation, among other things. Just the other day I saw a post about someone who was saying how beneficial it was to sing songs in another language. When I read this I cringed, but rather than writing an argumentative comment I decided to channel my thoughts into a blog article.

First, let’s look at the positive things about singing in a foreign language as a learning technique. First, you can do it practically anywhere, anytime, especially once you memorize the lyrics. Second, singing along to a catchy song is a surefire way to keep motivated, whether the song is actually playing or simple running through your head. Finally, music (like most expressive media) has a pretty diverse set of topics, and with that comes a variety of words and expressions.

Now let’s look at the dark side of this activity. 

To begin with, pronunciation in songs is often very different compared to everyday speech. This manifests in many ways: different sounding vowels/consonants, different intonation, and different lengths of sounds. I remember when I first started learning Japanese I was introduced to a singer (I think it was Mr. Children) who pronounced his Japanese “ra, ri, ru, re, ro” sounds like the English “la,li,lu,le,lo”, and this really surprised me. Music is more about expression and individuality, and less about trying to speak like everyone else does, something that affects not just the singers but the listeners. I’ve met several people who were able to sing quite skillfully in a certain language (with almost no detectable accent), but their conversational speech was far from fluent. To this day it still surprises out when I hear singers whose normal voice is different than their singing voice. Dave Matthews is one that stands out since I can hear almost no accent in his singing voice, whereas when he speaks his South African accent is very noticeable.

In my opinion Japanese intonation is one of the hardest things to master, and I’ll admit I don’t have high confidence that all my pitches are spot-on. Unfortunately, intonation is one of the things that gets mangled in a majority of songs, since the singer is often matching the pitches of their syllables to match a certain melody line. This can affect both the intonation of single words as well as the intonation between words (one of the more tricky things to master).

So if we make the assumption that singing is not the best practice for real-world speaking, surely there’s something to learn from songs in terms of vocabulary and grammar, right? Well, singers often take liberties and don’t sing in full sentences, not to mention that words can be out of order and uncommon expressions used for emphasis. At least when reading a manga or a novel, there is more context to the dialogue lines, so there’s a chance you can use certain phrases when you get into a similar situation (like at a meeting at work, or playing basketball with friends, etc.) But while songs do have a lot in terms of ‘emotional’ context, often that is purposefully vague so it may be difficult for you to learn enough about the words to use them on your own; the exception would be if you are trying to write songs (or poems) yourself, in which case there’s a treasure trove of things you can pick up from songs. (Well, maybe what you learn from songs could also be used when writing a love letter.)

A final drawback is that singers will often add seemingly random English words into their songs for effect, even if they don’t quite fit grammatically or semantically. While it’s true that everyday conversational Japanese has a large number of loanwords, the words you find in songs are less likely to be commonly used in the real world. If the singer happens to be fluent in English (like Utada Hikaru), then they may sing the English words using standard English pronunciation, which doesn’t help you learn typical loan word pronunciation.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling anyone to stop listening or singing songs in a foreign language. Music is a huge part of my life and nothing can replace it. 

Rather, I recommend being reasonable about what you expect to get from listening and singing foreign language music, and be sure to plan a well-rounded diet of various language learning activities. While probably not nearly as enjoyable, mimicking the spoken words from a podcast or Youtube video for only a few minutes is likely to be more beneficial than listening to a few hours’ worth of songs. Even if it is easier for you to pick out words from a song and memorize them, I suggest getting used to listening to everyday speech since it will be much more useful in the long run.

For beginning students, I would recommend only focusing on songs for a small portion of your overall study time. However, once you get fundamental grammar down and start to be able to pick up everyday conversation from native speakers, I think it’s safe to gradually increase your allotment of lyrical learning. The reason is that if you are able to identify what is different about the singer’s language compared to everyday speech, it will be easier for you to keep those things separate in your mind.

One exception here is songs which are made for an educational purpose (like learning an alphabet), because typically those would have pronunciation closer to everyday language and would likely take fewer liberties with things like grammar and intonation.

[Note: picture of woman singing taken from Pexels.com]

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6 thoughts on “Singing lyrics is a great way to practice a foreign language…or is it?

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment, I’m glad you found it interesting!

      Reply
  1. JB

    I agree with a lot of your points here, and now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever looked at Japanese songs as a way to improve speaking skills – nor listening skills either.

    When I was formally studying Japanese in university, I supplemented my listening lessons with Japanese songs and variety shows, but I can’t say that the former helped much. (The latter, I think, helped me understand the “rhythm” of Japanese though.) If anything, listening to Japanese songs served as more of a marker of how much I’d learned. For example, I remember listening to a song I’d often listened to before and suddenly realizing that I could actually understand most of the lyrics.

    For me, Japanese songs are great fun as translation exercises – where “fun” is mixed with the maddening confusion over word choice and the fascinating possibilities of every word’s implied meaning, etc.

    Reply
    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the comment. Good points about using music to help see how far you’ve come, and also for translation.

      Personally I’ve done very little translating song lyrics (which I consider basically poems), but I know it’s as a very difficult area that is quite different from translating prose (which I have done quite a bit).

      Reply
  2. Davide

    Thanks for the article. I basically agree with everything you said. Song lyrics feature a lot of linguistic creativity and potentially a lot of unsual expressions/collocations, which could be confusing for a learner. Of course one could focus on those songs that use pretty standard language, but how is one supposed to find them? Telling standard language apart from creative innovation is exactly the sort of thing you can’t do as a learner.

    I remember a line from a song along these lines: ‘The sea lies down faithfully at your feet’. If I were a beginner or even an intermediate learner, would I be able to get the dog metaphor? Or, would I start thinking that ‘lie down’ can be used to describe the location of large horizontal expanses, such as a body of water?

    So personally I steer clear of that. Same goes for jokes really. One major component of a lot of jokes is being a little hard to get *for native speakers*, so… Best to stick to resources where I expect standard language to be used until I develop a sense of what sounds natural in the language and what doesn’t.

    Reply
    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for the post. When I first put up this article I was afraid I would get people complaining that they disagreed, but I’m glad to see some people agree (:

      Good point about jokes too, those are hard even for advanced learners (and, as you said, native speakers). But they are still fun and I hope to make an article about jokes eventually…

      Reply

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