Learning a Language Through Music

Tian Mi Mi (Honey Sweet)

I'll be graduating from college with a degree in Modern Languages soon.  This degree plan required that I study a specific language, as well as the culture that goes along with it.  When I first started studying, I chose to challenge myself with Mandarin Chinese.  I loved the classes I took, from the complex tonal language and 40,000 unique characters, to the vibrant history and culture of China.  In each semester of Chinese, we had to do a presentation at the end to show how much we'd learned.  Each time, I chose to sing a song.  During the second semester, this was the song I picked: Tian Mi Mi (Honey Sweet).

Teresa Teng, the original singer of Tian Mi Mi

My love for singing started as a child.  I always loved singing in church, and music has been a big part of my family for generations.  My great-grandparents were known for their handcrafted fiddles and guitars.  This is my late and great-uncle Johnny Duncan, and this the band my cousin Dewey plays guitar in, Frame the Enemy.  I'm so proud of both of them, and they definitely inspire me to sing and appreciate music more.

In high school, my Spanish teacher at High Island taught us to sing songs in Spanish as a way to help us learn the correct pronunciation, flow, and meaning of words.  I have since applied this method to every language that I have attempted, and I highly recommend it.  Since Mandarin is already a tonal language, if you can sing it, you can speak it that much better.  Unfortunately, I did end up having to change my focus language to Spanish... but that's another story (there's a song for that one too).

Learning to sing a song in a foreign language is difficult, I won't lie.  However, I do think anyone can do it, especially those who are already learning that language.

How to learn a song in a foreign language:

  1. Pick a language.  Every culture has music, so there are a lot of options!
  2. Pick a simple song that you enjoy listening to, because you're going to be listening to it a LOT!
  3. Listen to the song several times without looking at the lyrics.  You can try to sing along, but what's important is that you get a good feel for the rhythm, pauses, and emotions of the song.
  4. Find a good copy of the lyrics in BOTH languages.  If you're already pretty good with the language, you can try translating it yourself for extra practice.  I just found a version of the lyrics that had the Mandarin, pinyin (phonetic equivalent, or how to pronounce the word), and the English translation all side by side.
  5. Next, listen to the song while reading the lyrics.  If you can find a version of the song with the lyrics written in, that can work.  I prefer to read a static copy in another window, or better yet printed out so I can mark certain parts for emphasis.
  6. This is the fun part; sing along with the song until you can do it without making mistakes.  
  7. After you master the song with the lyrics in front of you, try singing along without the lyrics.  This part will probably take the longest.  Don't give up!
  8. Finally, find an instrumental version of the song and record yourself singing it.  It'll still take several times to perfect the recording.  As you will notice in my recording, I only did part of the song for that reason.
  9. My youtube video-making skills are pretty weak.  I honestly can't tell you how I even managed the one I made for this song.  I stumbled through the process and learned as I went along, but it's been so long that I'll have to learn it again for my next video.  If you have any tutorials or tips, let me know!  Please share your foreign language videos if you are inspired to one!


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