8 reasons why learning a language is like learning an instrument
Aside from language, one of my (Rob) principal joys is of playing the piano. Having started at six years old, music has consistently been a part of my life since then. It wasn’t easy to learn, and I feel that I’m still learning and will do as long as I continue playing. I don’t believe there’s any point of perfection whereby you can learn no more, which is what makes the whole process so enjoyable.
When I started learning Spanish, I saw various parallels between learning language and learning music, with a broad overlap in necessary skill-sets. In fact, musicians often make good linguists, and many multi-linguists also play an instrument. The skills used in playing an instrument are beneficial for language learning too – two Stanford studies have confirmed this. This article summarises a few of the ways that learning a language is like learning an instrument.
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You need to practise, lots
Many courses will promise a silver bullet, but ask any language learner and you’ll find that such a thing does not exist. A major part of learning a language or an instrument is hard work. Josh at Language Geek agrees with this, as does Catherine at Women Learning Thai. Sure, you will improve doing less, but there is a definite correlation between the amount of time you work and the improvement you make. Which is not to say that all time is well spent…
You can read the theory, but until you actually play, you’re not a musician
So many people will not start speaking the language until they’ve finished the next textbook, or practised conjugating those verb tables one last time. That’s fine if you’re studying for exams or just want to read books in your target language, but if you want to be able to speak then you need to go and speak! Just like with music, there’s a definite performance aspect in speaking a language – and there’s no substitute for it.
Your ears are more important than anything else
You can’t produce a sound if you don’t hear it accurately first. When we produce a sound, we are producing our approximation of that sound which we have internalised. Being able to listen for small details in pronunciation, intonation, and rhythm make all the difference in producing a good pronunciation or native sounding accent.
We all start in pretty much the same place
When we start learning, we start from scratch. If you’ve ever heard a beginner violinist, you’ll be familiar with the grating screeches that they tend to produce. In learning a language, you’re going to spend some time making a bit of a fool of yourself and butchering the language as you improve. The key is to accept this, enjoy it, and learn from your mistakes as you progress.
Useful skills include memory, pattern recognition, and a good ear
You’re at an advantage if you can memorise chunks of information (vocabulary retention), see patterns from seeming chaos (grammar recognition and production), and if you can hear nuances of sound (pronunciation). If you aren’t very good at these things, you’ll find yourself improving as you learn your language. If you’re already strong in these areas, you’ll find progress to be quick.
Useful attributes include patience, determination, perseverance
Patience, because learning a language well is a task for the long haul. Determination, because often you’ll struggle for motivation to learn yet more vocabulary, and perseverance, because often you’ll think it’s easier to carry on and give up. Of course, language learning is a joy as often as a chore, but being equipped with these attributes means that you’ll definitely, without fail, get there one day. This in itself is the most important thing in language learning, never mind the skillset you bring to the table.
Not all practice is good practice
When I practise the piano, if I do it well, I might look at one phrase for twenty minutes or more. I might experiment with phrasing, articulation and rhythm until I’m confident I’ve got it “in the fingers”, and can reproduce it in the heat of the moment. Often, I find it better to focus intensely over a short period of time rather than going through the motions for two hours. Similarly, when I learnt Spanish, I spent lots of time on exercises which weren’t helpful and didn’t help me improve (what’s useful or not can be different for other types of learners). The important thing was to recognise what was making the difference, and focus on that. It’s more beneficial to spend twenty minutes learning something you really need, than plough through something for hours on end just to get to the end of the chapter.
We make occasional inexplicable gains
Often, you can’t easily see changes that are brewing under the surface until they’re really obvious. If I heat a saucepan of water, I won’t see any visible change until it’s boiling, yet the temperature has been rising steadily. Similarly, I often felt frustrated when I was learning Spanish, only to find that a month later I’m using structures and vocabulary I didn’t even think I knew. My subconscious was slowly heating up, until “water started boiling”, and I became aware of the gains I had made.
But I’m not a musician!
Well, maybe you should become one! As you can see, there are a lot of cross-over skills and attributes common to both linguists and musicians. It’s likely that if you take up an instrument, your language learning brain will also see improvements. If you really don’t fancy going back to the recorder after all those years, you can take away the following points:
Doubtless, I’ve missed lots of other things. I’d be interested in hearing any other cross-overs you might think of, so do let us know in the comments section below!