Drop a beat and learn a language
How foreign rap can be helpful in learning a foreign language.
Foreign language learners are often discouraged when they discover how difficult it is to translate textbook memorization and vocabulary into an actual understandable conversation with a native speaker. But research now suggests that the human brain acquires musical systems and languages in the same way, leading some to use foreign rap to learn a language.
Speech is not a sequence of words, but a sequence of sounds. This is the underlying concept behind the audio-lingual method of language learning. First developed during World War II to train English-speaking spies to infiltrate Europe undetected, this method focuses not on grammar, but on perfect pronunciation and native accent, which is taught through intense drilling and repetition. Although this method has gone in and out of vogue in linguistic pedagogy, polyglots today are reapplying its merits to rap, which has grown far beyond its roots in the Bronx to found surprisingly vibrant rap scenes in a variety of countries.
Rap is the most phonetically complex form of speech and therefore extremely helpful for anyone trying to grasp the natural flow of a language. Rhythm is an important element of language that determines meaning. Consider the huge difference between “fifty” and “fifteen”; these words are so phonetically similar that our brains rely more on rhythm to distinguish between them based on which syllable is stressed. It just so happens that rap dynamically emphasizes the natural rhythm of a language.
Another tricky thing about language that a textbook can’t help you with is the fundamental ability to figure out where one word ends and the next begins. Few native speakers fully enunciate the way a foreign speaker might expect (and need), but instead slur words together, or drop sounds altogether. Rap, in which an 18-syllable phrase might be consolidated into a mere 14, is a great way to grasp the flow of natural connected speech.
Discrepancies between spoken word and formal speech are a common stumbling block to language students who might be able to read, but struggle to understand conversations that take place in real time. Whether or not a student is familiar with the vocabulary, they will struggle to recognize them at a normal pace until their brain has formed patterns that help it process all the acoustic information. If a student is immersed in the language they are learning—for example, listening to its rap—he will become acclimated to the speed and sounds of the language. In addition, rap provides a much more accurate set of vocabulary than the laughably formal language most textbooks offer, as well as a unique view of the foreign culture.
Listening to rap won’t help you understand, at first, but if you become familiar with the sounds and rhythm of a language, the grammar and rules will follow, and you might be surprised how much you’ve soaked up inductively. A language can only be introduced in a class; it is learned in the real world, with the kind of genuine native sounds rap provides.