Language Learning, Article 18: The musician's language-learning advantage: More than just "good hearing". By David Bolton
Learn a Foreign Language by speaking




The musician's language learning advantage:
More than just "good hearing"

I have often been struck by the many parallels there are between learning music and learning languages. They say that musicians have a special talent for picking up new languages, and I do believe that in general, this is true. I could name many famous classical musicians who speak several languages with relative ease. Normally, we attribute this ability to the musician's superior listening skills, and this is no doubt part of it: the more we train ourselves to listen carefully, the better we will be able to pronounce foreign words, for example.

   But I think there are other reasons for this as well, (apart from more acute listening skills) that have to do with the way musicians practice the music they will later play in public. I myself am a musician (a harpsichordist), and I have often thought about exactly what steps I go through to learn a piece. (Even if you do not play an instrument, don't hesitate to read on: I promise not to burden you with any technical terms!)

   When I decide to learn a piece of music, I first look it over, and read (play) through it, in order to get a general idea of how I want to go about practicing it. This is similar to when we first listen somewhat more closely to a foreign language we would like to learn, and perhaps have a look at some text in that language, too.

   Upon starting with the "work" phase, I usually break the music down into smaller parts, "phrases", or somewhat larger sections. Then, I begin playing that section quite slowly, doing my best to make every note sound as it should, since I want each to be clearly distinguishable, and also to fit naturally into the phrase. If, after playing this section through the first time, I hear that some things just don't "sound right", I begin to ask myself why. Could it be that I am not shaping the phrase correctly? Perhaps I'm placing accents where they don't belong? Or have I chosen to play certain notes with the "wrong" fingers (that is, maybe it would sound more natural if I played those notes with another fingering). At times, several problems occur in one small section.

Occasionally, what sounds like a big problem can be smoothed out by making one seemingly minor change in how I'm playing it. If I'm lucky, there aren't any problems at all: in this case, I'll repeat the section a few times to get it "in the fingers" (another way of saying "in my tactile memory"), and I then move on to the next section.

   When I go about studying a language, I basically take the same steps: I first look over the material I want to learn that day, then start with a small section of it. I pronounce the new vocabulary. If I hear that they somehow don't sound right, I analyze why this may be. Could it be that I'm not forming my lips or mouth in the right way? Is the tongue positioned as it should be to enunciate the sound well? When I've identified the problem, I make corrections, and keep trying till I get it right. When I do, I'll go over that section a few more times, then move on. Should a section be easy, I don't spend much time on it, but continue with the next part.

   In music, once you've worked through the entire piece section by section, you naturally want to play it in its entirety. On a good day, it will soon be sounding rather good. But on occasion, even though you've practiced every section carefully, the piece sounds somehow "funny" when you play it through to the end. Maybe the tempo (speed) isn't right; you might try to play it faster, or slower. Or worse: it could be that you suddenly realize that your playing is devoid of all emotion! If so, it's best to take a break and continue later, since it's hard to force yourself to "feel".

   Something similar can happen with a language, and this phenomenon never ceases to amuse me. Once, I had my French teacher go over a single sentence with me. I insisted that she not be satisfied until I say every single word exactly the way a Frenchman would. After some time, I was able to say each word perfectly; she assured me that each word I uttered sounded just like a Frenchman would say it. However, when I then said the entire sentence, I had an accent: though each word was enunciated perfectly, I didn't make the sentence "flow" the way a Frenchman would. It took a while longer for her to teach me that, too. After a few more minutes of "training", I got it right. I could say that sentence perfectly in every way. But as soon as I read the next sentence, my non-French accent was once again perfectly obvious!

   Just as it's important to have the "feel" of a piece of music in order to play it well, you must also learn the "feel" of a language. I think that far too many people put off this phase of their foreign language training for too long. If, from the beginning, you learn how to pronounce not only the single words, but also entire sentences - getting the "feel" for the proper "flow" of each phrase - you will have a huge head start as far as true mastery of the language is concerned. Following the example musicians give us will doubtlessly be of great use to you here:

- First, look over the material to be studied

- Listen carefully to how it should sound (with the help of a teacher, or CDs)

- Start with a small part, then, ask yourself if you're getting it right

- If not, ask yourself why not, find out the reason(s), make corrections and try again and again till it's as close to perfect as possible.

- Do the following sections the same way

- When you've finished the material you want to cover for that day,
   go over it from beginning to end, to make sure you remember it well. Read everything aloud at a somewhat more rapid pace, making sure that your pronunciation doesn't suffer while doing so.

   And just as a musician will usually come back to the pieces he/she learned during previous days or months in order to "freshen up" the music in his/her mind, it will help you if, after working though a number of chapters of your language book, you then go back to the beginning and start reviewing the basics.

   You may, or may not, have superior listening ability. No matter: if you follow these steps in each and every one of your language learning sessions, your speaking skills will no doubt improve. You see, you don't have to be a musician to master your favorite foreign language!


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