When I first learned Spanish, I was focused on learning words. I went overboard with books, web sites, exercises — I studied grammar, I learned vocabulary, I learned proper usage, mastered more than a dozen verb tenses. In the end, I found I could say almost anything I wanted, express almost any thought.
The irony was that I couldn't understand a bit of what others were saying to me. For all of my knowledge and study, I was basically helpless — an island of output, completely immune to the sea of input around me.
You see, the problem was that I hadn't really learned how Spanish sounds. I'm not talking about pronunciation, although that's a part of it. Mostly, I'm talking about hearing it spoken, recognizing words, and understanding them as they enter your ear.
Train your ears early
It's important to start training your ears as early as possible. There are many excellent ways to train your ears, but the two easiest ways are also the two most obvious ways: music and movies. Movies are obvious and easy, because you can get the subtitles as things happen, and as you learn more you'll naturally recognize more.
Learning from music is perhaps not as obvious or easy, but in my opinion it may be the most effective way of quickly learning a new language. Music is easy to listen to over and over, in the car, on the bus, at the gym, at work... it can go with you and coach new words into your head without a great deal of work from you.
The key to learning from music, though, is doing a little bit of work. It's not much, but it's essential.
How to find music and lyrics
First, of course, you need to find some music that you like. That's easy. Next, pick a song that you like. You're going to do this one song at a time. Just choose any song that you enjoy listening to and wish you understood.
Now find the lyrics. Remember, you can't search in English. Well, you're welcome to try... but without a lot of luck, you probably won't get far. So this means you need to learn perhaps the two most important words you'll learn all week: "song lyrics". You can easily just look them up on WordReference.
This is all you need to start Googling in a new language. Exciting, isn't it! In Russian, I Google for "текст песни ...", and in Italian I search for "parole ...". Just add the name of your song at the end and click Search to find the words!
How to learn from music
The trick here is to make your ears do most of the work. Listen to the song one time through while looking at the words. This allows your brain to tell your ears where each word stops and the next one starts.
Next, paste your song lyrics into Google Translate and find out what they mean. You can also look up individual words at WordReference. Get your lyrics and their translation side by side, and go through the song one more time, this time paying attention to the foreign words while also paying attention to the English meaning.
Now, put them away. Store them somewhere in case you need them again, but from here out, you mostly want to make your ears do the work. When you listen to the song, remember the meanings while hearing the words.
You can do this anywhere, any time of day. And with every new song, you learn new words, new phrases, new thoughts!
In Spanish, my favorites were Juanes and Shakira. In German, I like Rammstein and Eisbrecher, and the occasional German song by KMFDM. In Russian, I immediately took a liking to Звери and Тату. Now, in Italian, I think I'm going to go more classical, like Andrea Bocelli, and maybe learn some opera.
What are some groups or musicians you enjoy listening to in the language you are studying? I know that at least one of my readers is learning Hindi, and a couple are learning French... what are some good places to start looking for those? Leave some comments and share!
Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.