Music and language

Like a song …

music brain

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Research has shown that singing helps students of all ages learn language.

The Norwegian American

Many of us who have studied foreign language have learned a song here and there in the classroom setting. Not only does it break monotony of a regular lesson routine, but it can also teach a new aspect of another culture. Singing can be an icebreaker for the students, leading to more relaxed classroom interaction, and it simply can be a lot of fun.

But did you know that music and singing can actually make it easier for us to learn a new language? That is exactly what research has shown, and now many linguists are incorporating it into programs for learning language. There is evidence that music gives the brain an extra “boost” when learning a language.

This seems to be especially true when it comes to children and language acquisition, be it their native tongue or a second language they are learning.

According to Irina Karabulatova, professor of the department of foreign languages of the RUDN University in Moscow, “Music plays a key role in early language acquisition. The processing of music and language occurs in the same area of the brain, and musical and linguistic syntax may be similarly processed.

“Songs teach linguistic systems such as vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. By studying the texts of words, learners can quickly expand their vocabulary, and chanting phrases can improve their memorization. Songs can also help students learn para-linguistic and extra-linguistic elements, including accents and tones, as well as improve pronunciation and comprehension.”

Music and memory seem to be integrally related. If I think about my own song repertory, I can easily recall the nursery rhymes and folk songs I learned as a young child. Conversely, I would be hard-pressed to recite any poem I learned as a child by memory (and I was expected to memorize quite a few).

I put this theory of music and memory to test as an adult, when I returned to graduate school, well over the age of 30. Forced to learn (or at least recall) a large number of poems in German and the Scandinavian languages, I realized if they had been set to music, I could sing them and possibly commit them to my memory—and it worked. Thirty years later, I am still singing them. Granted, I am a trained musician, but I would be willing to bet that listening to poems set to music would help many a student of literature.

I have heard other stories of friends learning a foreign language through music. Growing up in Sweden in the 1960s, my husband was motivated to improve his English skills because he loved American pop and rock music. He would listen to his records over and over, learning the words and idioms. Another American friend in Norway claims he was motivated to learn Norwegian because of his interest in the Norwegian country-music band Hellbillies. He also enjoyed listening to their music until it became committed to his memory.

A study conducted at the University of Edinburgh Reid School of Music in the United Kingdom in 2013 more scientifically indicated that singing in a foreign language can significantly improve learning how to speak it. Adults who listened to short Hungarian phrases and then sang them back performed better than those who only spoke the phrases. In the study, three randomly assigned groups of 20 adults each took part in a series of five tests. The singing group performed the best in four of the five tests.

In one test, participants who learned the phrases by singing them performed twice as well as participants who learned them through speaking. The singing group was also able to recall the phrases with greater accuracy over time.

Yes, language learning can be just like a song. The Norwegian language has its own treasure chest of music to explore for all levels of language learning. There are bilingual songbooks that are easy to obtain, and many songs are available to listen to on the internet, often with translations in closed captions. Even if you don’t understand every word, you will increase your familiarity with the sound of the language and its rhythm. You are bound to enjoy yourself in your search for good Norwegian songs, and it is highly likely that you will learn a little, if not a lot, of norsk along the way,

I wish you all very happy listening, learning, singing, and speaking!

This article originally appeared in the June 24, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.