The Role Of Literature and Music in Learning a Language
Is it important to study music and literature as part of your language studies? The answer should be a straight yes. That’s because a language is very tightly entwined with the culture it exists within and culture is often best expressed in literature, music and even the arts.
There are firm links between history, culture and language. As literature and music are two of the most powerful expressions of culture, the argument goes that they must be helpful as a language learning aid.
Is Culture Related to Language?
Although this is generally accepted, it’s actually remarkably difficult to prove. For example, people often speak of the ‘melodic’ sound of the Italian language being a reflection of the Italians’ joyous love of life. From a scientific viewpoint though, can anyone ‘prove’ that Italians have a joyous love of life that’s greater than, say, the Germans or Algerians?
It’s not easy!
It’s perhaps safer to speak of things that are certain. People of the world have something that’s recognized as their ‘culture’. That can consist of religious views, music, a shared history, political values, commercial practices, literary traditions, musical expression and so on.
Culture is something that binds people together and for it to do so the people concerned need to be able to share their thoughts and feelings through common expressions. Hence most of the time people from the same language background form a part of a cultural group and have their own expressions which is very specific to that culture group.
Chicken or Egg?
Does culture drive the evolution of a language or is it the other way around? In reality, the process is circular.
As people change their ideas about themselves and the world they live in, they often express that through non-verbal means such as literature and music. For example, when published in the 1850s, the American novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” fueled a huge rise in anti-slavery sentiments and a massive cultural change in the USA.
Yet social anger and political disenchantment within British youth culture of the mid-1970s gave rise to a new musical protest genre called ‘Punk’.However one views it, language, music and literature are intertwined and understanding the latter two can be very helpful to language students. Being able to understand a culture’s folklore, legends, history, superstitions and values, all of which are often expressed in music and literature, can tell a lot about where a language has come from and where it is today.
Let’s consider some basic examples.
The Japanese word “Fidobakku” is actually the English word “feedback”. It relates to telling someone how well or otherwise you think they’re doing in their job.
At first glance, it’s not easy to see why Japanese would need to import this word but if you read their history and literature, it’s possible to see that this concept did not really exist in Japanese culture. Traditionally, employees would never be praised because it was and is assumed that everyone will be doing their absolute best at all times.
The idea of needing to give praise to someone who’s working hard is therefore alien to the Japanese language because it’s alien to their culture. If someone is explicitly and specifically praised for working hard then it implies that others aren’t and that is, unthinkable.
Popular music is another good illustration.The language used in many genres of modern UK ‘pop’ music is heavily influenced by West Indian English and East-Coast USA African-American English. This language is also relatively frequently heard being used by younger people on the streets of major UK cities.
Yet it can be difficult to find it in standard UK language studies. So, as an example, “Chug = Good Looking”, “Ghost = Absent”, “Marga= Skinny” may be encountered but you won’t find them mentioned in most dictionaries. That’s why listening to, say, contemporary rap music can help understand that sort of street language.
So, while listing to music and reading literature can be very helpful in learning a language and understanding another culture, some caution is required.
Reading Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” may help a lot with understanding say Spanish humor and some elements of cultural legacy but it was written 400 years ago however, it might not be massively helpful to understanding 21st century Spain and its languages.
Similarly, reading Jane Austin may give a wonderful insight into English manners of the very early 19th century and expose you to beautifully flowing language – but keep in mind that it is a view of England and English as it existed over 200 years ago!