Eurovision 2017 Logo

Add some Eurovision sparkle to your language learning!

The Eurovision Song Contest may be over for 2017 (congratulations, first-time winner Portugal!), but it can still be a sparkling, magical resource for teaching and learning modern foreign languages.

Eurovision and languages have gone hand-in-hand for me since my early days of crazy fandom. Aged 15, I became intrigued by this exotic musical competition full of unusual-sounding tongues. It fuelled my nascent passion for languages, and it’s a dual obsession that continues to this day. Eurovision is why I can say ‘love’ in 20+ languages. It’s why I know all the country names so well in French. And even with the explosion of English-language songs since 1999, it can be a wonderful learning resource for ‘normal’ folk, too! 

Here, I’ve collected a few ideas for getting started with Eurovision as a language-learning resource. Admittedly, the links here will be old-hat to dyed-in-the-wool fans like me. But if you’re just a marginally less insane lover / learner / teacher of languages, you might find something useful in here for your own learning.

Eurovision can be fun, serious, silly, touching – but most of all, memorable. And it’s that memorability that gives the material salience and staying power when you’re learning a language!

Videos and lyrics

As talking points for a lesson, Eurovision clips are perfect. They’re short – the three-minute rule makes sure of that – and they are wonderful time capsules of fashion, too, giving you loads of material for discussion. Do you like the stage / set? What do you think of the clothes? Would that song be a hit today? You can go on and on.

The official YouTube channel of the Eurovision Song Contest is the first stop for video clips of songs from past contests. If you can’t find the exact entries you want there, a quick search on YouTube along the lines of “Eurovision YEAR COUNTRY” (like “Eurovision 2017 France”) will always throw up some good results.

Waxing lyrical

For a bit of text support, there is a fantastic lyrics site with every Eurovision entry to date on it: The Diggiloo Thrush (you may have to stop tittering at the name before you look it up).

I’ve used Eurovision lyrics to mine for fresh vocab. For instance, I’ll take a song I like in a language I’m learning, look up the text, and note any new words in my vocab bank (I use Anki currently for this). If I really love a song, I’ll also try to learn it, so I can sing it in the privacy of my own shower. T.M.I., I know, but whatever it takes to learn!

Eurovision gapfills

If you’re teaching others, you can use lyrics to make interactive activities for your students, too. Copy and paste your chosen song text into a document / Textivate game or similar, removing some of the words to make a gapfill. Play the song to the students and get them to fill in the gaps as they hear them. It’s a brilliant way to focus the ears on the sounds of the target language.

There are lots of ways to approach this with different objectives. For instance, you could remove all the non-content words, like ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘then’ and so on. That hones the attention on all those little connective words that we need to make our language flow. Alternatively, take out the content words (you’ll find ‘love’ quite a lot in Eurovision songs!) to practise concrete, topical vocab.

Language awareness

A game I liked to play with my own language classes, back in the day, was ‘guess the language’. I’d prepare clips of Eurovision songs in a range of languages including the one(s) the class was learning. Of course, you can throw in some sneaky difficult ones. Dutch is great, if they’re learning German, or Italian if they’re learning Spanish, to throw them off the scent.

It’s an engaging and competitive way to get students thinking about how languages are related to one another, and where the language they’re learning fits in to the bigger picture. It’s ‘meta-knowledge’ in the sense that it’s about what they’re learning more generally – language – than knowledge of the language itself. But it’s an excellent way to show the target language within its global context.

Eurovision: national reactions

National press can go crazy over Eurovision, generating a raft of headlines and articles for consumption. Right after a contest, you can easily find web articles from countries that did either well or badly, by simply going to the homepage of the national broadcaster. This article from Norwegian broadcaster NRK, for example, describes the high mood of the team after scoring a top ten placing in Kyiv this year.

Why are these articles useful? Well, they’re usually quite simple to read. They’re about a well-known, universal field – music and entertainment – so they won’t contain too many complex notions like other news articles might. Also, they’re full of those vocab items like dates, numbers and such like, which are simple, but a pain to learn. Excellent practice!

Where to find broadcaster links? Well, Wikipedia provides a very handy list of EBU member stations at this link. Also handy for looking up programming in your target language, even when Eurovision isn’t on!

Eurovision is a marvellous, fun, colourful, diverse and happy medium for language learning. What’s more, all of the material is freely available online for you to get creative with. With over 60 years of history, there’s a treasure of resources to play with, so get out there and bring some Eurovision magic into your language learning!

An ambulance attending an emergency; driver speaking in the window

Speaking tips from the emergency room

There’s no doubt about it: speaking can be hard, especially when you’re beginning in a foreign language.

You have all the usual mental juggling of remembering vocabulary and grammar. But on top of that, there’s the social pressure of performing live. In the heat of the moment, it’s too easy to panic and gibber. Neither of those will help you make yourself understood!

Now imagine that performance pressure, but in a matter of life or death. How would you, as a beginner in a foreign language, cope with making an emergency services call abroad?

This is exactly the kind of situation that research linguists Jennifer Gerwing and Jan Svennevig have aimed to unpick in their research. Much of their work has involved exploring real-life exchanges between native and second-language speakers in healthcare settings. But it is a piece of experimental research, recently presented at a conference exploring second language use, which really stirs the linguistic imagination.

Playing dummy

The experiment paired seventeen native English speakers with seventeen speakers of English as a foreign language. The first-language English speakers played the part of operators; their counterparts played callers. Those callers were to imagine that a friend (actually a resuscitation dummy!) had fallen unconscious. As a result, they would be making a call to emergency services. The operators were to instruct the callers in placing the dummy in the recovery position. The catch? They would be speaking entirely in English. What could possibly go wrong?

In fact, outcomes varied greatly, from great success to darkly comic dummy disaster. But the experimental scenario allowed the researchers to identify, compare and evaluate speakers’ strategies for making themselves understood. Specifically, Svennevig mentions three speaking strategies for helping to get your point across. The emergency call scenario may be specific, but all language learners can gain some insights from these three approaches.

simply speaking

Operators got their point across more clearly when they avoided complicated, technical or low-frequency vocabulary. They’re also the kind of words you’re less likely to know as a learner – the ones that frustrate you so much when you search for them and they’re simply not there. Don’t get frustrated – look for a simpler word instead.

Generalising what you mean to say can help: don’t know the word for ‘bungalow’? Say ‘small house’ instead. Forgotten the word for ‘fork’? What about ‘thing for eating’? Language hacker extraordinaire, Benny Lewis, takes this to the ultimate level with his ‘Tarzan speak’ method for making yourself understood as a beginner!

Break it down

We tend to speak in long, meandering sentences in our own language. We use connecting words, relative clauses, and all manner of other complex means to make our speaking fancy. This is counter-productive when ease of communication is the name of the game. Subsequently, operators found that breaking complicated instructions down into chunks helped callers no end.

You can harness the power of this as a learner, too. Resist that urge to try and translate word-for-word what is in your head. Instead, break it down! Don’t try to construct ‘I need the key to room 224 so I can go and fetch my bag’. It’s much easier to slow down and make that ‘I need the key. Number 224. My bag is in the room’.


This is the linguistic equivalent of covering your bases. If it doesn’t work the first time, say it in another way. Each time, you’re increasing the likelihood that you’ll be understood.

Saying things in a different way can add context and reduce misunderstandings. Why stop at “I’d like a glass of water?” Try “I’d like a glass of water. I’m thirsty. I need to drink”. That way, if you mispronounce or mangle one of those sentences, there are two others that the listener can use to grab your meaning. This is much better than the hopeless tourist technique of saying it once, then saying it louder!

Combo points

All three of these rules will aid communication on their own. In combination, though, the effects are cumulative. The magic of Svennelig and Gerwing’s experiment is that the researchers could actually measure these effects. For instance, operators using none of these strategies failed to get their instructions across at all. Those using just one had a 20% success rate. With two, comprehension levels reached 40% or so. But with all three, operators reached up to 60% efficiency in making themselves understood, despite quite basic language skills from the caller.

As a learner, you will find yourself in the role of caller, rather than the operator. But these three simple techniques still make a handy set of rules for not tying yourself in knots as a beginner speaker, whatever the scenario.

Statin’ the bleedin’ obvious?

Reading these three strategies, many will say that it’s just common sense. Isn’t it obvious that you’ll be better understood if you speak more simply? However, these techniques might not come as naturally as you think. After all, a whole experimental study showed that not everybody employs them automatically all the time.

As a language learner myself, I know how that performance pressure can overwhelm you. Situations take us over; we get swept away on a tide of speaking anxiety. Our beginner brains need some training in the subtle art of simplification.

So next time you feel at a loss for words, remember the emergency room – it may just save your (language) life.

This study was recently the subject of the excellent Norwegian radio programme Språkteigen, which deals with all things language-related. Thanks to Språkteigen for bringing the study, and the linguists behind it, onto my radar. The programme and podcast are highly recommended if you understand Norwegian!