We can learn to sing, but can we sing to learn?

Happy smiling Asian mother and little Cute son sitting on wood floor singing and playing acoustic guitar together.

Why are the ABCs sung? Sure, it makes the alphabet more fun for kids to learn. But does it also make it easier for them to learn?

Short answer: yes! It’s the reason why many languages have songs for their own alphabets–and the reason why I can still rattle off the capitals of most of the Spanish-speaking countries in South America (thanks, Profe). So, songs can definitely help with memorization by associating words with a particular melody. But speaking a language requires more than just memorization: you have to be able to understand sentences you’ve never heard before and say new things in the moment. Can singing help you become fluent?

Happy smiling Asian mother and little Cute son sitting on wood floor singing and playing acoustic guitar together.

As noted in one of our previous blog posts, speaking to a child in ‘parentese’–or using a higher-pitched voice and elongating vowels–seems to actually help some aspects of language learning, as it emphasizes characteristics of words and sounds while keeping the child’s attention. In this way, parentese and singing are not entirely different. Like parentese, singing involves producing pitches that are different from those of regular, spoken speech and can involve lengthening words and vowels. And, also like parentese, singing can help with language learning! It is believed that singing to infants helps develop their vocabularies more quickly (Franco et al., 2021). Like books, songs may introduce children to more unique words and help them acquire a broader vocabulary (Montag et al., 2015). (How often in everyday conversation do you hear about baby belugas or twinkling stars that are like diamonds in the sky?) Additionally, learning a language is, at least in part, social, and infants are more attentive to sung words than to spoken words (Tomasello, 1992; Franco et al., 2021).

You might be thinking to yourself, “That’s great and all, how does all this ‘parentese’ baby stuff apply to someone like me, a person who is (likely) not an infant. (Note: If you are an infant reading this, please email the Bergelson Lab IMMEDIATELY.) Well, dear reader, I ask you to picture this:

You decide to take an intro class to begin learning a new language. And, like the little knowledge sponge you are, you’re eager to take on this challenge and soak in all that the class has to offer. (Good on you!) You walk into the classroom on the first day and take your seat when, much to your surprise (and panic), the teacher begins speaking at you and your classmates as if you are all native speakers, aggressively barking advanced vocabulary and grammar into the air as blank stares fall over the room. You wonder how you will ever learn this language. And, quite frankly, so do I.

Don’t get me wrong: Many foreign language teachers (including ones with whom I have taken classes) aim for their classrooms, even in beginner classes, to use exclusively the target language (Does “¡Solamente español!” ring a bell for anyone?). It provides immersion in the language, thereby helping students acquire it. But you will also find that teachers, when they are teaching a beginner class, are not going to speak to their students in the same way they would speak to a native speaker of the language. Instead, they will speak more slowly and in simpler terms, exaggerating certain characteristics of words, perhaps even in a quasi-parentese manner. And, while this may not be the ‘natural’ way of speaking the language, it can help a new language learner better understand and acquire that language, similar to how singing can!

So, the next time you’re struggling to learn how to speak a new language, maybe try singing it instead. The results may be music to your ears.


Franco, F., Suttora, C., Spinelli, M., Kozar, I., & Fasolo, M. (2021). Singing to infants matters: Early singing interactions affect musical preferences and facilitate vocabulary building. Journal of Child Language, 49(3), 552–577. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0305000921000167

Good, A. J., Russo, F. A., & Sullivan, J. (2015). The efficacy of singing in foreign-language learning. Psychology of Music, 43(5), 627–640. https://doi-org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1177/0305735614528833

Ludke, K. M., Ferreira, F., & Overy, K. (2014). Singing can facilitate foreign language learning. Memory & Cognition, 42(1), 41–52. https://doi-org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.3758/s13421-013-0342-5

Montag, J. L., Jones, M. N., & Smith, L. B. (2015). The Words Children Hear: Picture Books and the Statistics for Language Learning. Psychological Science, 26(9), 1489–1496. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797615594361

Schön, D., Boyer, M., Moreno, S., Besson, M., Peretz, I., & Kolinsky, R. (2008). Songs as an aid for language acquisition. Cognition, 106(2), 975–983. https://doi-org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1016/j.cognition.2007.03.005

Tomasello, M. (1992). The social bases of language acquisition. Social Development, 1(1), 67–87. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9507.1992.tb00135.x


Sarah, a white woman with dark hair, kneels and grins by a hibiscus bush with one of the bright red flowers "tucked" behind her ear.

Sarah Latzke


Sarah is a junior undergraduate student at Harvard College from Columbus, Ohio studying Psychology and Linguistics. She is interested in clinical and developmental psychology, and she has a particular curiosity for how first and second languages are acquired. In her spare time, Sarah loves to sing and travel the world with her a cappella group, the Radcliffe Pitches.

Elika Bergelson

PRincipal Investigator