Early on in my Japanese learning, listening to Japanese songs accidentally became part of my study plan. I do not really listen to new Japanese songs much nowadays but every so often I will go back to artists I know I like and study the vocabulary from their latest songs. Language learning is all about fun, so if you love music I recommend trying this out at least once.
Whilst I would recommend studying songs as part of your language journey, there are some pros and cons to consider.
The good: Of course studying something you enjoy helps vocabulary to stick.
The bad: This is true in any language but not all songs reflect how language is actually spoken as lyrics tend to be more poetic. Similarly, song lyrics do not always make sense, so take unusual grammar structures and vocabulary with a pinch of salt.
Here are the steps I follow when I use songs as study materials:
Step 0 – Find a song you like.
I would have a Japanese friend recommend some songs or artists to listen to. I generally find ballad style songs to be a good choice because these are more likely to tell a cohesive story than a dance track for example. This is Step 0 because I’m assuming when you read this post you already have a song in mind to study with!
Step 1 – Find the song lyrics.
Google is your friend here: simply search for the artist name and/or song title, then add ‘歌詞’ (かし‘kashi’ meaning lyrics). The website I often use is called Uta-Net (all in Japanese). Just type the artist or song name into the search box and click on the red button to search.
Step 2 – Listen to the song with lyrics.
How much can you understand just by having the lyrics in front of you whilst you listen? You might surprise yourself with what you can pick up at this stage – I often find that seeing the words written down helps you to pick out the words you already know.
Step 3 – Arm yourself with a dictionary/ Japanese friend and get meanings for the vocabulary and grammar structures you are unfamiliar with.
Use this exercise to get a feel for the overall meaning of the song. I wouldn’t worry too much about finding an exact translation into English as this is not always possible.
However translating can be a fun exercise to check if you have grasped the general meaning of the song. Again Google is really useful for finding a fan page of your favourite artist which may have English translations that you can compare your version to. Can’t find a translation? It may be worth posting your own and making translations a new hobby!
As previously mentioned, there may be kanji usage or grammar that doesn’t necessarily appear in everyday Japanese so make a note of it here. If you have a language notebook make sure you only jot down the most commonly used kanji or correct grammar structures. If you are a fan of flashcards, I would make new flashcards of the most common kanji/ vocabulary that crops up at this stage.
Step 4 – Listen again when you have looked up unfamiliar words and phrases.
How much do you understand now? It should be much more now that you have a better grasp on the song meaning.
Step 5 – Karaoke!
Japan is the home of karaoke and I couldn’t possibly write an article about Japanese songs without mentioning it. If you live in Japan I recommend you take the opportunity to go for an hour and try singing a couple of songs, no matter what your singing ability. Having to follow the Japanese lyrics onscreen is not easy but if you go regularly you will really build up your reading speed, especially when it comes to kanji.
Not in Japan? Try searching for a song you like on Youtube and see if you can find a karaoke version/ lyric video to practice with.
Bonus: if you play an instrument you may finding actually playing and singing along to songs helpful too. If you play guitar (or sometimes attempt to play the ukulele like me) you can find chord tabs for popular songs by Googling the song title together with コード (chords). I tend to use a website called Gakki.me.
How do you use songs as part of your language learning? Let me know in the comments!