Language · Music

100 songs to learn a language

Some years ago, during a conversation with an old school-friend, the subject turned to languages. He’s been based in Christchurch New Zealand for many years and knows a lot more about Maori culture and language than I will ever know. He told me about the Maori idea of 100 songs to learn a language, and it has stuck with me.

I have spent a lot of time with people trying to learn English as a second language, people who need or want to learn the language. It surprises me how long it takes them, how slow their progress can be, how they will still say things like “I say you tomorrow” instead of “I’ll tell you tomorrow”, even after several years of study. There are so many movies and TV shows in English (and, yes, American is English) and there are so many songs written in English that you can immerse yourself in the language easily.

My brother lives in Spain and has spent much of his time there teaching English to school-age students. I discussed the idea of “100 songs to learn a language” with him, and it’s an idea he has been using to some extent for many years. He doesn’t have 100 songs that he uses in class, but there are certain word forms that he emphasizes with pop songs. He has used “I like it” (Gerry and the Pacemakers) for many years.

The use of the word “it” is a tricky one for many people learning English. When asking whether someone is enjoying something (a meal for instance) the correct form for the question is, “Do you like it?” And a correct answer would be, “Yes, I like it very much,” or “No, I don’t like it at all.” If you spend enough time with people learning English you will have found that a typical exchange goes like this: “You like?” followed by the answer “Yes, very much I like.” My brother plays the Gerry and the Pacemakers song to emphasize the use of the word “it”: the chorus begins “I like it / I like it” and ends with the question “Are you liking it too?”

I would like to report that this is enough for all of his students to use the form “I like it” without error, but I doubt if it’s true. Maybe if we were still living in 1963, with that song riding high in the charts, it would happen, but most people under 20 don’t know the song, or the band’s previous release “How do you do it?” (which also has an instructive use of the word “it”).

I mentioned, in a previous post about Verbs of Speech, that the Beatles song “You can’t do that” uses verbs like tell, say and talk in a way that should help people who are learning English, assuming that they can hear the words in the first place. My first visit to Spain in the early 80s coincided with various summer festivals, and in many outdoor spaces there were stages featuring bands playing covers of 60s songs – lots of Beatles, Chubby Checker, “House of the rising sun”. I remember a bunch of kids, no older than 20, singing and playing “Let’s twist again” with most of the lyrics made up. The phrases “like we did last summer” and “like we did last year” were replaced with phrases that weren’t English, and ended in “hummer” and “hear” respectively. I wondered then, and have wondered since, whether I would be able to sing my favourite songs properly if all of the pop music that I grew up with had been sung in Spanish rather than English. I can just about get through the Spanish verses of “Guantanamera” (“Yo soy un hombre sincero / de donde crece las palmas” – I’m typing from memory here) but it’s not one of my favourite songs.

“I like it”, “You can’t do that”, “How do you do it?”: all three of these songs will teach a would-be English speaker worthwhile, correctly formed sentences. Only 97 to go.

 

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