That’s right–songs are one of my favorite ways of learning new vocabulary and making sense of sentences in a structured context. New things stick with music (think The Alphabet Song or The Alphabetagamma Song).
I am very visual, so even with this auditory language learning activity, I still like to have the words written down. When I’m learning a new song, I’ll ask someone to dictate the words to me slowly and then I’ll write a literal translation. Even though songs aren’t always grammatically or conversationally consistent with the rules of spoken language, the words and phrases are a good jumping off point for asking questions about the language. If I use a phrase in the way that has stuck in the brain from a song, and I am corrected, I have the original hook to hang the correction on in comparison to.
The songs I’ve learned have given me a good starting point paradigm for how words fit together, how words change depending on their function in a sentence and what words go together in the language I’m learning. This is especially helpful for prepositions, which are notoriously difficult to create memory hooks for.
A catchy song I learned in Portuguese is loosely translated:
All the little duckies
Know how to swim well
Know how to swim well,
Bottom in the air.
The same Portuguese word is used for “underneath” and “in”. My tendency would be to use the Portuguese word commonly translated “in” (em) rather than the one actually used in the song, which I typically translate “for” (para). However, because of this catchy tune, the phrases “para baixo” and “para o ar” are stuck in my head until I die or get dementia, whichever comes first.
In the same way, if I get the words “greater” (maior) and “better” (melhor) confused, I sing back through a simple song about God, like some people run through the alphabet song when they’re looking for a word in the dictionary. I know it’s a crutch, but it works for me and it’s fun, plus I get to stop and have a worship moment, remembering that there really is no God maior and no God melhor than our God, all in the process of remembering a word.
Songs with actions are nice as well. I told you I hate Total Physical Response language lessons. I’m too easily embarrassed, and in that state of mind, I don’t retain things well. But when many people are singing a song together, I don’t feel the same pressure, and so the activities are able to reinforce the words without the embarrassment filter keeping them from sticking. There is a popular church song sung in the village where I used to live in Africa. It’s talking about doing everything I do with Jesus, and it lists a variety of activities that I do with Him:
I’m waking up/getting up.
Bantu word structure is very different from English, but singing that list of activities, I get a good feel for how the first person present simple verb is formed. Learning grammar by singing is much more fun than sitting down memorizing verb conjugations, and it sticks better.
I’ve decided if I ever learn German, one of my language learning goals will be to learn Bach’s Coffee Cantata. I don’t drink coffee, but this song certainly expounds on the delights to be had in so doing. It’s a funny story, and although it would be an ambitious language learning task, I think it would certainly keep my attention. I don’t sing well enough that I could ever “perform” it, but I’d love to be able to listen to it and understand it all. For the German words, an English translation and background (in English) on this piece of music, follow this link.
There are limitations and weaknesses to using songs as a learning tool (feel free to comment about those). Since I think of music as only a supplement and not an independent method (although that’s a thought, The Sing, Spell, Read and Write Guide to Learning Language X), I think other language learning activities will balance out the weaknesses. Plus, a bird in hand is worth two in the bush. In the same way, a word or phrase retained and easily retrieved from the brain, even slightly imperfectly, is worth two words or phrases learned perfectly that cannot be easily spit out when they are needed.
On another note, here’s an update on our housing situation: The flier advertising it for sale has been printed and is ready to be distributed. Although it is still heavy on me, after lamenting so long and hard this past week, I am now coming up for air and beginning to rejoice again, and yes, sing.
At the risk of stretching an analogy too far, I think singing (and hearing sung) the truths that are hard to hear spoken straight as advice, makes the truths more palatable and comprehensible to me. So, while I gritted my teeth and shut down my spiritual ears this weekend when friends would try to console me with truths about God, I was able to hear and receive “the language of God” spoken in music (e.g. through John Michael Talbot’s rendition of various Psalms) more easily. In the context of soothing music, truth not only sinks in to my heart, but it is truly a comfort. I’ve been planning this post about music and language learning for a while now, and the analogy to my situation just occurred to me as I finished it up.
Many thanks to all of you who are praying for us.