If you have been through the American educational system, you have undoubtedly encountered the foreign language requirement in most college-preparatory programs. Young people, most often during their high school years, are introduced to two years of basic language instruction. How can we best learn a foreign language, particularly if we have been raised in a monolingual setting?
In high school, I chose Spanish based on a practical evaluation that next to English (and perhaps Mandarin – not offered at my school) a working knowledge of Spanish would enable me to communicate with more people than any other language I could choose. I was psyched to start talking with about 1/15th more of my fellow Earthlings, but that enthusiasm soon ran smack into rote learning, memorization, verb conjugations, rules and exceptions to rules, and practicing my pronunciation. Yes, my teacher repeatedly told our class that it was English that was strange, English that always had rules from grammar or spelling and then routinely broke those rules time and time again. But it was all my teenage brain knew, hablar español was the strange newcomer to my mind with its alien manner that must be mastered.
Because I was a dedicated pupil, and also due in no small part to their being few other options, I stuck with Spanish through all 4 years of high school. You see, when I was six-years old, I had made an ambitious attempt to learn French from a French Made Easy book borrowed from my local library. How hard could that be? That experience demonstrated to me that no greater wrong could be done to the French language and the good people of France than for me to attempt to speak their language. Other languages were only offered for two years, and if natural languages have proven so difficult for me to perfect my fluency in then why should I think two years would be enough?
The result of 4 years high school Spanish is that I can grasp the gist of conversations, understand it in its written form, speak barely a word at all, but I can take full advantage of some bargains by purchasing Univision streaming TV coverage of the World Cup, Gold Cup, and other soccer tournaments which are sold at a significant discount to the English language coverage options for these same events.
Because of bureaucratic regulations at my University, I could not continue Spanish because I did not take a placement test during the summer of my freshman year. Instead, I made the terrible mistake of choosing a 2-semester program in a language I thought was very similar to Spanish, and also so I could listen to Juventus soccer matches (Gianluigi Buffon forever, ragazzi!) Yes, I chose Italian. I think to this day, the only word I remember is i ragazzi. Everything I learned in Italian conflicted with what I had learned of Spanish, they sounded so alike, and my brain just had to choose one language over the other to let go of.
Is this as good as language learning in a classroom setting gets? There had to be a better way.
Removing All Intelligible Information
Let’s momentarily look at what the complete opposite of understanding a message, written or spoken in some foreign language, looks like. The field of cryptography and one of my favorite computer scientists, Claude Shannon, would have a lot to tell us about achieving this goal. How can one construct a ciphertext message that has “perfect secrecy,” in effect, an un-crackable encryption?
What makes a cipher perfect is that it produces ciphertexts c that betray no information about their original plaintext m message. In conditional probability terms, P(m|c) = P(m). An example of a perfect cipher is the One-Time Pad, in which the key used to generate the ciphertext has at least the same length as the plaintext message it is encrypting. Had the key been shorter than the plaintext message, it must necessarily need to repeat, and that subtle change in probability is information in the ciphertext that can provides clues to the plaintext message.
In short, the bits making up a perfectly-secret encrypted message will be indistinguishable from random bits. No information can be gleaned about other bits in the message by looking at earlier or later random bits, despite the fallacy gamblers fall victim to believing that they can predict something about the randomness.
What Information does a Melody Carry?
You’re saying to yourself at this point, “Fine, a completely random message is a completely incomprehensible message.” If noise is a metaphor for not understanding what somebody is saying at all, then what would make a good metaphor for audibly understanding the phonetics of a foreign tongue?
Music, based on its predictable scales, harmonies and rhythms is exactly the metaphor I was looking for, and it might be helpful to others as well. Americans largely don’t concern themselves with world music, in the same way those in other countries receive endless broadcasts of music (and other cultural material) in the English language. It shouldn’t astound anyone that many people are aided in learning their English from all of this English content available worldwide, much of it set to a musical score.
Consequently, if you are studying a language such as German, it might benefit you to listen to their Schlager (literally, “Beat”) music. It covers a broad spectrum from folk and country music on one-side replete with lederhosen and accordians to pop music vocalists on the other, that were it not for the difference in language you might easily identify it as pop music from the USA or UK. Most songs target an A2 language level in the listening audience, because producers and record labels want to maximize the market size that their music can reach (limited as it may be to largely German-speaking countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Austria). However, their folk music can also be a good way to learn some differences between the many dialects of German (that, and watching a good regional Krimi like Tatort) such as Bayerisch.
By the same token, if you are learning Korean you might benefit from listening to K-pop.
Why it Works? N-Grams
This is my hypothesis to why music in a foreign language can help you with your listening comprehension (and speaking ability, as you sing-a-long) in that foreign language. It has to do with a principle known as n-Grams.
When you are new to a language, the Broca center in your brain has all of these sounds bouncing around from the new language but doesn’t yet have the practice in their use. These are reinforced connections between neurons built up by regularly firing the synapses in the sequence necessary to use that particular building block of the language, so-called learning. You might hear a word like nach, but your brain’s wiring is too immature at this point to be able to come up with what sounds it should expect next in the sequence. You can train yourself to expect, perhaps a place name following nach such as nach Frankreich or nach Italien, with enough practice.
But what if there were a popular song you were listening to on your smartphone, singing about all the fantastic vacation destinations. Do you ever have that feeling that you know the next word of a song, one that you have heard before in the past? It’s exactly that cue your ear is hearing that triggers your brain to recollect the right word or words you are expecting to come next. Combined, these 2-, 3-, or as many as N-consecutive phonemes come in a sequence where the earlier phonemes actually reveal information to you about the next phonemes that are expected. Your brain learns from the music, in addition to the grammar, that there is a heightened probability of a certain sound or word fragment in the context of the message being related to you musically by ear.
A message made up of n-grams is the complete opposite of a random message, or a message with perfect secrecy. There is information available to you from the musical lyrics, and if remembering the grammar rules of the foreign language is not a strength of yours, then perhaps recalling a musical melody and what lyrics should come next is. It does at least give you a second opportunity to learn.
If you’re trying to pick up a new language but it isn’t clicking for you rightaway, be patient and try to find additional media resources you can use to enhance your learning. We all don’t learn languages in the same way, and the human brain has a magnificent diversity in the ways in which it can learn. Try music in your chosen foreign language, you may find it interesting and it may be beneficial to your new language acquisition.