The benefits of music for language learning are well established. Listening to foreign language songs helps with vocabulary and syntax, while singing along improves pronunciation. However, it might not be obvious which artists you should listen to in another language.
Fortunately, the internet is full of advice on which artists or which songs to listen to in your chosen language. These posts are great to get ideas for new singers and individual tracks. However, I have found a few advantages to listening to entire albums.
Okay, before I go on, I have to admit that I am an album lover, so I already have a preference for this format over singles and playlists. As a kid, I was enthralled by the Beatles albums that my parents played at home and in the car – some on CD and some on cassette. An album wasn’t just a collection of songs – it was a unique world of its own with a distinct landscape (or so it seemed).
An album’s personality would reveal itself over several listens. Eventually, even the brief silences between songs would become familiar, forming part of the listening experience as much as the songs themselves. Yes, I love albums – even if Spotify has taught me that I no longer have the patience to listen to them all the way through!
When it comes to language learning, I think there are some good reasons to dive into this timeless format (with a little help from your friend, the skip button).
Advantages of listening to albums:
There tends to be a consistent sound across all of the songs. This generally happens because they are recorded around the same time with the same personnel and equipment. Sure, this may not always be the case, but very often that’s how it works. As a result of this recording process – particularly the mixing and mastering – albums usually have some kind of ‘unified sound’ from start to finish.
Why does this matter for language learning? Because after a few songs, your ear gets used to the characteristics of the singer’s voice at a particular level and location in the mix. Before long, you become accustomed to the landscape of the album. This makes it easier to follow the singer’s words and pronunciation.
Listening to the same singer, song after song, allows you to hone in on their particular voice, accent and intonation patterns. If it’s a band with more than one singer, your ear will have to do a little more work, but the result is more or less the same. After a few tracks, you get to know the singers’ voices recorded in a particular way, which makes it easier to notice individual lyrics and examples of syntax.
So, now that we’ve taken a look at the advantages of listening to albums, I’d like to share three German-language albums that I keep going back to (for better or worse)
- 2raumwohnung – Achtung Fertig (2013)
Catchy, somewhat relaxed synthy electro-pop. If you’re driving late at night, this is a good choice. Admittedly, Achtung Fertig is the only album I know from the Berlin duo. Their basslines and riffs are pretty simple but there are some unexpected discordant moments and interesting chord progressions.
The vocalist, Inga Humpe, has a reasonably clear voice and on some tracks, a kind of ‘talking’ style. This helps with word stress. It’s electro-pop, so there are a few moments where her vocals are drenched in processing, but by and large, she’s pretty expressive. When she sings words that you already know, they will stick out very clearly.
This album has helped sharpen my grammar reflexes. Personally, I struggle a bit with article declension, so a song like Ein Neues Gefühl helps train my brain to add the -es sound the to adjective following the neuter indefinite article ‘ein’ when it precedes a neuter noun (in the correct case, of course).
- Die Toten Hosen – Laune der Natur (2017)
It starts out with hell-for-leather punk rock, but the songs on this album vary quite a lot. Die Toten Hosen remind me a bit of Rancid, the American old-school punk band, but there are moments when the music is reminiscent of arena rock bands U2 and the Foo Fighters. There are some nice backing harmonies, including an inventive reference to Yellow Brick Road, by Elton John.
Like Rancid and The Clash, the Die Toten Hosen make long albums full of social commentary. There’s a great range of vocab on Laune der Natur but the sentence structures are pretty simple, which is great for building familiarity with German word order.
- Wolfgang Ambros – Ambros Singt Waits (2000)
It’s pretty traditional soft rock instrumentation: piano, guitars, bass, drums etc. Ambros has a bit of a crackly voice, but there’s richness and personality to it. To be honest, I don’t exactly love this album. But the thing is, it’s a German-language collection of Tom Waits covers. If you know Waits’ songs well, listening to this is an interesting experience. I only ever knew Closing Time and The Heart of Saturday Night but a lot of Ambros Singt Waits comes from these two albums. The song Martha is particularly nice and Wolfgang captures the emotion well. I wish he’d done Grapefruit Moon, though a cigarette-strained croak of “Pampelmusemond” probably would have been too ridiculous, even for the comically-minded Ambros.
Ambros is from Vienna, so this album allows you to gain more exposure to the Austrian accent. If you know the original Tom Waits songs, then it’s easier to catch the meanings and some extra vocab while listening to the German versions. For Bob Dylan fans, Ambros put out an album of his songs in 1978.
The Perfect Album:
These are certainly not desert island discs for me. In fact, they’re not even my favourite German-language albums. However, I keep coming back to them to hear the way the artists use the language. If I found the perfect album in German, would I want to use it for study? Probably not. But when it comes to language learning, any album that makes you come back for repeated listens is a gold record.