Why Traditional Music Inspires My Language Learning

When I’m curious about a new language, the first thing I do is YouTube search “[language] folk music/folk song.” I love doing this– I feel like old, traditional songs open a small window onto a foreign culture. Here are some of my favorites– beware the deluge of YouTube links!



[Yiddish] (a depressing but beautiful song)



[Xhosa/Zulu/Sesotho– South African national anthem… so not quite a folk song]

Anyways, before I get too carried away with links, I think you can tell how much I love traditional music. Unlike most popular music, folk music uses the culture’s own melodies and tonality (and believe me, I still love modern music, but for much different reasons!). In terms of the languages themselves, traditional songs generally use repetitive, simple vocabulary, which is great for learning lyrics. The melodies are catchy, because these songs were meant to be passed down aurally (or they’re based on older songs that were meant to be rote memorized). I have the first two verses of Katyusha memorized even though I’ve hardly studied Russian 🙂

But honestly, I don’t like to listen to folk music for its practicality. I don’t think we should always be looking for the most efficient way of cramming vocab and grammar into our heads. Rather, I love how the lyrics of these songs reveal a culture’s values, sense of humor, and sorrows better than any essay, better than browsing the internet in the target language, and possibly even better than a trip to the country.

These songs simply make me feel something and make me marvel at the variety of cultures that use the languages I love to learn.


3 thoughts on “Why Traditional Music Inspires My Language Learning

  1. I am a spaniard and I have searched “Spanish folk song” in youtube. The results are appalling. I don’t recognize any of those songs, they are in many cases sung by foreigners, there are Cuban, Mexican… songs but not Spanish ones. Fortunately you don’t use them to learn Spanish. As a source of cultural values and sense of humor in Spain, that list is extremely limited.

    Let me help you in your search. Spain has many more things than flamenco and gypsies. They are important in Andalusia and many people in other regions love that music too but they are far from being the most representative Spanish music. The group Nuevo Mester de Juglaría for instance has been on the stage for decades and they have “rescued” many Spanish folk songs from Castilla (now called Castilla y León after Franco’s death). On the other hand, singers who are much more popular like Joan Manuel Serrat or Paco Ibáñez have also sung songs using verses of some of the most important Spanish poets. You have here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8oxi_md84Y I have listened to this song dozens of times and I still love it. You have the lyrics so, you can challenge your Spanish. The verses were written by A. Machado, the most famous poet in Spain who is read in every school of the country ) and here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTwyoNqTJ9A the verses are by Rafael Alberti and this song is a kind of hymn for left wing youngsters and not so young people. I am not a leftist but the song is moving anyway) the most famous songs of these singers. Joaquín Sabina (our Bob Dylan though many people won’t agree with me) is also very popular in Spain. Here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uUPqo7s5oE you have here one of the songs I most like. He writes his own lyrics and you can find all of them here http://www.musica.com/letras.asp?letras=7611 (the title of this song in particular is “cerrado por derribo” and what I like most is the flamenco touches or influences at the end of each set of verses)


    1. Thanks for your help! Yeah, I neglected to mention that it was quite difficult to find anything in Spanish. A lot of the songs (even Cuban or Mexican) are also of poor quality– midi files and such. I’ll definitely check these out!


  2. You are welcome. By the way, I like the quebecois song. I like too the girl of the Latvian song. It is incredible how beautiful can be women sometimes.

    I wish you the best luck with your youtube searches in other languages but without some guidance it doesn’t seem to be a very precise way to be in contact with other cultures, at least that’s the case in Spanish.


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