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Foreign Language Jukebox: How to Use Music to Teach Languages

by Amber on May 24, 2010

Susanna Zaraysky: Language is MusicSusanna Zaraysky is a language expert. She speaks seven languages (English, Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Serbo-Croatian) with excellent accents. 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. You can learn more at her website or check out her book, Language is Music. She writes below about how you can use music to learn new languages.

Why learn foreign languages?

We’ve all heard the word “globalization” and we’re aware of how this phenomenon has affected our lives in different ways. One effect, in particular, that stands out is the necessity of each of us to be able to communicate with people in different parts of the world.

Our world has changed as traveling, working, immigrating, and living abroad have become more common, necessitating the need for many of us to become multilingual. Sometimes our jobs not only demand it but offer benefits to those who learn a second language. Did you know that many government jobs pay a bonus for each foreign language an employee can speak? Still, even if you do not work in the field of international business, being multilingual is important and can enhance your life in meaningful ways.

Flex those brain muscles

Research has shown that learning a language can be an important part of the development of a child’s brain. As learning continues, a child will find that there are various and interesting ways of expressing the same thought or feeling. When someone is multilingual, they will appreciate the nuances in languages much more and be able to perceive the variety of ways to express themselves.

It’s important to learn this as a child since it has been shown that adults often have trouble forming phrases in another language with a different sentence structure. When speaking in English, for example, we say that we “are hungry”, but in Romance languages, people say that they “have hunger”. It can be difficult for adults to think of their states of being in different ways but children can easily learn to say “Mom, I’m hungry” or “Mom, I have hunger” in another language. They seem to be able to make the transition much easier.

Language learning is also important throughout life as it keeps the brain agile. Dr. Andrew Weil recommends learning and maintaining a foreign language to prevent memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease.

Subsequently, by learning a foreign language when they’re young, your child is developing the ability to “switch gears” in his or her brain. This early learning experience may be able to prevent or delay memory loss in later years. As your child moves into adulthood, the learned skill of switching from one language to another will surely keep his or her mind active and energetic.

Use Music!

Susanna Zaraysky: Language is MusicMusic is fun and 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 (like They Might Be Giants’ Meet The Elements), we just might be able to recite that table as adults!

Studies have shown that music is able to engage more parts of the brain than even languages can. Learning foreign languages using music can certainly be more effective than the usual practice of memorizing words and grammar rules. Children seem to remember musical tunes and jingles quite well. If you allow children to listen to music in “other tongues” they will automatically sing along without any understanding of the meaning. A great source for foreign language songs are the Putumayo Kids collections.

Then you can find the English translation of the foreign language lyrics and discuss the meaning together. It’s also fun to use visual or tactile exercises to reinforce the meaning of the lyrics. For example, if the song is about eating food, you can show the foods to your child and have them touch (and eat!) the foods in order to have both a visual and tactile experience of the new word.

Turn up the music and turn on the language-learning!

I wrote 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 I learned to speak seven languages with perfect or almost perfect accents by using music and the media. Learning foreign languages can be fun and I am a testament to this!

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