Posted by Ted Campbell
You’ll never learn Spanish from a book. You’ll never learn it in a classroom — especially if you don’t get a chance to speak. You need more.
But you also won’t learn Spanish just by living in Spain and drinking wine with locals. Yes, these things are important, but they won’t give you a complete understanding of the language.
You need to listen. And what’s better than listening to music in Spanish, in all its regional and stylistic variety. You don’t even need to buy anything! Youtube has everything you need.
Mere listening is not enough, however. You need a method.
First, find a song you like, in a genre you like, with clearly-sung words that aren’t too fast. Do you love rap and hip-hop? Me too, but it’s way too fast and full of slang to study Spanish with, at least at first. (More on that in the tips below.)
- Listen to the song while reading the lyrics. It doesn’t matter if they mean nothing to you. Follow the words closely so it’s not just gibberish. Don’t pause when you don’t understand something. At this point you aren’t learning Spanish, simply developing your ability to listen. You’re getting a feel for the pronunciation of words and the cadence of the language, which is quite different between Spanish and English*.
- Repeat step 1 until you can follow the lyrics from beginning to end without getting lost.
- Listen again, but this time underline words you don’t know. At this stage, it’s handy to have a printout. To find lyrics, type “group name song name letras” into Google. For example: “Molotov Frijolero letras.” Letras means lyrics.
- Look up the words in an online translator and write them on your sheet. I recommend Word Reference or Spanish Dict.
- Listen again and try to make sense of the song. What’s it about? A love song? A protest song? A joke? If you get stuck, focus on the chorus. Listen until you know the chorus by heart.
- Just like in English, Spanish words can have more than one meaning. (Quick examples: possible meanings of the words break, run, or sick in English.) Consider new vocabulary in the context of its verse, and the lyrics as a whole. Choose the most reasonable translation from the many possibilities. If there’s more than one likely option, write down both. With repetition, it should eventually make sense, or ask someone for help.
- Remember that songs are full of slang. (Example: so many songs in English, in all genres, use ain’t, which isn’t really a word, as your elementary school English teacher surely told you.) If no translation makes sense, the word is probably slang. Slang is regional, so if you want to learn Mexican Spanish, listen to Mexican music. If you’re going to Chile, find Chilean bands.
- Learn to recognize metaphor**, an essential part of countless songs. For example, in “Jefe de Jefes” (linked below), he sings “muchos pollos…quieren pelear con el gallo” — many chickens want to fight with the rooster. What does that mean? In “Rata de Dos Patas” — two-legged rat — the whole song is a metaphor.
- If you’re a total beginner and find yourself looking up more than half of the words and still understanding nothing, you need songs that are relentlessly repetitive (Me Gustas Tu, Manu Chao), ridiculously well-known (La Bamba), ridiculously simple (Feliz Navidad), catchy as hell (Lamento Boliviano, Enanitos Verdes), or all of these things (Oye Como Va).
- Also for beginners — don’t worry so much about what the song means. Instead, listen for words you recognize. Look up a few. For example, I estimate that 95% of Spanish songs have at least one corazón. Later, listen without the lyrics and let those words pop out at you. I promise you’ll notice them in conversation next.
Don’t know where to start? Here are four songs from Mexico I think you’ll enjoy. Take your time — repeat the steps of my method over and over.
* English is a stress-timed language, which means that entire Shakespeare plays can fit into the framework of iambic pentameter. Spanish is a syllable-timed language, with means that the syllables usually must be fully pronounced, and can’t be easily compressed like in English.
** Metaphor, simile, analogy, allegory — whatever you call it, it’s when you use two (seemingly) unrelated things to make a comparison. “Jefe de Jefes” has nothing to do with roosters and chickens.
For a music lesson about learning Mexican slang through songs, click here.
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Good luck! Tell me some more songs in the comments.