Foreign Language
It's more than just "99 Luftballons." (Illustration by Julianne Griepp, Laguna College of Art and Design)

Ever since Apple announced the iPod back in 2001, people have been consuming music at increasingly rapid rates. Everywhere you look, people of all ages — predominately teenagers and young adults — have listening devices in their ears. Whether it’s while working out at the gym or sitting on the bus, listening to music has become a daily habit in people’s lives. But what can turn this daily habit into something more beneficial is for people to listen to music in a foreign language.

For those who are bilingual or multilingual, listening to other languages might be such an easy task. In fact, you’re probably doing it already. However, for monolinguals who never even dipped their toes into learning another language, listening to foreign music might be just the thing to entice you to do so.

Here are four reasons why you should listen to music in a foreign language.

1. Trigger Interest in Learning a New Language

During your first attempt at listening to a song that isn’t in your native tongue, the first thought that might run through your head is probably something like, “I have no idea what they’re saying.”

While this thought might deter you from ever listening to foreign language music again, perhaps a more constructive thought to counter this is, “Since I don’t know what they’re saying, I should find out.”

The odds of the average person having these thoughts are slim to none, but passionate music lovers willing to do a bit of research might find themselves falling down the rabbit hole of language learning. What starts as merely going to YouTube and finding a translated lyric video might turn into wanting to know certain phrases or words in that language, to wanting to learn the entire language through e-learning platforms like Babbel or Duolingo.

From here, the transition into wanting to learn another language for the sole purpose of understanding new tunes not only expands upon your music taste but also acts as an entertaining way of gaining language-learning skills.

2. Develop an Appreciation for Other Cultures

When you are listening to music in a foreign language, often the music reflects some aspect of a culture dissimilar to your own. Knowing even the bare bones of a song’s background and meaning is enough to comprehend (at a basic level) another culture’s religion, customs or values.

The song “A Vava Inouva” (“Oh My Father”), sung in the Berber language Kabyle by the Algerian singer Idir, is a good example of how someone can establish respect toward another culture solely by listening to music in a foreign language. Listening to the song without any background information, the male and female singers’ tone of voice creates a somber yet pleasant and calm mood, alluding to the song’s possible meaning of love or the death of a loved one.

But after some light research, you’ll understand that the song is a lullaby about Berber grandmothers’ role as storytellers, with the lyrics evoking a scene of a family listening to their grandmother’s tale of a monster in the woods. You’ll also understand the song’s significance of being the first Algerian song broadcasted on French national radio and something that has left a major cultural impact on the Berber people (a marginalized group) through the remembrance of their traditions.

Listening to just one song in a foreign language is enough to spur a desire to learn more about other cultures, enabling you to be more empathetic to other peoples’ beliefs or experiences.

3. Discover More About Your Heritage

Regardless of what your native language is, it’s likely your ancestors spoke a different language than the one you speak today. Depending on your ancestry, some of these languages may no longer be widely spoken (like the Celtic languages or the indigenous languages of Mexico) and are restricted to only being used in schools and in certain households.

Because many of these languages are considered vulnerable or at risk by the Endangered Languages Project, what’s an easier way of keeping the languages of your ancestors alive than by listening to music sung in those languages?

Some suggestions on songs for specific ethnicities like Italian, African, German, Irish and Indian to kickstart your music listening include: “Cuando Me Enamoro” by Andrea Bocelli for Italian; Alex Boyé’s cover of “Baba Yetu” (The Lord’s Prayer in Swahili) for African; “Walpurgisnacht” by Faun for German; “Mo Ghile Mear” by Celtic Woman for Irish; and “Chaiyya Chaiyya” from the Bollywood film “Dil Se” for Indian.

4. Place Emphasis on Melody Over Lyrics

People tend to like contemporary songs more for their catchy rhythm than what the singers are saying. Modern music genres like electronic dance music (EDM) and pop have fewer lyrics, and the ones that do are usually taken up by the chorus. The same applies to music in foreign languages, which also have choruses that are easily identifiable due to their repetitive nature.

As the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “Music is the universal language of all mankind,” which can’t be closer to the truth when you tune out the lyrics (i.e. the foreign language) and focus on the melody. Whether it’s instruments or synthesizers making the sounds, the pleasurable and relaxed state they produce is at the heart of why people listen to music.

Great examples of popular non-English songs with catchy tunes include Ritchie Valens’sLa Bamba,” “99 Luftballons” by Nena and “Gangnam Style” by PSY.

Listening to music is arguably the easiest act a person can do. Because it’s such a simple task, there’s no reason not to listen to music in a foreign language and get more out of it than you would with your native language.

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