Why Music?

Chris Gratien, Georgetown University

I am neither a Turkish teacher nor linguist nor ethnomusicologist. I am a historian currently writing a dissertation about the environmental history of the Adana region of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey. In this regard, this website is not directly a product of any specialized training that I have undertaken. Rather, it is based on my experiences as a student who throughout his education, research, and study of about a half dozen languages, has come to appreciate the immense value of music as a learning tool.

Friends and colleagues often ask me why I am so completely obsessed with music. From the more than 800 shoddy translations of Arabic songs that I made during my MA degree to the series of Historiographical Mixtapes I have produced for Ottoman History Podcast, music always finds its way to the center of my work. In part, this is because music is nice, and irrespective of any intellectual goal, listening to and playing music are leisure activities that I have long enjoyed. However, when it comes to language, it is my belief that music expands one's understanding and knowledge of any target language in a revolutionary way which always draws me back to the subject.

This is especially true in the case of Turkish. I bought my first Turkish grammar book in 2006 partly on a whim.  I was studying Arabic in preparation for graduate school, but I had quite a lot of free time and mostly binged on all sorts of random music from the internet. After finding a few songs that I liked from Turkey, I started trying to get to the bottom of the lyrics. I have been studying Turkish ever since.

Whether in my study of Turkish or other language, I have found music an essential tool. I would like to outline for those who are interested the most important reasons why music can fundamentally change the way you learn language and then point out some of the limitations of the approach.

Music and Language Learning

1.     Music is fun and accessible
The biggest obstacle to accomplishing any long-term intellectual goal must be ennui, and thus, materials that keep you interested will keep you learning. Music is lively, intended to be aesthetically pleasing, and can go anywhere with you. On the bus, by the beach, in a drunken stupor or just in the background of another task, music can pipeline language learning into your daily life. In the internet age, music is widely and freely available through legal means such as YouTube and other such sites.

2.     Music makes you remember
Melody, rhyme, and repetition are all helpful in the course of memorization. Even if you don't understand the lyrics, the melody, rhythm and rhyme help you store them as part of the song. As you learn the language, the sentences and structures you have memorized can begin to open up, and once you gain the knowledge to understand them, they are already in your brain, crystallized in a correct form and protected from forgetting by association with a sound and a feeling.

3.    Music works your ears
Even though language classes stress the importance of speaking and listening, they are usually heavily textual. Music combines the textual and the auditory aspects of language. By reading along with sound lyrics, you are effectively learning how to listen, and by listening to music, you ensure that you will hear and not just read or use your target language each day.

4.    Music gives cultural context
You might try to pick up a newspaper if you are just entering into a language and want something accessible to read. While there is nothing wrong with this, I argue that the first resort should always be a song. Articles and books (excluding novels of course) can be dry, detached, and often revolve around issues such as politics, economics, and social issues. Moreover, they are usually analytic or argumentative in tone. Music, more than any other medium I can think of, provides access to a wide variety of emotional states, situations, and modes of communication. The songs, if they are not about love or other emotional experiences, often touch on numerous cultural and political references. Certain genres such as folk songs meanwhile are embedded in a rich historical context that is usually far from elitist but can range from peasant plow songs to the masterful work of poetry. Of course, popular and obscure songs alike are themselves cultural points of reference and common ground of speakers of the target language. In short, because of the numerous genres, styles, trends, and artists over time, music provides a cultural experience the diversity and denseness of which is unmatched. 

5.    Music employs spoken language
This was a conclusion I came to when learning Arabic, which is pretty strictly divided between diverse spoken dialects and a relatively uniform standard language that differs sharply from those dialects. When learning Arabic, one of the only sources of colloquial and natural speech was music (movies and TV shows also work but they require more knowledge). The Turkish used in music is in general more similar to written Turkish than the Arabic case, but whatever the language, music employs sentences that reflect real utterances, and many songs are downright colloquial. Songs use words that are part of everyday speech but never appear in text.

6.    Music is challenging
While there are numerous styles and genres of music out there, very few revolve around a clear and precise articulation of ideas. Music is abstract and plays with the language using rhyme and disrupting the sentence order, forcing the student to parse the syntax of the sentence using clues such as case endings and other grammatical structures. The language of music is often indirect and makes use of double meanings, forcing the student to develop complex interpretations about otherwise straightforward notions. In this regard, music unlike reading, writing, and speaking, bends your brain to its will. There is no interlocutor to clarify or author seeking to make things accessible and relevant. The sentences are not your own. They belong only to the song and language, both of which are utterly indifferent to your needs.

Limitations of Music

Of course, while music offers all the advantages above, the language learner cannot survive on music alone. That is why I've explained in the introduction that this is a companion to language learning and not a "course" in the traditional sense. Music is great for any beginner student, but specialized goals will require other specialized materials, and while the sentences and lexicons of this site's lessons will prove surprisingly challenging and sophisticated, they cannot match the most complex and convoluted sentences of an academic monograph or an Orhan Pamuk novel. Moreover, you will need to do exercises and practice using and speaking the language if you wish to become proficient in Turkish. 

However, at any stage of language acquisition, there is something to be gained from a song, which will contain endless layers of linguistic and cultural complexity to explore. Moreover, we must note that language learning is not just about having the best grammar, the biggest vocabulary, and the clearest reading comprehension. Language is the arena of all of our most delicate interactions, and while it is mechanistic, it is not a machine and neither are we. Reading is not just about parsing sentences but also understanding the sentiments of the author. Word choice is not just about precision but also inventiveness. Noun, verbs, and adjectives are not solely symbols; each one is a complete history that is constantly in the making. Moreover, the most eloquent voice is not always that which most needs to be heard. For all these reasons, I believe that music--far from being a mere accessory--forms a sound core to any holistic language-learning approach.


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