Thursday, June 03, 2010

Learning Japanese Through Music

How Listening To Pop Music Can Save Your Japanese

A guest post by Lauren A.

One of the most effective ways of learning a language is listening to music in the language you are studying. It is not only fun, but sets up the correct atmosphere in which language acquisition can occur. If you engage in some of the techniques outlined in this article, you will find yourself learning lots of Japanese quickly.

Pop Music Saved My Life
Pop Music Saved My Life

People that study language acquisition agree that language is best acquired in the context of meaningful, real-life situations. Since song lyrics are usually written on a single theme, and written based on the events and emotions that are experienced in real life, learning through music provides an excellent opportunity for language acquisition to occur. Songs are not a made-up dialogue in a textbook created to teach you a specific grammar point, but rather individual emotional accounts of the human condition, available in a wide range of topics.

The language found in song lyrics is the real language used in everyday life, not the stale language taken out of a textbook designed for foreigners to learn. Idiomatic and slang expressions are frequently employed, along with plain and expressive forms. Learning through songs is not your basic これはペンです (this is a pen) language learning experience. This is the kind of language learning that one can hear in real conversations. Beware of using it in formal situations!

Emotional Involvement and Active Listening

The more you like a song, the higher the chance that you will acquire the language used within the song’s lyrics. When you become emotionally involved with a song, the task of figuring out what its lyrics mean and the grammar behind it becomes an exciting quest for meaning.
  • You listen to the song again and again creating the repetitive listening “input” required for language acquisition.
  • You sing along with the song, creating the speaking “output” required for language acquisition.
  • You learn new words by figuring out their meanings based on context.
You learn new words by figuring out their meanings based on context. Because it is so fun, your brain does all the hard work without you realizing that you are actually learning. In a short time, you are remembering and using the vocabulary and grammar infused within the songs you are “studying.”

Before now, you probably already knew that learning a language through listening to music was a great method. But how can you do so in the most effective ways possible? It’s possible to passively listen to music without thinking about it and acquire a language, but this takes a very long time to reap results. To achieve the most benefit, you must actively listen to a song’s lyrics, thinking about the words as they are being used in context, and in what manner they are being used. Here are some suggested activities for actively learning Japanese through music.

Eleven Essential Activities for Learning Japanese Through Music

  1. Choose a song to study: Choosing which song to study depends on what you would like to accomplish. You can choose a song that has meaning for you, such as your favorite song, the one from your favorite show, or the one that you heard while on the train to Tokyo. You can choose a song that has a particular educational goal, such as one with a particular verb tense you would like to practice, or one based on a specific theme in which you would like to increase your vocabulary. You can choose a song based on length and/or difficulty level, such as a short and easy children’s song or a more longer and difficult ballad or rap. Ultimately, however, it really does not matter which song you choose; you will acquire language no matter which one you study.

  2. Find the lyrics to the song: Search for the lyrics online, preferably in Kanji. Choosing a song whose lyrics have already been translated will be less challenging to study than one that has no translation available.

  3. Look over the song’s lyrics: After choosing a song to study, look over the lyrics and point out all the words you already know. This serves to reinforce the vocabulary you already have acquired and helps to seal the vocabulary you have up until now only partially acquired. Listen to the song a few times and list the words you recognize from listening to the song. Say the words out loud for speaking practice. Look at the grammar being used in the song. Point out to yourself the concepts you already know well, as well as the new ones that you have not seen before, and are curious about. See if you can figure out the meanings of unknown vocabulary and grammar based on their context within the song.

  4. Study the song’s lyrics: Look up all the words that you don’t know the meanings of with a dictionary. Identify the different grammar points by performing a search in books and online. If you are using a set of lyrics with a translation, use it to see if you are using the correct definition for a word or phrase. Identify idiomatic expressions and phrases that are not translated directly from one language to the other. Create a list of the new vocabulary and grammar learned from the song for referencing and studying later on. Do this with as much of the song or as little of the song as you feel driven to do.

    Rikaichan ( is a pop-up dictionary plug-in for Firefox that works really well for looking up song lyrics. You can hover your mouse over the Kanji, and the program identifies the definition, the part of speech, and which form is being used along with its plain form. You can also copy and paste the definitions that you find while searching.

  5. Study the meaning of the song’s lyrics: As you are looking up the words to the song, analyze the non-literal meaning of the lyrics. Observe the way the words are ordered in each sentence and how they are being used to convey their overall meaning. If you are using a set of lyrics with a translation, use it to compare how things are being said in Japanese versus how they are said in your language. Use more than one translation of the song to verify the meanings, and if you speak another language, it is helpful to look up the lyrics’ translation in that language too. Notice the cultural differences between how each language expresses different ideas.

  6. Learn to sing along with the song: Listen to the song while looking at the lyrics, and learn to sing it out loud. Singing is a form of “shadowing,” a process whereby you acquire language quickly by repeating what a native speaker says at the same velocity. Have the vocabulary and grammar list you created available for the words you need to learn nearby to look up when you forget what something means. Listen to the song over and over, until you eventually learn to sing the song without looking at the lyrics.

  7. Sing the song again and again: Speaking output and repetition are the keys to acquiring a language, so sing along to it whenever you can. Bring the song with you on your personal music player when you travel outside of the house, and rotate it in with all of your other favorite songs. Enjoy your newfound ability to sing along with many parts of the song. Do not expect to remember the entire song the first time you sing it without the lyrics. You will need to listen to it many more times before you learn the whole song. Actively try to remember the grammar and vocabulary you studied while singing the song’s lyrics.

  8. Study more: Realize that acquiring a language is a gradual process. Some words need to be heard and recognized in different contexts many times before they are acquired. Periodically go back to your list of vocabulary and grammar from the song and look it over. Put the words you want to remember in a spaced-repetition system like Anki ( or Make new sentences with the words and grammar from the song that you still need to learn, and have them checked by a native speaker on Use whatever study method works best for you in order to move things into your long-term memory.

  9. Study with friends: Since the goal of language is communication, studying language makes more sense when done socially. Study song lyrics together, sing karaoke together, and speak to each other using the new words. Attend classes online with others, such as the “Japanese Through Anime Music” class found at, where you can learn to sing a popular Anime song together with a wonderful group of Japanese-learners.

  10. Listen for newly acquired language in other places: When hearing Japanese outside of the song you studied, such as listening to other songs, watching TV programs, or hearing native speakers’ conversations, try to actively listen as much as possible. Bring the language you are hearing to a conscious level, where you are listening to the individual words being used, recognizing and figuring out their meanings, analyzing the grammar being used, and trying to understand their meanings on a holistic level. As you do this, you will start hearing the words you learned in the lyrics of the songs you have studied prior. When hearing specific expressions, you will most likely be able to remember exactly from which song you learned it, since the brain is designed to remember things it experiences relatively and emotionally.

  11. Be creative: Realize that this article’s proposed methods are only suggestions. Be creative in coming up with your own method for studying though music and you will be learning lots of Japanese in no time! A. is a formally trained language teacher with over two years teaching experience on eduFire. Her much loved classes, Japanese Through Anime Music : 皆さんの一番好きな音楽 are always well attended and free! Follow her on Twitter (@Vircocha1) or check out her profile on eduFire.

Do you listen to any Japanese music? Do you have any recommendations for good music to study with? I'd like to hear it! (ed)
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