A blast from the past: how I learned and failed to learn English through songs

You’ve got that look again, the one I hoped I had when I was a lad…” 

The familiar tune and the words I had once memorized blasted out of my phone — quite unexpectedly, I might add. I was listening to a random Spotify playlist, and out came Simply Red’s 1992 major hit “For Your Babies”. Because of the wondrous ways a teacher’s mind works — it never does rest, does it? –, that song got me thinking about my English language learning journey and language acquisition in general.

First thing I thought of was, “Wow, that’s where I picked up the word ‘lad’!” To be honest, I don’t recall if I looked up the meaning myself or if a teacher worked with the lyrics in class, but I have no doubt in my mind that Mick Hucknall was the one to bring that particular vocabulary item to my attention. Oh, the power of noticing language in songs! In fact, Simply Red’s “Greatest Hits” album, which was out 3 years after I started studying (American) English, was for years one of my few sources of exposure to British English. Still, the reiteration of that song made sure the word ‘lad’ stuck in my memory forever. Interestingly, the verb “rollercoaster” didn’t enjoy the same privilege. It seems that, as a language learner, I could somehow tell that the metaphorical use of “rollercoaster” in “my pulse rollercoastering” was not as common and useful as the word “lad” in “when I was a lad”, so I never did make a point of adding it to my mental lexicon. 

Mind you, it wasn’t all about words. The Britishism of the structure “You’ve got” didn’t go unnoticed, either. I clearly remember trying to figure out why the Brits need to say twice that they possess something. Don’t ‘have’ and ‘got’ mean the same? Fortunately, very early on I had cottoned on to the fact that — as I often tell my students nowadays — we shouldn’t fight with the language we’re learning, but rather embrace it — nonsense, ambiguity and all. Funnily enough, I think I first learned that lesson from another hit. Double You’s “Please Don’t Go” had me thinking why on earth the singer kept adding “away” every now and then when “don’t go” already did the trick. So yeah, “go away” is redundant, and so is “have got”, but hey ho, who isn’t? I’ve been known to repeat myself, too. 

Speaking of repetition, that Simply Red CD was one of maybe 5 albums I had in English, so I listened to it non-stop. Trying to learn the lyrics by heart and sing along to them helped me memorize the language in it, of course, but also taught me valuable lessons. For one, I learned  I can’t sing for the life of me, but that singing makes me happy regardless. That’s a life lesson right there. But language-wise, I also noticed connected speech. “You’ve got that lookagain”, Mike croons. “Lookagain”, “lookagain” — I drilled myself, trying to pronounce the two words as one. As you can imagine, I was a teen with plenty of time on my hands, and that’s one of the nerdy things I did with it. I remember spending a whole afternoon trying to say “Sony Entertainment Television” as fast as its commercial did (and with no T sound after the first N!). So yeah, pronunciation, connected speech, fluency… It was all there in the games I’d make up for and by myself.     

Years later, when preparing a presentation for my students on how to study on their own, I came across a review of studies on Good Language Learners and effective language learning strategies. What it described truly resonated with me, as I could see a depiction of the teenage Natalia when it came to learning English.

Of course not all of it was a success. There were things I heard time and again and only truly understood years later. I’m not talking about pearls of wisdom such as “too many hearts are broken; a lover’s promise never came with a maybe”, sound relationship advice that we only get after a painful breakup. I mean language that goes — swoosh — over our heads when we’re not yet highly proficient speakers of the language. What fascinates me is that sometimes we live years in the misapprehension that we understand the lyrics perfectly, and only way later do we realize we didn’t actually know what they meant. In other words, we didn’t even know we didn’t know. A line of “For Your Babies” is one of such examples. In “I try to give you everything you need/I can see that it gets to you.”, I used to understand the verb “see” as “use one’s eyes” or “perceive”, but nowadays I tend to interpret it as “make certain”, as in the Cambridge Dictionary example “See that you’re ready by 5, or there’ll be trouble.” 

Another pop classic also baffled me for years. I’m sure you are all familiar with the Ghost theme song Unchained Melody”: “Oh my love, my darling, I’ve hungered for your touch a long lonely time. And time goes by so slowly, and time can do so much…” I remember going over the lyrics and not being able to reconcile the “time can do so much” bit with the rest of the text. If time could indeed do a lot, the lyric “I” would have been able to forget the loved one. However, in the lyrics (as in the movie), the bereaved person certainly couldn’t get past their lover. It took me years of proficiency building to identify in the song the idiom “can (only) do so much” (=can’t go further than a certain limited extent), which means the exact opposite of what the words had me thinking at first.

As you can imagine, the Spotify playlist was about 5 songs ahead by the time I finished thinking about all of this. I took no notice of those songs, but I did take notice of many songs when I was learning English — and that has made all the difference. Correction: I’m still and forever learning this language, and noticing still makes a world of difference. In a way, it’s like we English language teachers are all married to this language — and as many love songs will let on, we should never take a spouse for granted. 

I don’t believe in many things,

But in you

I do.”




For a timeline of the research on language learning/learner strategies:

Oxford, R. (2011). Strategies for learning a second or foreign language. Language Teaching, 44(2), 167-180. doi:10.1017/S0261444810000492


For suggestions on how to teach different strategies:

Santos, D. (2012). Ensino de língua inglesa: Foco em estratégias. Barueri, SP: Disal.

Natália Guerreiro

Natália Guerreiro has been a teacher since the year 2000 and currently works in Aviation English assessment and teaching for the Brazilian Air Force. She holds a CELTA, a B.A. in English & Portuguese from UFRJ, and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Melbourne. She's been elected BRAZ-TESOL's Second Vice President for the 2019-2020 term.

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