When it comes to contemporary music, it’s not just a man’s world. It’s an Englishman’s world.

Scanning through the Billboard or UK charts, you’d be hard-pressed to find a hit song not sung in English. Sure, there had been flukes over the years — think Edith Piaf with “La Vie En Rose” or Los del Rio’s “Macarena” or even The Wonder Girls’ “Nobody” — but every song seems to have the “and’s” and the “the’s” in it.

This is very unfortunate, seeing as scientists have recently backed up claims that singing in a different tongue helps you learn that language better.

The science

People have been using music to expedite the learning process for decades. Grade school teachers, for example, are known to use songs to teach an array of foreign parlances.

Research carried out by scientists at the University of Edinburgh – Reid School of Music nicely squares with this notion. In fact, theirs is the first empirical evidence of singing as an effective method for foreign language learning.

The researchers found that by singing certain words or phrases, a person is likely to recall them better later than memorising them by rote.

Published in the journal Memory and Mind, the study asked 60 subjects to recall certain words and phrases in Hungarian by either listening to recorded music or spoken words. The language was chosen because of its relative obscurity as opposed to popular lingos like French and Spanish.

As it turns out in the test that followed, the group who listened to the sung words tended to fare better than their counterparts. In fact, the winning group also scored better in tests of long-term memory.

These findings all point to the efficacy of listening and singing as a way to learn foreign languages faster. However, the researchers admitted that further research needs to be conducted on the mechanism behind this, i.e. if it’s the melody that boosts memory or not.

Know what you’re singing about

Now we give you tips on how to ease yourself into a foreign language through music. Here’s how.

  1. In the same way you should know what you’re talking about, you should know what you’re singing about. When faced with a song sung in another tongue, look up the lyrics. Then create a verbatim translation, word-for-word.
  2. After finding the literal translation of every word, paraphrase it to its approximate counterpart in English. For example, if the translation of the verse comes up with something Yoda-ish like, “Hate that love you I,” then paraphrase accordingly to “I hate that I love you.”
  3. Next is to compare the verbatim translation with what you’ve paraphrased. Know the literal definitions by heart before memorising the paraphrased version.

Translating a foreign song to suit your tongue can be tedious, so it would come as a relief for you to know that some classical foreign songs are published in books. These books, usually arias or operatic pieces, offer readers verbatim translations as well as paraphrased editions. Also, never underestimate the power of a dictionary, especially one with a guide on how to pronounce such alien words.

Whether you know what you’re singing or sing what you don’t know, the gist of it all is this: Go out of your comfort zone. Life is just a series of lessons, and you’d do well in life to learn a tongue not native to you, whether it’s by listening to a record or speaking it with someone.

Happy learning!

Joel Mayer is a content creator and an article, press release and blog
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