Low investment, high rewards
As a Spanish professor, many people casually ask me about the best ways to acquire a foreign language. While most people see the value in learning a second language, not everybody wants to make the necessary investment in time or money to learn a language properly. Language learning apps like Duolingo and Babbel are big business, at least in part, because they don’t cost users much, if anything, to get started learning the language. These options aren’t bad, necessarily; after all, what am I supposed to do if I want to get started learning a language not offered in my local schools? Of course, I don’t think these apps can ever fully take the place of an immersion experience or even a traditional classroom if your main goal is to gain fluency. These apps can often help students practice vocabulary, but what some of them lack is the ability to help you significantly improve listening comprehension and speaking, which is what most learners of the language want to do with it. In short, nothing takes the place of the experience of negotiating meaning with a native speaker of the language. (I have other concerns about these apps, because they seem to foster the belief that language instructors shouldn’t be compensated for their work, but that’s a topic for another post.)
However, not everybody is lucky enough to have regular access to native speakers who are willing to help them learn the language free of charge. Fortunately, today there is a plethora of options available to students who want to learn a foreign language independently. When I was learning Spanish as a high school student in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the early 1990s, there was no YouTube or wifi; no one I knew even had a cell phone or used email. Learning Spanish in a traditional classroom was basically my only option. Things changed for me, in many ways, when I participated in a study abroad program in Córdoba, Argentina. There, I had my first experience in a discoteca, where I was turned on not only to one of my guilty pleasures, Ace of Base – I know, they don’t sing in Spanish and their music hasn’t aged that well – but also to groups like Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Los Ladrones Sueltos, and Vilma Palma e Vampiros. Back then, I didn’t know much about what they were singing; I just knew that they were moving the crowds.
Some of my favorite souvenirs from that trip were the CDs of these three new (to me) bands. The album, “Vasos Vacíos,” which was the greatest hits of Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, was my absolute favorite. I wore these albums out, but I didn’t just listen to them as background music. For the CDs that had printed lyrics in the accompanying booklets, I kept them handy as I listened to the music. I looked up new vocabulary in my Spanish-English dictionary. But not all the CDs I was listening to had printed lyrics, which made my job even more difficult. And remember, there was no Google Translate for me to copy and paste the lyrics to get even a rough translation of the songs. At the very least, I was able to listen to how native speakers pronounced the words. I’m a horrible singer, but when I was alone, I would imitate what I heard. Over time, then, not only did I have a larger vocabulary, but I also had better pronunciation. Soon I was even rolling my Rs, which took me a long time to learn.
This strategy wasn’t a short cut to learning Spanish, but it was fun. I spent many hours listening and re-listening to these 90s pop/rock groups from Argentina. I wasn’t putting in the work for a grade. I was motivated intrinsically to learn the language because I wanted to know what my peers in a foreign country were listening to. That’s not to say that listening to music has to be work. There is some benefit to your mood to just listen to the music because you like to hear it. However, if you want to truly understand what is being expressed, you’ll have to do at least a little work.
One unexpected benefit, for me, to learning Spanish through music was the understanding of culture. While the lyrics of pop songs are often mindless or nonsensical, there are a good number of songs that reveal the cultural practices and perspectives of Spanish speakers. And some songs even have political messages in which the United States is criticized, which causes the American listener to rethink how his or her country interacts with its neighbors.
In conclusion, learning Spanish through music is great because the songs are authentic examples of culture, created by native speakers for an audience of native speakers. These days, when students ask me for recommendations for contemporary Spanish-language music, it’s difficult for me. I really can’t listen to some of the more popular songs in Spanish, like hits from reggaetón, a genre that is often very sexually explicit. I almost always have to go back to the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s when I recommend artists to students. A singer like Julieta Venegas, from Mexico, is a good example of a contemporary singer with good music and lyrics that aren’t embarrassing to try to explain. Fortunately, there are many thousands of songs in Spanish available on sites like YouTube, so it’s relatively easy to find something that you’d like. And if it takes a long time to find your jam, be grateful you at least don’t have to spend $20 on a CD that may only have one good song on it, like I’ve been guilty of doing too many times to recall. One recommendation I have if I’ve convinced you to use music to help you learn Spanish, is that, if possible, it should not be in place of a more traditional learning experience; trying to get meaning from a song if you have absolutely no foundation in the language is extremely difficult. Another recommendation I have is to avoid the temptation of using English subtitles. Using the Spanish-language captions videos, if available, is much more beneficial if you feel like you need to see something printed as you listen.
I leave you with my favorite song from my trip to Argentina in 1994, “Matador,” by Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, a band I was fortunate enough to see in concert in Los Angeles somewhere around 2009:
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