8 reasons why learning a language is like learning an instrument

piano-300x300Aside 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.

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:

  • Practice and study is important. If you practise more and put in the hours, you’ll get better. However, it’s better to maximise the amount of high quality practice you do then go through the motions for the sake of it.
  • Don’t neglect the input aspect of learning. Musicians start by listening, and as a language learner our output is closely linked to our input. Being alert and attentive to small details in what we read and hear will make a difference in how we produce the language.
  • Certain skills are useful; certain attributes are more useful still. Language learning is a case of “tortoise vs hare”, and a dogged determination will ensure language learning success. There really is no such thing as failure, there’s only taking longer to get somewhere!

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!

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  • Carrie

    Also, the connection that that the human vocal apparatus itself is an instrument! With learning a new language we must also learn to navigate our instrument differently, with new configurations, techniques, and sounds we’ve never had to produce before. Maybe that’s like switching genres? Russian to French, classical to jazz?

    Thanks for the neat post!

    • spanishobsessed

      Sure, or maybe even like switching instruments entirely! If I try and play the sax, I’d have to learn a completely new technique of making music, even though I already know the “music”, as it were.
      Thanks for the comments!

  • Mimi88

    Creo que tienes razon! Pero maldita sea! Me has hecho más tentado en comprar un teclado ahora y empezar tocarlo otra vez! (No tengo dinero suficiente para un piano!) Sin embargo creo que, a largo plazo, este es algo bueno. 🙂

    • spanishobsessed

      A ver si mejoras tu espanol a la misma vez!

  • Graeme McGregor

    As a musician myself, I realised that language had rhythm. As important as the pronunciation is the rhythm of the language itself. Mexicans often speak in threes – a bit like a Mexican hat dance – for example.

    Another parallel to music is, practice faster than you play! That way, when you get on stage, ‘normal’ pace is a walk in the park. Same with language.

    Learn phrases, not words. A musician is never thinking ‘play two beats of C, followed by two beats of Ami, then two of F, then two of G7. Far too slow! No, he thinks ‘turnaround in C’. So don’t keep joining the dots to make phrases, Learn the PHRASES and then join THEM to make sentences, conversations. This will speed your Spanish up no end!

    Don’t mentally translate and don’t get bogged down by theory. Musicians know that when sight-reading music they have to stop thinking. Just SEE the music and let your brain work your hands. If they thought, “Here comes a crotchet of C followed by a semi-quaver of Eb” they simply wouldn’t be able to play the song. So forget about conjugations and silly over-complex descriptions like ‘pluperfect subjunctive’. Learn from other musicians (Spanish speakers) more than from music books (and teachers!).

    Don’t skip the dress rehearsal! A musician plays an hour gig after years of learning his instrument, months of rehearsing with the band, then doing a dress run or two on the stage on which he will play. Here’s how to do YOUR dress run: when in Spanish speaking countries, don’t wait until you’re hopelessly lost and stressed in the middle of an alien city and then try and collect all your complex language theory together to try and get help! Ask people easy-to-ask and easy-to-answer questions when there is no stress and no immediate need to really know the answer. Ask what number bus goes to the station, what the time is, is there a bank nearby, what is that thing (point!) called in Spanish, what time does the supermarket close, do you think it will rain tomorrow – ANYTHING! When I went to Portugal, the only thing I could remember was how to ask the time! I asked EVERYBODY the time!!! I think there may be a poster of me in the Police Station there 🙂

    And finally, from the world of sport, not music… Amateurs do it until they remember – professionals do it until they CAN’T FORGET.

    • spanishobsessed

      Great points, you sound like a professional musician! Especially love the last one – do it until you can’t forget!

      Thanks!