How I use music to learn Mandarin Chinese

I’ve recently started making an enormous effort in improving my Mandarin Chinese (blog post coming soon, 我承诺你们!) and something I haven’t done since I was a child was translate music lyrics (how I learnt a lot of my German). Last weekend I decided to try out a few Netflix series (连续集 / 电视剧) in Mandarin (all set in Taiwan) and I couldn’t quite believe how much I learnt in just a few days. I also found the soundtracks were songs I could listen to now and again and after looking for them on YouTube I then discovered plenty more songs (我发现很多中文歌). Three of them are stuck in my head at the moment and I thought: what better way to get them out of my head than to play them on repeat, analyse the heck out of them and then use them to improve my Mandarin?!

I know that many of my followers these days are fellow teachers, but if you’re here from my Instagram – thank you and welcome!

如果呢从我的Instagram来的,谢谢你们来读我的博客 – 我欢迎你们。 At least 33 people said they wanted to know what my method was for translating song lyrics and here I am. Sitting in the warm sun with a hot coffee and sunglasses atop of my head – what a beautiful morning! 我一边喝热咖啡一边坐在太阳 – 很美丽的一天!

My lyric translation method

1.Find your song! First of all, I recommend you pick a song that you like at the moment or one of your all time favourites. Why? You’ll be listening to this song quite a few times in a short period of time so you’ll have to be able to put up with it.

For this post I’ve picked a song from The Perfect Match soundtrack [极品绝配 / 極品絕配] because it’s nice and upbeat, and it means I can show you the step by step process of how I translate.

2. Get the lyrics. Now, depending on your level and preferences you have two options here. For more advanced learners you may want to transcribe the lyrics. Listen to the song and write down what you hear. This may be tricky for some, so the other option is to find a copy of the lyrics online and print them off. For this, it’s really important that you don’t see the translations. You often find K-pop / Chinese song lyrics with the translation underneath or on the same page. This will really prevent you from making the most of the activity because even knowing one full sentence could help you figure out the rest of the verse.

For me, I print the lyrics in simplified Chinese characters without pinyin.

3. Time to work. For this step, it depends on the language you’re using. If your target language uses a different alphabet to your native language, you might want to follow this step. I’ll use my personal example of translating from Chinese to English. I write the pinyin that I know (or think I know) above the characters before I translate because it helps me to see what I definitely know against what I have forgotten or what I absolutely don’t know.

4. Listen. Once I’ve written the pinyin above the characters I then listen and read along so that I can fill in any pinyin that I’ve missed out or written incorrectly. Once I know the pinyin is correct it is then much easier to use my online / app dictionaries to find the meaning.

5. Ready to go? By step five you should be ready to translate parts of the song from the words that you already know. At this point, don’t worry about being 100% correct (also, you might have skipped step three if you’re using a similar alphabet to your native language so this will be step four). Simply write down what you think it means, either literally or figuratively.

Do not be afraid of doing this 不用怕这样做! You’ll either be completely wrong, spot on or somewhere in the middle and it’s not as if you have to show anyone either. This is probably my favourite part of the translation process because you’ll be able to compare it to the end result later on.

6. Dictionary time? Once you’ve had a go at translating what you know, you can then pick up the dictionary and start translating the words that you don’t know. Usually I write the pinyin into the dictionary but sometimes I do write the characters with the handwriting tool on Pleco (Chinese dictionary app) or Google Translate. Unfortunately, that can be time consuming if there are many new words.

At this point, it depends how detailed you want to be. You can translate what you think are the key words, or you can translate every word you don’t know. Personally, I translate every word and often check words I know for new / alternative uses.

When I do translate, I try to write one word next to, or above the character, and then write the full meaning on the left or right hand side of the page where there is more space.

7. Listen again. If you’re like me, you may want to have the song on loop whilst you’re going through each stage of the translations, but you may also prefer to have some peace and quiet. That’s up to you! But at this point you should definitely be ready to listen again. Read / sing along, either in your head or out loud, as best as you can. This will vary depending on your level, the speed of the song, the type of words and so on. For example, I think that Reggaetón music is amazing but there’s no way I can sing along as I haven’t a clue what’s going on and certainly can’t get the pronunciation right!

Also, if you can find a way to slow down the music that would be great, but sometimes the quality can be reduced and this impacts your activity as the sound lags or becomes distorted.

8. Check your translation. Finally, have a look for the translated lyrics online and compare it with yours. How close were you?

Note: These translations can sometimes be wrong, or not entirely suitable, because, well, it’s the internet!

Apologies for not uploading a photo of this part – I had to go to a class before I got to this stage for the song I translated today, but I know that my translations are hilarious. I’ll be posting them on Instagram over the weekend.

9. Key words. Now, before you go off to perform your newly translated song you should note down some of the key words from the lyrics. There is no right or wrong way to revise vocabulary, so this part is entirely up to you. I will, however, share my methods with you.

a. Pick your words from the lyrics. I colour code mine in blue, yellow and pink: Words that I should know, words that will be useful for my every day vocabulary and maybe one or two that I think would be really cool to know, even if I might not use them very often.

b. Write them down in your chosen method. It may be Anki, Pleco, handwritten flashcards or a vocabulary list – whatever you want! 任何你想要!

c. Practise these new words in your usual method.

Today I got as far as writing down the new words, but haven’t transferred them onto a colour code page (that’s tomorrow’s goal)

My vocabulary revision method is as follows:

I colour code all of the words that I have had to translate (see a) and write them down in those three columns.

I include the characters, the pinyin, the word form (noun, verb, etc) and the definition in the song. If the word has other meanings, I will save them in Pleco for later so that I can write them down and explore them on a separate page. I don’t want to mix up the other definitions with how the words are used in the song.

I write each character 10-15 times and repeat the Chinese word as I write. Once I’ve written out all of the words 15 times, I go back to see if I can remember the character and definitions, and then write out / find some sentences with the words.

Finally, I use the Pleco flashcards add-on to review new words in categories (series, songs, etc) because you can toggle the settings so that they suit your style of revision and I find this really helpful.

Vocabulary sorted by songs

10. Enjoy, understand, learn!
What you do afterwards is, of course, up to you. I try to listen to the song a few times a day to see if I can sing along and if I can remember the words and their meanings. If I don’t, I go back and practise again 如果我不记得,我会复习比较多. If there is one word I just can’t seem to remember then I write it on a post it note and stick it on my desk / on the end of my computer screen.

I really hope you find this post useful and would love to know if you also use music to learn languages.

If you do, do you also translate lyrics? What other methods to you prefer to use for new words?

Feel free to share this post if you found it useful or come and chat with me on Instagram about more study methods and materials!

A little ‘study with me’ clip.

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