Language acquisition through music – Week 50

Since this is my first post of the new year, I would like to comment on my goals for 2015 before delving into the topic “music as part of a language acquisition strategy.”

These goals derive rather naturally from my proposed methodology. I was inspired to formulate them by a thread at

  1. Watch about 40 minutes of Mandarin movies and TV shows per day, or a total of about 245 hours.
  2. Have at least 50% of that viewing time be without subtitles.
  3. When watching an entirely new episode of a soap opera (a genre I never ordinarily watch) without subtitles, be able to pick out and understand perhaps 15% of the words that are uttered (including repeats – each “wo”, “ni”, and “hao” counts hahaha) on first viewing. That may sound really easy and unambitious to more advanced students, but it would feel like a great accomplishment to me.
  4. Be able to sing at least one entire song from the movies or shows that I watch. This has proven surprisingly difficult! I have worked a bit on the Boonie Bears’ intro song and a lot on Nan Zi Han from Mulan, but with little to show for it.
  5. Be able to understand at least 50% of the dialogue in a new Boonie Bears or Qiao Hu episode and be able to watch at least one or two of my favorite Chinese movies such as Dragon and Hero and understand most of the dialogue without subtitles (after many, many repetitions).
  6. Continue blogging about my experiment on a weekly basis and engage more with other students of Mandarin and language enthusiasts in general through my blog and on this and other forums.

My 15% comprehension goal (#3) is fairly ambitious, considering that my last self-assessment was 6%, and there is a tendency toward diminishing returns due to lower word frequency for new terms, once you get past pronouns, interjections, and basic verbs. However, I’m hoping that this phenomenon will be counterbalanced by increasingly reaping the fruits of natural neural adaptation to oral Mandarin, which I expect has occurred over the past year and 220 hours and will continue as my experiment progresses.

My fourth goal relates to using music as a language acquisition strategy. Authentic music and video are two common sources of listening practice for students that adhere, at least partially, to a natural acquisition strategy. I elected video rather than music for my experiment because I think it is generally superior and because the visual clues make deciphering words possible even at a basic level, whereas I might listen to music in Mandarin endlessly without learning anything if I used it exclusively.

However, the major advantage to song is that the accompanying music is conducive to repetition, memorization, and deep or subconscious assimilation. If a tune is catchy, you can listen to it again and again, sing along, and before long find yourself repeating it mentally or aloud on your own. Evidently, in this way, you are getting “extra” practice with the language (such as when you sing while in the shower). Further, you are assimilating the language on a different neurological level than when simply listening to dialogue.

I recommend students take the following measures to use music effectively for language acquisition:

– Choose songs that have meaningful, well-written lyrics. Get help from a native.

– Choose music that you really like and can listen to over and over with pleasure.

– Study the lyrics carefully.

– Memorize the lyrics, either deliberately or by listening to the song so many times that you learn them naturally.

– Once you learn it, sing the song from time to time! This should occur spontaneously, but if it doesn’t, make a point of it.

In my own Mandarin acquisition experiment, I cannot fully follow my own recommendations because I cannot study the lyrics or get help from natives. Obviously, however, I can use music, since it is often included in movies and TV shows. There is no reason that I cannot, as I watch, pay careful attention, repeat the tracks, and then try to sing along. As I mentioned, I have done that with the song Nan Zi Han from Mulan several times.

To date, I have probably spent a total of at least three hours on it. Surprisingly, I am still unable to sing along with even half the song!

More recently, I have been repeating the introductory song to the Boonie Bears episode. (Watch first 1:20)


I recently decided—in another flexible interpretation of my rules—that I will also listen to these songs in isolation, sans the video. I believe this makes little difference to my experiment, since this listening is unlikely to ever account for more than 5% or 10% of my total time. Further, this type of listening is even more, rather than less, radical than watching videos, since it is purely oral.

The reason for my decision is simple: I want to make better use of my time when driving. I drive three hours to my farm and back almost every weekend. I have recently started listening to downloaded French radio broadcasts during these drives and loved the experience. I realized I could use a bit of that time in the car to listen to Mandarin as well. Since I want to eventually memorize at least these two songs, I might as well make some progress while driving. I will carefully include this time in my daily Mandarin log.