Published On: Wed, May 28th, 2014

Fluent in 3 Months

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Using Music to Learn Phrases

Benny Lewis, author of Fluent in 3 Months (published by Collins) gives us a brief singing lesson to help remember key phrases in a new language.

While learning words is certainly very important, I recommend you start with phrases or full sentences, which allow you to communicate real ideas from the start. Focusing on set phrases like ‘Where is the bathroom?’ and ‘How much does that cost?’ lets you communicate in grammatically-correct forms without having to master grammar.

First, you need to know those phrases, though. Which isn’t always easy. To help retain a full sentence, I will often sing it out. This isn’t something I necessarily came up with out of the blue. It’s a technique used for centuries to remember passages. For instance, the Qur’an was originally taught orally, and people learned it by mimicking other people singing it. Even though it’s in written form now, Muslims continue to sing many of its passages, which helps them remember and focus on important areas of it.

I combine singing with a little of the keyword method, so the start of a phrase gets my momentum going. Let’s say I’m learning the Italian version of ‘Where is the bathroom?’ which has one possible translation of ‘Dove si trova il gabinetto?’ The first part, dove (pronounced doh- vay), sounds a little like the word ‘duvet’ (doo- vay). I imagine a duvet being used by a giant as toilet paper, or a toilet made out of bedcovers. The word itself actually means ‘where’, so this isn’t a useful keyword association, but I am only temporarily using it to get my phrase started. After you use a few phrases like this, you will start to just know that dove means ‘where’ without requiring another mnemonic.

Next, let’s think of a good tune to go with the phrase so we can sing it out – a short one, such as the famous Big Ben chime, will do the trick here. To remember I need to use this chime, I could visualize the Big Ben clock tower on its side (instead of standing upright), like a toilet paper roll holder. Remember, the more ridiculous your image, the easier it will be to recall. To really get this going, I want you to sing this along with me. Come on! ‘Dove si trova . . . il gabinetto?’ Can you hear it? Both of the two- syllable sets – ve si and – etto land on one note each, so the song fits with the phrase.

You don’t have to actually sing it aloud every time you want to say the phrase; it’s for mnemonic purposes only. And you only need to do it once or twice before you’ll know the phrase naturally.

Benny Lewis is a polyglot and tech-nomad. His new book, Fluent in 3 Months: The simplest way to learn any language, is published by Collins:

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