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5 ways that speaking a language is like playing music

by John-Erik Jordan

Erika can’t really say where she’s from. Not because she doesn’t know (she was born in Soriano nel Cimino, Italy) but because her family history is one of such incessant wanderlust that there are actually too many places she could claim as home (the last three generations of her family have lived on four different continents). Her parents were both born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but the family story is actually more complicated than that.

The Sicilian Globetrotters

Erika’s great-grandfather could never keep still for long. His desire to travel took the family on a globetrotting, multi-generational migration: from Sicily to Libya in the 1920s (where her grandfather was born); back to Italy during World War II (where the family became a traveling theater troupe, following in the wake of the allied invasion to cheer up war-weary Italians); to Argentina in the 1950s (where her mother was born); and back to Italy in the 1980s (where Erika was born).

Like her great-grandfather’s traveling theater, Erika’s personal migration has taken her northward through Italy: from Sicily to Turin over the course of her childhood. But where her ancestor’s roving spirit veered towards South America, her northward march continued straight on to Berlin. Along the way, she’s become fluent in Spanish, English, German and French, and has also picked up some Portuguese.

The Language of Music

If wanderlust is in the genes, then so is music. She’s been singing her whole life, tackling genres like pop, jazz, bossa nova, ska and, like her great-uncle Alfredo Abalos, Latin American folklore music. Afraid that she’d follow in the footsteps of so many dreamers, artists and wanderers in the family line, Erika’s parents strongly encouraged studying sensible subjects that would lead to a sensible job. But the music came out of her anyway, and, more surprisingly, became the key to learning five languages.

I sat down with Erika at the Babbel headquarters in Berlin to get her perspective on language learning and discover how her unstoppable desire to sing became an essential language-learning tool. To my surprise, her answers were very different from our other resident polyglot. Here are five tips from Erika showing how playing music is like speaking a language:

1. LISTEN

Erika started learning English in school in Italy. Lessons provided grammar and vocabulary, but it wasn’t until she started listening to music with English lyrics that she found an excuse to actually start practicing and using the language:

“With music you just sing over a song and then you repeat it. It was just about reproducing and imitating songs I heard. I started playing Ben Harper and other things on the guitar, which helped because I was forced to learn the lyrics. I learned plenty of new vocabulary this way.”

Singing along to music has also helped Erika improve her Spanish and Portuguese. In fact, she didn’t know any Portuguese until she started singing samba and bossa nova.

2. IMITATE

Ever since she was small, Erika has made a hobby of writing down the lyrics to her favorite songs. Early on, before she really understood English, she wrote down some strange stuff:

“My transcription of Whitney Houston’s ‘I will always love you’ was full of ‘aaaaiiiaaaa’s and ‘ooooooaaaaooooo’s. I was just trying to transcribe without knowing any English. But I kept that hobby of transcribing songs and asking the English teacher at school for help. It could be embarrassing, especially when I’d ask her about certain words I’d heard in rap songs. She was happy because I was showing interest in the language, but some of the words she didn’t even know.”

3. IMPROVISE

Once listening and imitating give her a feel for a new language, Erika takes it to a more creative level where she can begin to play and experiment with it. The process is not unlike playing jazz where rules exist, but are expected to be bent and broken. This improvisational attitude led Erika to study jazz vocals in a conservatory, but a fundamental disagreement with the instructors made her stop after two months:

“They forced me to learn how to read music, which I’ve always hated because I think music comes from the belly; you can’t just write it down. I have this tendency to refuse written rules because it’s way more logical for me to be spontaneous and speak because you just hear and repeat and use and create. It’s the same with languages. As soon as you start writing it down, you need rules and this restricts it somehow. Language isn’t something you can restrict, just as music isn’t.”

4. GOING FROM PASSIVE TO ACTIVE

Erika grew up speaking Italian, even though her parents spoke Spanish to each other. Being exposed to both in equal measure, she would have become bilingual like her parents, if not for the intervention of a primary school teacher:

“She told my parents, ‘No, please don’t speak Spanish to the girl, she’ll get the grammar mixed up’ or something along those lines, so in the end they started talking to me in Italian and continue to do so right up to this day! I had purely passive knowledge of Spanish since I didn’t know anyone else in Sicily to practice with.”

She had no idea how well she actually understood Spanish until her first visit to Argentina at the age of ten. Much to her surprise, she realized that she could understand almost everything people said. She took this lesson to heart in 2009, when she began working in a French restaurant in Berlin. Many years after ignoring her French lessons in school (“I don’t know why, but I was somehow allergic to French.”), Erika found herself surrounded by French speakers on a daily basis. Just like she did with Spanish as a kid, she listened and absorbed:

“Basically you need to listen very carefully and be able to imitate, exactly as you do with music. The better you can reproduce what you hear, the easier it will be.”

After about a year of listening and copying (picking up lots of Parisian French slang along the way), something clicked in her brain and Erika realized that she was fluent.

5. WINDOWS TO OTHER WORLDS

Of all the languages Erika speaks, German is the only one she learned purely out of curiosity. She started studying it in high school because she wanted to learn a language that no one around her knew. Compared to Italian, she found such a structured, logical, Germanic language to be exotic. That glimpse of a different mindset motivated her to dive deep into learning the language.

However, when she first set foot in Germany (on a language exchange to Münster) she realized that good grades in language class can’t prepare you for the real place: she could not understand any of the German spoken by the locals.

Not only did Germans speak their language differently than she had expected, they acted differently from Italians. She was most surprised by how differently German teenagers were treated compared to her Italian peers back home:

“In Germany, kids have more independence and they grow up faster. It was fascinating to me and it motivated me even more to keep learning German. I became more and more curious about the country and the culture, and I knew I wanted to come back.”

This may sound obvious, but her culture shock provided an epiphany: other languages are not just different words, but different worlds.

Musical Roots

Since moving to Berlin in 2005, Erika has been involved in musical projects that take advantage of Berlin’s increasing multilingualism. She sings in English with the ska band The Unlimiters and performs Latin American songs in Spanish and Portuguese as half of the duo Perfidia.

Singing in Spanish, a language that she never fully mastered as a child, has allowed her to reconnect to the South American side of her family. When she performed with Perfidia for her father’s 60th birthday party, she realized just how close to home the music really was:

“We performed 1 ½ hours of Latin American music including tango and these Brazilian songs that my dad used to have on tape. I somehow must have known that I knew these songs through him, but I was too young to remember that. Luckily, we chose the exact right songs for our repertoire; he knew all the words.”

Even if her family is too spread across the globe to give Erika a sense of her geographical origin, in that moment – singing the songs to her father that she had grown up hearing – the music gave her roots. No matter the language, whenever Erika sings, music is her mother tongue.

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