Though it’s often said that the best time to learn a new language is when you’re a child, there are some advantages of being an adult learner that are often overlooked. Unlike children, who are usually forced to study languages by their schools or their parents, adults only take up new activities when they feel motivated to do it. Whether they need languages for work, travel, or just because they enjoy learning, there is an element of choice and incitement in their learning process that is often absent in younger students.
However, the very fact that they can decide when to start a course, it also means that they can decide to leave it if the experience doesn’t fulfill their expectations, either because they find it too hard or just boring.
In fact, recent studies suggest that the majority of adults who stop studying languages do it because they find traditional learning materials too dull and difficult to relate to. It would seem, then, that the key to keeping yourself motivated is to find things to do with and in the language that you really care about. Things that you would do in your own language.
Today, we will discuss the different ways in which people who like literature, music and drama can use their favorite art forms to boost their language skills.
Very often, students ask their teachers for things they can do to learn faster. “What did you do? How did you learn?’’, they say, as if there were a magical recipe that can make you bilingual just by following the right steps. However, they are often surprised when their teachers answer things like “Well, I was a huge Spice Girls fan so I memorized all their lyrics and sang along to all their songs. Also, because I wanted to know what they were saying, I translated all their lyrics using a dictionary”.
Though it might seem funny at first, this story goes to show that when you really care about something, the linguistic part of it comes naturally and joyfully. Just think about it for a minute. In the 90s, The Spice Girls released three 45-minute albums. That means that by the age she was 12, that teacher knew more English than can be fitted in two hours. That’s a lot of English. No wonder she grew up to be a language teacher.
We know, we know. It’s probably a bit late to become a hardcore fan of a girl band. But do you know what it’s never too late for? Singing. No matter how old you are, singing is one of the most joyous, inspiring and liberating activities that you can do. Our proposal is that you think of your favorite songs, look for versions and covers in different languages, follow the lyrics and try to sing along.
You cannot think of any bilingual songs right now? Well, what about the French classic “Ne me quitte pas”, by Jacques Brel? And while you might be familiar with Frank Sinatra’s English version, ‘If You Go Away’, you probably didn’t know that there is a cumbia (yes, cumbia) version in Spanish by Argentine artists Alfonso Barbieri and Liliana Felipe. Well, there is. And we can assure you it’s just as devastatingly beautiful as the original.
Acting in a different language
Are you an aspiring actor who finds it difficult to get an acting gig in your own country?
Then why not try auditioning in a foreign language? All you have to do is find a meaty monolog from a great film or play, memorize it, and record yourself with a phone or a webcam. That way, you will get to familiarize yourself with the vocabulary and the sounds of different languages while pursuing the artistic career of your dreams.
And do you know what the best part is? You don’t even need to worry about your accent. In fact, your accent might just be the thing that will help you get the gig! After all, some of the most memorable performances in recent years, from Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona to Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds, are by foreign actors in Hollywood films. So why not you? You could be the first English-speaking star in an Almodovar drama or the next Spanish guest in a Woody Allen comedy!
Don’t know where to start? Why not go for something really challenging? Something that really allows you to showcase your acting chops? In Ingmar Bergman’s Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata), a 1978 masterpiece starring Liv Ullman and Ingrid Bergman, there are show-stopping monologues that will definitely push your linguistic and artistic limits.
Monologues with lines like:
Swedish: “Är dotterns olycka moderns triumf? Är min sorg ditt hemliga nöje?”
“Is the daughter’s misfortune the mother’s triumph? Is my grief your secret pleasure?”
How would you approach these lines? With sadness? Anger? Resignation? No matter which one you choose, we’re sure you’re going to do great.
Very often, students are asked to write boring reports on different aspects of their hometown, the environment, or their country’s education system. Though this type of task is undeniably helpful, it might also lead students to think that writing is a necessarily impersonal and mechanical affair when, in fact, it could be anything but. Through writing, especially poetry, you could get to express your feelings, try new aesthetic effects, play with sounds, subvert grammatical structures, and much more. Poetry, after all, is not the solemn, rule-driven affair that many people believe it is, but the freest of all literary genres.
Think, for example, about Mary Oliver who wrote blank verse in a conversational style, and whose literary appeal was to be found in her accessibility. In the poem Wild Geese, she said:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Isn’t it both extremely simple and utterly beautiful? Or think about the contemporary poet Denise Duhamel, who wrote a full book of poems about Barbie with titles such as ‘Buddhist Barbie’, ‘Bisexual Barbie’ and ‘Barbie In Therapy’.
In a poem from a different book, Duhamel writes:
According to Culture Shock:
A Guide to Customs and Etiquette
of Filipinos, when my husband says yes,
he could also mean one of the following:
a) I don’t know.
b) If you say so.
c) If it will please you.
d) I hope I have said yes unenthusiastically enough
for you to realize I mean no.
Poetry, as you can see, can be whatever you make it. Heartbreaking, joyful, pensive, or just downright hilarious.
So, that’s it then. That’s how you can use music, acting, and poetry— three art forms that have enriched people’s lives for millenia— to take your language skills to the next level.
Is there any other art form that you think is compatible with language learning? Let us know in the comments section.
Want to learn one of the languages we mentioned in this article in greater depth? Then reach out to us on our website and one of our native teachers will get back at you in no time.