music and language, language in music

This post is reincarnated from this post.  (Because breaking down how various German punk songs helped me learn the language doesn’t fly as well with the work audience.) NOTE: Sorry to anyone who read this earlier in the day.  For some reason the YouTube embeds just disappeared.

Year Zero.  Frankfurt am Main, Germany.  It was the year of the au pair.  The year of graffiti appreciation.  The year of loneliness and mad cap plans and then finding and bikes and more, but very different, mad cap plans.  It was the year of much trail-by-fire, DIY, bluff-your-way-through it language learning.  I took classes.  They helped.  But what helped even more was music.

In my former life, German music was a field that belonged exclusively to Kraftwerk, Rammstein, Nena, Bach, Beethoven, and a whole lot of techno.  I didn’t love any of it.  (Confession: I listened to Kraftwerk for the first time one month ago.)  But I knew there must be more, knew there must be punks singing in German, and I asked around until I ended up with three CDs in my hands: Die Kassierer, Hass, and Quetschenpaua.  If you have ever heard of any of those bands you can say it with me: oh my.

It is an easy mistake to make, and how could I have known?  Say “Deutsch Punk” to someone who knows what they are talking about and you won’t end up with German Punk Music, General.  You will end up inside a genre so specific that most of the population has never heard of it.  Die Kassierer and Hass belong to this genre.  At its best it is dirty, underproduced four-chord punk music with a most excellent sense of humor (though Die Kassierer and Hass got too big to still qualify for “underproduced.”  At its worst it is completely unlistenable garbled garbage.  My personal Deutsch Punk heroes are a now-defunct band called Ultrapunk, but they were too disorganized and (probably) drunk to ever get around to getting themselves on youtube.  Too bad.  Their lyrics are pure gold.  They would have been very helpful when I was translating songs to improve my German.  Instead I was listening to this (I like the Kassierer’s version more, but it isn’t on youtube either):

But hell, either way you look at it, a love song that starts outside of a library wins at least a handful of points.

Then there was Hass.  I never quite warmed up to their sound, though their anti-fascism is endearing.

It was Quetschenpaua that I ended up listening to the most.  Folk punk with an accordion.  Songs about anarchists and demos and penguins and pirates and revolution and Berlin.  It was right up my alley.  Particularly then, when I was still all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about just about everything.

I sang the lines about the penguin who lives in Berlin with my au pairing charges.  I learned what Labello and Captain Igloo were (chapstick and a fishsticks brand, respectively).  I heard the expression “Unter dem Pflaster liegt der Strand” (Beneath the pavement, the beach) for the first time.  I got the chorus stuck in my head constantly.

If you’ve ever gotten a song stuck in your head, you know how pervasive, how invasive music can be.  Which is ideal when it comes to memorizing vocabulary in a new language.  You want those words reverberating inside your head, unable to escape, and complete with an easy-to-remember context.  Music does that without you having to do anything more than press “play.”

And look.  Science agrees!

“In the 1970s, extensive research was carried out into the powers of music in the learning process, by the Bulgarian physician Georgi Lozanov. He revealed that music puts listeners into a state of relaxed alertness, the ‘alpha state,’ the ideal state of consciousness for learning, and his tests were conclusive.

“More recently, in the March 2005 issue of the journal ‘Nature’ researchers at Dartmouth College in the US reported that they had pinpointed the region of the brain where ‘ earworms ‘ or catchy tunes reside, the auditory cortex. They found that the sounds and words that have actually been heard can be readily recalled from the auditory cortex where the brain can listen to them ‘virtually’ again and again. Music it seems is the ideal catalyst to the memorisation of words.”  (source)

Another study has also pointed to the possibility that “the extra information provided in music can facilitate language learning.”

To this day I still remember the words of one of the pirate songs that my au pair charges liked to listen to.  Robbi der Seeräuber segelt an der Wind.  Robbi der Seeräuber tut nur das was ihm gefällt.  Robbi der Seeräuber segelt an der Wind!  Und wir segeln mit ihm weil wir auch Piraten sind!  Cha-cha-cha!

Have you used music as a foreign language-learning crutch?  What did you listen to?

0 Comments on “music and language, language in music

  1. Kassierer? Yuk. It’s as punk as Green Day. But less than Elvis and Heino. For writing the lyrics from a Hass-Song on the walls of my rooms I end up in a bad fight with my mother. But as far as I remember the never made more than 2 good songs and seeing them in a live video from the 80ies was quite depressing. Yok (who was Quetschenpaua in the 90ies) is still around, playing solo or with his Band “option weg” (check them out – I’ve really enjoyed seeing them live).

    But you didn’t asked for comment on your German punksong history.

    The first record that really made me want to learn a foreign language – English – was Dead Kennedys’ “Fresh fruit for rotting vegetables” – still one of my favourite records of all time. But my english teacher just told me “that’s bad English” instead of guiding me to a slang dictionary (yes, pre-internet times …). So I end up transcribing a cheesey song by Chris De Burgh in English class. Regarding learning English this didn’t helped at all.

  2. Gegenglück: Hahahaha. I can’t say I’ve listened to the Kassierers since, or really more than that one song, which I found amusing. Still, it was part of my initiation here, and there you have it. 🙂

    Too bad about your teacher. That would have been good motivation to learn I assume. Though your English seems to have done just fine even so.

  3. I really started to get serious about developing my German when I heard Die Härte with Herbert Grönemeyer on MTV in early 90s.
    – Did he say “Hart im Hirn, weich in der Birne”, did he really? Did he really really say “Es ist hart, allein beschrenkt zu sein”?
    I remember I burst out laughing (always the best weapon against aggressive people). As soon as I could get hold of a copy of the album (NOT easy in those days), translated and learnt every song by heart.
    Now I have to learn Dutch – any recommendations apart from the cheesy pop songs they seem to love?

  4. 1Vikinggirl: I don’t know any Dutch bands that sing in Dutch (Bird, however, are a great Dutch band who sing in English), but I have some Dutch friends I could ask about that…

  5. Yes, please, I’d really like that. Something with a good hard beat and some intelligence… Would it be too much to ask for banjo too? 😉
    I missed you on the Dutch tour so I hope you are coming back…

  6. I teach French to the big expat community of Britishers who live out in the Alps, and I use songs as listening exercises: I get the lyrics and blank out some of the words that I think my students will know or be able to work out – but also ones that can sound like other words too, to see if they can work out the context. Ben L’Oncle’s motown Soulman has gone down really well! I’m going to try the same thing on myself, in my attempts to learn spanish 🙂 Katie.

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