Are you looking for a great way to improve your English? In this guest post, Elizabeth Drayton from Break into English explains how you can use songs to improve your English language skills…
Nowadays, with modern technology, English students have a multitude of resources at their fingertips, such as Skype English classes, Youtube tutorial videos, interactive online English courses and language-learning apps, to name just a few. In this article we’ll focus on improving your English skills through songs with the likes of TikTok, YouTube and Spotify. Get ready to have fun learning!
Finding great songs
The key to learning English through songs is your motivation; and the key to staying motivated is to find songs that you can identify with or that inspire you. This is quite difficult if at first you don’t understand the meaning of the lyrics, so the tricky part is finding great songs that fit your personality. Fortunately, we can rely on the music and the vocal style to get an idea of songs we might like.
But where can we actually find songs that are great for improving English?
YouTube and Spotify
Online music player sources like YouTube and Spotify have unbelievable algorithms that make suggestions according to your listening history. So this is one useful way to source more listening material which you are probably going to like because it matches your previous tracks automatically!
TikTok and Like
Younger generations will surely be familiar with the likes of TikTok and Like, which are platforms for making and sharing short videos with music in the background. It’s easy to flick through videos made by your favourite vloggers and make a note of the songs you like in the background.
The radio, although more traditional and perhaps considered outdated by some, has a more human-based selection of songs and, even if the DJ plays some tracks in other languages too, is a fantastic source of songs which can help you improve your English skills. But the problem with the radio is how to identify the song you have just heard! Radio shows in 2019 are not the same as they were in the 1980s when the DJ would tell you the name of the artist and the song at the end of the track. Now you need to be tech savvy if you want to identify that song!
How to identify songs you hear on the radio or in a bar as you are sipping coffee on your break
Technology has brought us to the stage where the microphone on your phone can actually help you identify songs that can help improve your English. There are several apps available nowadays, most of them free, that are worth downloading. You may have heard of Spotsearch or Soundhound, but in my humble opinion, my clear favourite is Shazam. It’s the original and best app to identify songs, but for our purposes the best feature is that you can tag and categorise the songs that you identify. So if you haven’t already got the app, I recommend getting it and creating a tag for songs which can help you improve your English.
How to actually get better at English using songs
So now you have a few songs in your list, either tagged in Shazam or on a playlist on YouTube, let’s get down to how you can improve your English skills. Here’s my list of recommended activities that you should do (in order) if you truly want to make the most of the opportunity to improve your English with songs:
I was taught this technique when I was learning Japanese. It consists of singing the song as well as you can, concentrating as hard as possible on getting the sounds of the words right. Even if you don’t understand the meaning or know what the actual words are. You should listen to a few bars of music, press pause and then sing it. The skills you are working on are reproduction of sounds which may be unfamiliar to you, and pronunciation of words you already know. If you can record yourself doing this you will be able to use this technique to analyse your pronunciation and correct yourself.
Lyric training for listening skills
Listening for a word amoung the lyrics to a song is a perfect way to train your ear and work on listening skills. You can usually find gap-fill exercises online for most songs, if not, you can make them by downloading the lyrics, blacking out a few words and trying to see if you can hear them as you listen. There is a site called https://www.lyricsgaps.com which has a lot of song lyrics with spaces, so you could check out that page. There is, however, a much more exciting was of doing this activity, and that is to use https://lyricstraining.com/. This website uses YouTube videos and makes live gap-fill activities from the videos – so you have to fill in the gaps online as you listen to the song. This form of gamification is a great way to keep yourself motivated: you can compete with others online, chose the level of difficulty and see your rankings on the home page.
Look at the lyrics of songs to understand any hidden meanings
Studying the lyrics, once you have gone through the first to steps of practising pronunciation and listening, is perhaps the most complicated part of using songs to improve your English.
I think at this point it is worth working with a qualified native English teacher to make the most of the experience. In songs there are many instances in which you have to be able to read between the lines and understand double entendres, so it is great to have a guide in this sense. There are a few sites that will explain the general meaning of songs to you if you type it in Google, but there is nothing like sitting down with a printed copy and a highlighter pen and working through each line to look at metaphors, hidden meanings and clever lyrics. An experienced teacher will be able to highlight examples of complex grammar and connect vocabulary with other topics you may have studied, so it is highly recommended!
Once you are thoroughly familiar with the lyrics, the meaning, and have got the hang of the pronunciation, it’s time for KARAOKE! This doesn’t mean you have to go out and make a fool of yourself in public, you can just choose a few sing-along songs on YouTube and work on your pronunciation. See if you can remember the lyrics by heart – that is without looking – this will make sure you are getting the most out of the exercise and really improving your English level!
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Other ways to find songs you connect with, that are inspirational
If you can’t find songs that you like on the radio or through the other means we spoke about earlier, here are some recommendations that I think you might find inspirational.
Look at songs which tell a story:
● Stan – Eminem
● The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald – Gordon Lightfoot
● Viva la Vida – Coldplay
● American Pie – Don McLean
● The Boxer – Simon and Garfunkel
● A Day In the Life – The Beatles
● Lovers – Jackie Evancho
If you liked the movie – check out the soundtrack:
● Check On It – Beyoncé
● Wind Beneath My Wings – Bette Midler
● Pray For Me – The Weeknd and Kendrick Lamar
● 9 To 5 – Dolly Parton
● Kiss From A Rose – Seal
● Eye Of The Tiger – Survivor
Try songs which are simple and easy to understand:
● ABC – Jackson 5
● Always on My Mind – Elvis Presley
● And I Love Her – The Beatles
● Beautiful Day – U2
● Every Breath You Take – The Police
● Manic Mondays – The Bangles
● The Lazy Song – Bruno Mars
There’s nothing like a protest song to make you think!
● Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday
● The Times They Are a-Changin – Bob Dylan
● Get Up, Stand Up – Bob Marley
● Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2
● Killing in the Name – Rage Against the Machine
Check out cover versions to get that fusions of artists you like singing songs that they love (these are my favourites! Really worth checking out!):
● 1920’s “Fancy” (Iggy Azalea Cover)
● Ed Sheeran and Passenger “No Diggity-Thrift Shop” Mashup
● Johnny Cash – “Hurt” (Nine Inch Nails Cover)
● Rage Against the Machine – “How I Could Just Kill A Man” (Cypress Hill Cover)
So, in summary, make sure you find and choose songs that motivate you to improve your English skills. Go through the activities in order to give some structure to your learning, and consult with a native speaker to get the best out of the experience.