Bravo, inventor of the three-minute, throwaway pop song. Not only does it provide a little well-needed escapist entertainment, but it also doubles as a fantastic little language learning tool.
I’m far from the first language learning aficionado to use music to learn, of course. Many learners arrive at a new language after first falling in love with its music. And countless language teachers regularly spice up their classroom lessons with a pinch of pop.
But why is the simple song such a great medium for vocab mining? Besides the sheer fun of it. Well, for one thing, your typical chart hit is a nice and concise text to work with. It is the embodiment of bite-sized.
Secondly, the language of popular music tends to be quite colloquial, and not too elevated. You can pick up some nice, common turns of phrase to use in conversation. That doesn’t stop it expressing some universal and familiar truths, though, as well as some lyrics that can provide lively talking points.
What’s more – and here is the clincher – pop music is just so incredibly accessible now. Where overseas music was once hard to get hold of, it is now just a YouTube or Spotify search away.
A Song for Europe
As far as prime examples go, nothing quite approaches the three-minute pop perfection of the Eurovision Song Contest entry. I have long had a deep-seated fondness for Eurovision songs as my learning tools of choice.
No surprise there, of course. Eurovision is the reason I know so many random bits and bobs of so many different languages (not to mention ‘love’ and ‘peace’ in all of them). The lyrics range between harmless cheese and works of poetic art (check out this rather dark classic from France in 1968). But they all make for brilliant vocab fodder.
Also, an added benefit of choosing a Eurovision song is the excellent lyrics database Diggiloo Thrush, complete with translations and transliterations to tailor the material to any learner’s level.
But don’t let me badger you into choosing Eurovision (as if I needed any encouragement). Any song will do! After selecting one, Google for the lyrics, and begin to work through, line by line. As you move through the music, record each new term in your preferred practice / drill tool. Anki is always forever my go-to.
Adding colour to your conversation
Whatever your source, the nature of the song can provide some very colourful additions to your conversational repertoire. It is a fun game to toss out freshly memorised song lyrics to tutors mid-flow, and see how naturally (and imperceptibly!) they fit into the conversation – or not.
This can occasionally lend quite the philosophical slant to your chat. “Some of us, my friend, are the beggars of happiness” I mused to one perplexed tutor in the middle of a practice dialogue on buying train tickets. Yes, lyrics-fuelled lessons are nothing if not memorable (and salience of our active language learning material is something we should all strive for).
All Greek to Me
I currently find myself levelling up my Greek, first learned twenty years ago through Eurovision songs and island hopping. Music (much like food) simply has to play a part in any Greek learning plan, naturally. By way of example (and to spread the love), here is my working for a particularly favourite Eurovision song of mine, Cyprus’ underrated 1993 effort “Μη σταματάς” (Don’t Stop).
By going through the text systematically, you see how much high-frequency vocab you can mine from working with even the simplest of songs. And of course, you get the added memory bonus of having the words and phrases lodge in your head with a particularly sticky ear worm.
So without further ado… Ladies and gentlemen! I present to you the conductor, George Theofanous. Let the music (and learning) begin!
|Στη ζωή μας όλοι ερχόμαστε γυμνοί||In our life we all arrive naked||η ζωή – life
έρχομαι (έρθω, ήρθα) – to come
γυμνός – naked, bare
|Ίδιο τέλος μας ορίζει και αρχή||The same end and beginning define us||ίδιος – same; own
το τέλος – end
η αρχή – beginning
ορίζω – to define, designate
|Μα είναι κάποιοι από μας, οι ζητιάνοι της χαράς||But there are some of us, the beggars of joy||κάποιος – someone
ο ζητιάνος – beggar
η χαρά – joy, happiness
|Μη σταματάς, στους ανθρώπους να δίνεις βοήθεια||Don’t stop giving help to people||σταματώ – to stop
δίνω (δώσω, έδωσα) – to give
ο άνθρωπος – human, person
η βοήθεια – help (cf. the verb βοηθάω, to help)
|Μην προσπερνάς, μη φοβάσαι να δεις τα συντρίμμια||Don’t walk on by, don’t fear seeing the debris||προσπερνώ – to pass by
φοβάμαι – to fear, be afraid (cf. the word phobia)
τα συντρίμμια – the debris, rubbish, wreckage
|Κι αν τη ζωή την πληγώνει συχνά η αλήθεια||And if truth often hurts life||πληγώνω – to hurt, wound
συχνά – often, frequentlyη αλήθεια – truth
|Μη σταματάς, μη σταματάς||Don’t stop, don’t stop|
|Όσα έχεις τόσα έχω, αδερφέ||Whatever you own, I own, brother||όσα… τόσα… – what …, that’s what … (cf. ‘όσα δίνεις, τόσα παίρνεις‘, ‘you get what you pay for‘)|
|Μα είναι κι άλλοι που δεν γέλασαν ποτέ||But there are others who never laughed||άλλος – other
γελάω – to laugh
|Ειν’ το βλέμμα τους θολό, και σηκώνουνε σταυρό||Their sight is unclear, and they carry a cross||το βλέμμα – look, glance, stare (cf. βλέπω, to see)
θολός – dim, cloudy, blurry
σηκώνω – to lift up (cf., σηκώνομαι, to get up)
ο σταυρός – cross
I said it was bite-sized – three minutes of music doesn’t take long to work through. And there is some great, high frequency vocab to take away from that.
Deconstructing a favourite song
As you can see, deconstructing a favourite song in a foreign language does sometimes take the mystery away from it all a bit. Didn’t it all seem a bit more serious and credible before I translated it into complete banality? Now, it all sounds a little bit over-the-top. Walking past the debris? Everybody arriving naked? Hmm.
That said, I will always love this song, and not only for the extra vocab it’s given me. I adore how the lads are taking it all so seriously. I celebrate the oomph the backing trio are giving it. And I applaud the cheesy sax solo.
Even if the juries didn’t quite agree.