Recently, I found myself once again charmed and mesmerized by the music of Belgian pop star Stromae. His music made me want to study French again, which I haven’t done since I was in high school. I wanted to say every delectable syllable in his songs in the hopes that I would feel as fabulous and interesting as he is.
As an educator, teaching English through music is one of my favorite instructional moves, and it can be one of the easiest and most enjoyable strategies for students to pursue on their own. With the global penetration of American pop music, for better or worse, English is sometimes the language of choice for pop musicians who are native speakers of other languages.
Songs are powerful learning tools for a number of reasons. They’re chock full of spoken language, with all its stress patterns, vowel rules, and other details of pronunciation. They tend to use simple grammatical structures and plenty of colloquial languages, which helps students converse more easily with native speakers. Songs also include plenty of repetition to help cement new vocabulary in the mind. Songs also make us feel! Music’s emotional impact can provide the energy boost needed to keep learning, and emotional significance helps us to remember new information. Finally, songs are great doorways to American culture: They convey an entire emotional landscape, full of references, images, and moments. I love it when students share songs from their native countries with me because I can get a taste of culture even without knowing all (or any) of the words.
To get started on your English music journey, start with pop music; you can talk about it with nearly anyone, and you’re likely to hear it played aloud as you navigate your life in the USA. I’d advise against branching out into more niche genres until you’re farther along in your English journey. Pick music you enjoy, and try singing along. You can even do karaoke with friends or in local competitions. You can pop in your earbuds while you’re exercising or otherwise on the go. I enjoy sharing music with students and friends, and you can participate more fully if you have your own favorites to bring to the table. If you’re learning a particular grammatical concept or type of vocabulary, you can often find songs with these language features by googling strategically, e.g., “pop songs with the passive voice,” or “pop songs with phrasal verbs.” You can also look for pop music about particular themes, from social justice to snap chat.
Music streaming services are available for all types of devices, from the industry leader Spotify (their personalized recommendation engine is superlative) to Youtube music to iTunes, still a major player and most people’s first source for streaming music when the medium was new. Lyrics are very googleable, of course, but the best source is Genius.com, which has lyrics annotated by fans and sometimes the artists themselves, explaining personal and cultural references.