Why Poetry Is Useful For Language Learning

As the poet Paul Engle wrote, “Poetry is ordinary language raised to the Nth power.”
woman reading foreign language poetry

Whether you’re a wannabe Wordsworth or you’ve yet to uncover the literary prowess within you, it’s hard to ignore just how much of a role poetry has played in the development of both written and spoken language. When you’re studying a new tongue, it only makes sense that you shouldn’t stick exclusively to boring old prose as your go-to (though, okay, we’ll admit books can be a great resource in your learning journey, too). Foreign language poetry is a fantastic resource for learners of all levels.

Poetry allows writers to play with the standards of conventional grammar and generally bend the rules of language a bit — or a lot. You can learn a great deal about a language by the ways its speakers have wrought and wrangled its syllables and words into lines and stanzas. Poetry comes in all different forms, across languages. Some of the most recognizable forms don’t come from English; there’s the humble haiku from Japan, and the sonnet (or sonetto) originally from Italy. And some people speculate that the limerick traces its name to the Irish town of the same name. Wherever languages have existed, there has been poetry.

If you’re looking for a surefire way to lock in your language learning, there are a few reasons why reading and writing foreign language poetry is a no-brainer. 

Why Foreign Language Poetry Is A Powerful Learning Tool

Poetry comes in a whole host of genres and structures, so generalizing about it is sort of unfair to the art form itself. But there are certain universal aspects of poetry that make it an ideal tool for learning a new language in creative ways across languages.

Perhaps the most notable distinction that sets a poem apart is that it’s often not as dense or long-winded as a passage from a book might be. Parsing through and digesting a poem can be a more bite-sized activity than committing to reading a chapter in a language you don’t yet fully understand. It’s much easier to motivate yourself with a short poem every day than it is with a part of a 500-page behemoth of a book you dread opening because you fear you’ll never finish.

Poems — like novels, short stories and other literary media — are a fantastic way to connect with the cultural heritage of the people who wrote them and the places they come from. Some of the most renowned writers in many of the world’s languages are poets. Take, for example, Spanish poet Federico García Lorca or Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, both of whom capture the essence of their home countries in their respective eras. Local colloquialisms, specialized context-specific vocabulary and vernacular and references to historical events are just a few of the ways that writers weave in the narratives of their homelands into foreign language poetry, implicitly or more directly. 

What Poetry Reveals About Individual Languages

When it comes to the unique qualities of the language you’re learning, there are plenty of reasons to turn to poems. 

For one, poetry is great at helping you tune into the peculiarities of a sound system of a language. Songs are a great way to practice a foreign tongue, and so, by extension, are poems. They may be less musical because they’re printed on a page (or usually recited without background instruments), but they can be just as lyrical and melodic, if not more. Poets often use meticulously chosen words that emphasize the most beautiful or notable sounds a language has to offer; you’ll find high concentrations of literary devices like alliteration (the repetition of the same sound in multiple environments), meter and rhyme. 

If you read  foreign language poetry out loud, you’re forced to practice your pronunciation. Whether it’s rolling the Spanish r or the getting out the notoriously guttural German ch, reading anything out loud will sharpen your pronunciation skills. And there’s an argument to be made that having poetic elements like rhyme and meter might help the sounds stick better in your brain.

Poems that follow a formal verse structure are treasure troves of information about where the stress falls on certain syllables of certain words, which words do and don’t rhyme with each other, and how syntax in the language works (that is, how individual words can come together to form sentences). There’s so much structural information about language in poetry if you’re willing to look for it!

More Than Meets The Eye

So maybe you’re not trying to dive into a Dead Poets Society-level analysis of every poem you read. That would be exhausting. But when it comes to the meaning behind a given text, you probably know that there’s often more buried between the lines than you see on the surface. Poetry is full of hidden meanings! Part of the allure in reading them is deciphering what’s encoded within them.

Add a foreign language to the mix, and you’ve got a great multi-layer puzzle for training your brain as you learn a new tongue. Think of it like translating, but twice. First, you have to parse through the poem, testing your vocabulary in your new language as you try to translate to your native one. Then, you must take the time to unpack the hidden meanings in metaphors, similes, allusions, euphemisms and allegories, among other literary devices. O Captain, my Captain! That’s quite the literary storm to weather if you’re up to the task. Poetry encourages deliberate reading, and you’d likely lose the underlying message or theme of the work if you were to skim over it, even in your native language. For this reason, it’s great for getting you to really focus on your new language.

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