22 Feb Saved by song: can singing improve your language skills?
Despite having a good grasp of vocabulary and grammar, Jonross Swaby found few understood him when he spoke Spanish and Portuguese. That was until he started singing.
The late Nelson Mandela once said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” But what if they can’t understand you when you do?
Many people who have learned a language outside of a country that speaks it will sympathise. You could be trouncing native speakers at Swedish scrabble, your French grammaire could be parfaite, and watching Colombian telenovelas could be a breeze – but open your mouth to say something to a native and you’re met with a bunch of “qué?”s and “quoi?”s.
This happened to me the first time I went to visit relatives in Brazil. A desire to discover the culture of my Cuban-born grandparents drove me to start taking Spanish classes after I left school. Many years of self-study, language exchanges, and six months of living in southern Spain made me fluent, and so I picked up Portuguese vocabulary and grammar pretty easily.
A few years before my trip to Brazil, having worked my way through a self-study book and audio-visual software similar to Rosetta Stone, I began writing emails to my aunty in Belo Horizonte, a south-eastern city about 270 miles inland from Rio de Janeiro. However, reading and writing are very different skills to speaking and listening.
My vocab and my grammar was mostly on point, and I had studied the differences in Portuguese and Spanish pronunciation – for example, I knew that my aunty’s home city wasn’t pronounced “beh-lo or-ee-son-teh” as it would be in Latin American Spanish but more like “beh-loo or-ee-zonch(ee)” – so I never thought that my accent would be so bad that people would struggle to understand me.
Yet my conversations with Brazilians would normally end in a mess of confused noises and frustration. A simple “até logo” (see you later) – which should really be understood in the context of the conversation – was consistently generating blank stares. I had yet to learn the musicality of Brazilian Portuguese, its distinctive pattern of stress, rhythm and tone.
My eureka moment came a couple of years later back home in London. My guitar-mad uncle was practising The Girl from Ipanema, a well-known bossa nova song covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Amy Winehouse. I’m a compulsive singer – I can barely walk down a public street without breaking into quiet song – and naturally I began singing the English lyrics along to my uncle’s accompaniment. Later, I found the Portuguese version of the track on my laptop and listened and sang while listening. Before long I had the entire song committed to not just memory, but muscle memory. Even while my mind was distracted other things, I could sing it word for word – or, strictly speaking, sound for sound.
Normally, when we as English speakers learn another language, we are taught comparative English sounds – but this can be misleading. For example, Spanish “d”s and “t”s are softer than their English counterparts, produced with the blade of the tongue rather than the tip, and Spanish “e”s are not as in English “get” but a slightly more open vowel, with the tongue at a lower position in the mouth. When we’re taught to think of foreign sounds as English ones it becomes difficult to recognise the subtle nuances between them.
But by continuously imitating what I heard in the song, to the point that it became almost a chant, I had been subconsciously teaching my brain and mouth a pattern of sounds independent from their words or meaning. Babies tend to cry in their local accents as the result of a similar process. When I switched to just speaking Portuguese rather than singing it, these sounds became second nature and my accent improved dramatically as a result.
The usefulness of singing as a pronunciation aid was most striking for me with Spanish. Despite being a fluent Spanish speaker I had trouble, as many native English speakers do, with the elusive trilled “r” sound (“burrrrrrito”). I had read articles, watched videos on YouTube and recited tongue twisters in the hope of correcting my clumsy pronunciation, but I just wasn’t getting it. Then last year I heard a song by the bachata artist Rrrrromeo Santos called Propuesta Indecente. Gosh, it was catchy. I found myself singing it every single day. In fact, I still do. What’s more, the main vocal hook had its fair share of those tricky rrrrrr sounds. I don’t know at which point I first managed to successfully trill my rs, but one day I was singing in the kitchen while cooking dinner and I thought to myself: “Hang on, did I just do that? How long have I been able to do that for?” Now, I never miss a trill.