Singing / Vocal Lessons - Does it help you improve your TL?

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Singing / Vocal Lessons - Does it help you improve your TL?

Postby drp9341 » Wed Dec 05, 2018 6:12 pm

Hello folks!

About 6 weeks ago, I had my girlfriend, (she's a professional singer and vocal coach,) give me SINGING LESSONS (VOCAL LESSONS). We did about 3 lessons, we focused mainly on pitch - recognizing different pitches, and repeating them without "changing my voice." We also worked on me repeating meaningless syllables with the correct rhythm and pitch.

(skip to the part that says, MAIN QUESTION if you don't feel like reading the whole question!)

She's a native speaker of Polish, and she has a very light, albeit noticeable accent in English. I realized one day that her accent wasn't because of rhythm, or pitch etc. It was purely phonological insofar as she was either articulating certain phonemes incorrectly, or using the wrong phoneme.

This got me thinking about my Italian... I can "make all the sounds," meaning that if I say the 'ave maria,' if I mock one of my friends, or sing along to a song, I (according to my friends and family,) sound like a native speaker. So I did some 'phonetic self-analysis' (LOL).

I had one of my good friends, who speaks with the most neutral accent out of the group, record about 120 Italian Sentences on Anki.

I realized that my rhythm was slightly off, however the main issue was my PITCH. I was speaking much flatter than him. I shadowed for a while before I went to Italy, and paid really close attention to the PITCH when I went to Italy, as I was totally immersed, staying with one of my best friends and his family for a little over a week, talking to people, or hearing people talk to each other probably 95% of my time awake.

I learned the IPA in great detail at University, we learned all about articulation and what not, but we didn't go into much detail about supra-segmental features.

An American friend of mine who learned Spanish to a native-like level, (no one ever assumes he's not a native, even after a long conversation,) told me that my rhythm gives me away as a non-native in Spanish. He doesn't know much about phonology, but I recorded a spontaneous 30 second recording for him and had him write down all the things that were "definitely non-native." I hold some vowel sounds for too long, my pitch goes up, (or down,) at the wrong time, etc.

ONCE AGAIN... I COULDN'T REPRODUCE THE WORDS WITH THE SAME MUSICALITY AS A NATIVE.

SO... I am going to start having my girlfriend give me more vocal lessons in January, focusing on repeating different melodies. I don't have a problem reproducing phonemes, in fact I'm quite good at it. My main problem is speaking a language with the same "musicality" (let's say) as a native speaker. I can't remember the rhythm of a language unless I'm immersed in it for a few days.

Even when I try to speak without a New York accent now, I have to really focus, and I know it's not perfect anymore. (I use to be able to switch into a standard accent when I was going to University in the Midwest. I was there for 5 years! By year four I could do it pretty easily, (especially after a few drinks!) and supposedly you would never know I had a New York accent. Of course, even back then, it took some brain power, but now it takes like 5x the amount of focus, and you can still hear traces of a NYC accent.

MAIN QUESTION

Can you train your brain? Can we get better at "processing" the sound of a given language/dialect and reproducing it? If you can "without an accent" reproduce all the phonemes and sentences while shadowing, then couldn't we train our brains to master the musicality of a language?

Some people pick up on foreign ACCENTS very quickly, (even if they mess up the phonemes, they speak with a native-like rhythm and musicality.)

For the rest of us, those without this talent, what can we do?

I've never heard a polyglot who can speak multiple foreign languages with a native like accent. Some are incredible, like Luca Lampariello, but I've never heard anyone who can really fool me into thinking their American, with the exception of two of my Brazilian friends, who went to bilingual schools, and have been completely immersed in American culture for the last 4 or 5 years. Plus, they only speak English and Portuguese. If someone could pass as a native in 5 or 6 languages, that would be unbelievable. NOTE: when I say pass as a native, I mean that if your goal is "Parisian French" people from Paris think you're from Paris. I'm not talking about "native" in the way that many Scandinavians can pass as a "native" in English, because Americans assume that they're from some part of England, and people from England assume they're from a different part of England, etc.

Sorry for this post being long, and sort of confusing. I don't even know what I'm asking. ANY FEEDBACK regarding musical training, accents, and "training your brain" is very welcome.

NOTE: I'll clean this post up later and try to make it more organized and easier to read.
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Re: Singing / Vocal Lessons - Does it help you improve your TL?

Postby garyb » Thu Dec 06, 2018 10:50 am

After a couple of years of singing, including a lot of focus on classical pieces in target languages (French, Italian), my short answer is no, no noticeable improvement in TL pronunciation.

However, a few points that might explain why...

- I have a particularly "bad ear", or lack of talent for listening and imitating. I struggle to imitate accents (native language or foreign), imitate funny sounds, add effects to my voice, and identify and sing musical intervals, melodies, and chords. I'm convinced that all those skills are related. I've been working on ear training for years and made some progress - I can now figure out some simple melodies and progressions with some trial and error - but it's slow. Similarly, with periods of specific work I've taken my French and Italian pronunciation from awful to passable, but it's not been easy.

- My singing lessons have been from my granddad, who is a good singer and an ex-schoolteacher (not of music) so has a good understanding of and ability to explain concepts, but doesn't have the wide experience with different students that a "proper" teacher would have. While I've learnt a lot from him (I couldn't sing at all before and now I can get through a Verdi aria!), I do feel there are some gaps especially when it comes to the more technical aspects of placement and vocal apparatus usage, and perhaps these things would help with speaking in general (which will bring me to my next point) and in TLs. So it's not fair to compare me to somebody who's taken professional lessons.

- I'm bad at speaking in general. Went to speech therapy a few times as a child and teenager, I've never been a very clear or loud speaker, and even in English my speech doesn't "flow" well and I pause a lot. The last speech therapist I saw thought it was more mental (anxiety etc.) than physical although I might also have mild dyspraxia (speculation, not official diagnosis, but it wouldn't surprise me given that I find learning physical skills difficult in general).

- I often get a sore throat after speaking for a while, especially in noisy environments, or singing. This has become more serious in the last month or so, especially after I attempted some metal style vocals. From research this seems to mean I'm using my voice inefficiently and with too much tension and this has probably been the case for most of my life, which could explain the last point and some of my difficulties with accents: French speakers have told me that even though my individual sounds and prosody are okay, my voice doesn't sound right, like I'm speaking too much "from the throat" rather than the mouth. The metal vocals were just the final straw: I had to try to push my voice to extremes to realise that there's a fundamental problem.

I'm going to see a doctor to check if the recent pain means there's damage to my vocal chords, but in any case it looks like I'll need some training from a speech therapist or vocal coach on how to use my voice properly with less tension to allow any current damage to heal and avoid future problems. This should improve my speaking and singing in general, and hopefully also my languages; I don't expect magical improvements my phonemes and prosody but it should improve the general placement and tone, like what I said about throat versus mouth.

Sorry for the long post and going off on a bit of a tangent! It's something that's been on my mind a lot recently and hopefully it's useful to show that difficulty with pronunciation and singing could be linked to improper voice use in general.

You have a great opportunity to take lessons from your girlfriend, I certainly encourage you to take advantage of it!
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Re: Singing / Vocal Lessons - Does it help you improve your TL?

Postby Cavesa » Thu Dec 06, 2018 3:49 pm

It is not surprising you are getting different answers on this. Thanks for opening this thread, the subject is very interesting to me.

After a couple of years of singing, including a lot of focus on classical pieces in target languages (French, Italian, German), my short answer is yes.

For these reasons:

1.my singing teacher is much better at explaining the pronunciation than most sources, including the language teachers. She's simply got much more experience with various ways to pronounce things, and been focusing on precision based on more variables than the language teachers. (as singing the same word with a different pitch requires a bit different pronunciation, and that is just one example).

Also, the language teachers these days are often too lenient, as a part of their effort to encourage people to speak more, they don't even expect too good results. Book+CD resources are more detailed and superior to most language teachers, but won't give you an external feedback. The singing teachers (good ones) go to even more detail than the book+cd resources for language learners, and are definitely expecting much more from the student and pushing the students much further than most language teachers. I believe one of the core values of music lessons in general these days, especially in childhood, is the fact you cannot just dumb them down without an obvious impact on the results. The music teachers are not afraid to nitpick, and tend to be much better at guessing what balance of demanding/supportive approach each individual student needs.

2.singing has been breaking my pronunciation habits. For example, one of my biggest initial challenges was a moving my mandibula too little, I am used to speaking with not too open mouth, and that is clear on some of the vowels. So, the process of breaking the habits and trying various versions of the same vowel has improved my spoken foreign language pronunciation, especially in Italian and German. For French, I had to learn a few "mistakes", because the sung and spoken pronunciations are simply different in some ways. Nobody but a singing teacher is gonna tell you stuff like "your jaw is too inflexible" or "this vowel needs to sound softer/brighter/darker/...." or really focus on every double consonant in Italian or the difference between the Czech and German consonants.

3.Singing cultivates my brain's ability to give itself feedback and correct the sound, based on both auditory and proprioceptive input. I find that very enriching, as it helps me better mimic sounds, really implement good advice, and get faster results. I have never been much of a fan of the IPA and such things, I had been using my good ear. That had allowed me to achieve very good pronunciation results, but still hit a certain limit. But now, I love the pronunciation guides focusing on the technical explanations of the pronunciation. I am able to profit more both from the instinctive approach with lots of listening, and from the more technical and intellectual explanation based resources.

I realized that my rhythm was slightly off, however the main issue was my PITCH. I was speaking much flatter than him. I shadowed for a while before I went to Italy, and paid really close attention to the PITCH when I went to Italy, as I was totally immersed, staying with one of my best friends and his family for a little over a week, talking to people, or hearing people talk to each other probably 95% of my time awake.

I learned the IPA in great detail at University, we learned all about articulation and what not, but we didn't go into much detail about supra-segmental features.

An American friend of mine who learned Spanish to a native-like level, (no one ever assumes he's not a native, even after a long conversation,) told me that my rhythm gives me away as a non-native in Spanish. He doesn't know much about phonology, but I recorded a spontaneous 30 second recording for him and had him write down all the things that were "definitely non-native." I hold some vowel sounds for too long, my pitch goes up, (or down,) at the wrong time, etc.

Yes! These are all very important things that most resources do not approach at all or just very superficially. And I believe these issues are the main reason for the myth that people with talent for music are better at learning languages. We are naturally better at these aspects (to various extent based on how talented we are, especially without the proper guidance), and lack of focus on them in the language teaching resources is why the rest of people has a much harder time catching up.

I am not much of a fan of the IPA. Somehow, I can't hear much of a difference between people learning with IPA and those without. Now that you bring it up, I think this may be the main reason. The stuff not covered by IPA matters more than we tend to think.
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Re: Singing / Vocal Lessons - Does it help you improve your TL?

Postby Deinonysus » Thu Dec 06, 2018 4:16 pm

Pitch is certainly important but it's only one piece of the puzzle. I've listened to a lot of interviews in English with opera singers who didn't speak it natively, and they usually don't even attempt a native-sounding accent when speaking, even if they sing in English. I have also heard one interview in German with American tenor James King, and he spoke German with a fairly strong American accent despite German being his primary singing language. So musical training doesn't guarantee a good accent when speaking.

I can't say whether my musical training has affected my language learning. I do tend to pick up accents quickly and easily, but I started taking voice lessons about 15 years before I picked up the language hobby, so I really can't say whether it's related because I can't compare before to after.

Musical training certainly can't hurt your sense of pitch and rhythm. Even if it doesn't help, you've learned a fun skill.
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Re: Singing / Vocal Lessons - Does it help you improve your TL?

Postby Deinonysus » Thu Dec 06, 2018 4:23 pm

garyb wrote:- I often get a sore throat after speaking for a while, especially in noisy environments, or singing. This has become more serious in the last month or so, especially after I attempted some metal style vocals. From research this seems to mean I'm using my voice inefficiently and with too much tension and this has probably been the case for most of my life, which could explain the last point and some of my difficulties with accents: French speakers have told me that even though my individual sounds and prosody are okay, my voice doesn't sound right, like I'm speaking too much "from the throat" rather than the mouth. The metal vocals were just the final straw: I had to try to push my voice to extremes to realise that there's a fundamental problem.
If you want to learn to sing metal vocals without hurting your voice, check out Melissa Cross on YouTube. She's a vocal coach for metal singers and there are lots of videos of her on YouTube.

For example: (CONTAINS NSFW LANGUAGE)
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Re: Singing / Vocal Lessons - Does it help you improve your TL?

Postby garyb » Thu Dec 06, 2018 4:49 pm

Deinonysus wrote:If you want to learn to sing metal vocals without hurting your voice, check out Melissa Cross on YouTube. She's a vocal coach for metal singers and there are lots of videos of her on YouTube.

Her DVD has been on my shelf for about ten years! But I'll admit that when I did the damage, it was from following a Youtube video focused on black metal rather than from the techniques she describes, and I had warmed up but not with her exercises. I've already started re-watching it and I'm planning to follow all the exercises once I'm healthy again. A lot of her material is actually just about general good vocal technique rather than metal specifically, since the foundations are the same, and it's these foundations that I really need to work on before even trying the extreme stuff.
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Re: Singing / Vocal Lessons - Does it help you improve your TL?

Postby Deinonysus » Thu Dec 06, 2018 4:54 pm

garyb wrote:
Deinonysus wrote:If you want to learn to sing metal vocals without hurting your voice, check out Melissa Cross on YouTube. She's a vocal coach for metal singers and there are lots of videos of her on YouTube.

Her DVD has been on my shelf for about ten years! But I'll admit that when I did the damage, it was from following a Youtube video focused on black metal rather than from the techniques she describes, and I had warmed up but not with her exercises. I've already started re-watching it and I'm planning to follow all the exercises once I'm healthy again. A lot of her material is actually just about general good vocal technique rather than metal specifically, since the foundations are the same, and it's these foundations that I really need to work on before even trying the extreme stuff.
I guess I'm preaching to the choir then!

How's the DVD, would you recommend it?
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Re: Singing / Vocal Lessons - Does it help you improve your TL?

Postby zjones » Thu Dec 06, 2018 6:08 pm

I have taken classical singing lessons, and although they didn't last long (the price was $60/hour from a private teacher, yikes) I definitely think they could have helped my pronunciation or at least deepen my understanding of vowels and tones. Especially in languages like Italian which have a handful of clearly-defined vowels.

A lot of instruction from voice teachers, especially those who have undergone extensive classical training, is mental. "Sing through the top of your head" type of stuff, which worked really well for me.

Maybe it doesn't translate directly into pronunciation of specific languages, but I do think classical singing lessons would help someone at least understand IPA and the way different sounds are made.
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Re: Singing / Vocal Lessons - Does it help you improve your TL?

Postby drp9341 » Thu Dec 06, 2018 7:26 pm

Cavesa wrote:2.singing has been breaking my pronunciation habits. For example, one of my biggest initial challenges was a moving my mandibula too little, I am used to speaking with not too open mouth, and that is clear on some of the vowels. So, the process of breaking the habits and trying various versions of the same vowel has improved my spoken foreign language pronunciation, especially in Italian and German. For French, I had to learn a few "mistakes", because the sung and spoken pronunciations are simply different in some ways. Nobody but a singing teacher is gonna tell you stuff like "your jaw is too inflexible" or "this vowel needs to sound softer/brighter/darker/...." or really focus on every double consonant in Italian or the difference between the Czech and German consonants.

3.Singing cultivates my brain's ability to give itself feedback and correct the sound, based on both auditory and proprioceptive input. I find that very enriching, as it helps me better mimic sounds, really implement good advice, and get faster results. I have never been much of a fan of the IPA and such things, I had been using my good ear. That had allowed me to achieve very good pronunciation results, but still hit a certain limit. But now, I love the pronunciation guides focusing on the technical explanations of the pronunciation. I am able to profit more both from the instinctive approach with lots of listening, and from the more technical and intellectual explanation based resources.



This is great! I met with a Polish speech therapist a few times last year, (maybe once every week for 6 weeks or so.) I traded English in exchange for speech therapy, (and she was a Polish teacher as well!)
Supposedly I don't open my mouth enough to make the vowel sounds. In Polish the name of what I "have" is called SZCZĘKOŚCISK which wikipedia tells me is "Lock Jaw" in English. We were working on some exercises, that were indeed helping, but with other responsibilities and what not, we ended up discontinuing or exchange. I still do the exercises though, as they help me sound better overall.

When I was a kid I went to intensive speech therapy for stuttering, but not for any articulation disorders.

Cavesa wrote:Yes! These are all very important things that most resources do not approach at all or just very superficially. And I believe these issues are the main reason for the myth that people with talent for music are better at learning languages. We are naturally better at these aspects (to various extent based on how talented we are, especially without the proper guidance), and lack of focus on them in the language teaching resources is why the rest of people has a much harder time catching up.

I am not much of a fan of the IPA. Somehow, I can't hear much of a difference between people learning with IPA and those without. Now that you bring it up, I think this may be the main reason. The stuff not covered by IPA matters more than we tend to think.


I agree. I think that the IPA is good for understanding how articulation works. If you don't articulate Polish sounds correctly, (yet you can still very accurately approximate the correct phonemes,) and then you try to speak Polish as quickly as a native, you will NEED to move your articulators so fast that you will not feel "normal." You will look tense and stressed. Knowing the correct way to articulate sounds is crucial, but the IPA alone is not enough,

you need to know the way Poles move their articulators when they say
"...zanim cię ktoś zobaczy..." if you try to move your tongue to the "Anglophone neutral position" you will retract your tongue too far, and you will have to move your articulators at the speed of light to say those sounds with native like speed and rhythm. Shadowing, and knowing "when this native speaker recorded this sentence, he/she was relaxed and not trying to speak as quickly as they can" you can adjust things that the IPA doesn't address. You shouldn't be "working out" your articulators more than a native is. If you are, you're doing something wrong.


It's easy to check articulation, it's physical and testable. Testing your rhythm, testing your pitch, and SPEAKING with the correct pitch and rhythm as a native requires...
1. Internalizing the rhythm and pitch (you can hear how it "should sound" in your head.)
2. Being able speak with that rhythm fluently, without having to think first, "how does a native "sing" what I'm about to say?"
3. Being copy the rhythm and pitch of a native speaker naturally, so it doesn't sound like you're mocking them. You almost have to create another personality.

All of this while making sure you're articulating the sounds properly... AND speaking a foreign language...

I think that getting better at controlling one's voice, so that one can copy pitch and melody more accurately IN ADDITION TO improving your "musical instincts" to be able to hear deviations from the proper rhythm and pitch, to self correct AND to pick up on subtleties that non-natives don't normally pick up on, is something that, if you're not born with, you can only improve through "musical training" with the goal of improving languages, not with the goal of being a great singer.

Given my theory above, what kind of vocal exercises would you recommend?
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Re: Singing / Vocal Lessons - Does it help you improve your TL?

Postby Cèid Donn » Fri Dec 07, 2018 2:44 am

I'm admittedly confused by what the OP is trying to get at, especially regards to "accents." But why let that stop me from sharing a bit? :D

I'm a musician, I have a degree in music, and while I got my degree on guitar, I do have a lot of experience singing, with popular and folk music, and in choirs, usually ones connected to my former unis and directed by some very knowledgeable, experienced people. And a good amount of that choir experience was singing in other languages beside English.

I think we need to clarify something here: articulation in singing isn't the same as articulation in speech. When using proper singing techniques, you don't even produce the sounds of the language the same way all the time, because with singing, you have to sometimes change the sound so to make certain passages more musical or to produce a better vocal quality. This is a pretty intricate technique that many singers need to be trained in, as it's not something most people can intuit. I can do it myself to some extent, as I was trained to do it for the choirs I have been in, but I'm not an expert on it, so I'll refrain from trying to explain in it more detail. Ideally, a teacher with knowledge of how to sing in that particular language would guide a singer through what changes are needed and appropriate.

But suffice to say, learning to sing in another language will not end up with you having any kind of accent, because you are learning to sing, not speak. They are really two different things. Two different skills, two different activities that even use different parts of your brain.

Now, about this bit about singing using a different part of the brain: this is really why I personally try to integrate singing into my language learning. It's helpful that I'm a musician and l love music. But there's a very pragmatic reason in my case. I have autism and PTSD, and along with it, lots of anxiety about interacting with other people. Singing is a way to actively use my TL that bypasses all that discomfort and anxiety. One theory, based on studies of how our brains produce language differently when we sing from when we speak. is that when we sing, it's a different part of the brain that is being activated, and so memories associated with speech that might trigger anxiety in people like me aren't being triggered (or not as intensely) then when we use the parts of our brain associated with speech. I can't vouch for that theory, but this approach seems to work for me. Ultimately the goal is to just get used to actively using the TL, and the more I do, however I do it, the better.

As for proper articulation in singing, while it's not going to ever make you sound like a native when speaking, yes, it matters and yes, it will help you be more aware of your TL's phonology in a number of positive ways. I am reminded of a story my former Gaelic teacher told us of when he went to a festival and saw a children's group singing a song about Bòd, which is Gaelic for Buth, a place in Scotland of historical significance. But the children weren't articulating it as Bòd (with the long Gaelic o). They were articulating it as bod (with the short Gaelic o), which is Gaelic for "penis."

So, for reasons like that alone, you should aim for proper articulation in singing. ;)

As for developing a native-like accent, this just has never been a big part of my goals, but from my own experience with language learning, the best method for improving your accent as a self-learner seems to be shadowing audio of speech, and not singing. Or maybe get an accent coach, if you're someone who can afford that.

Curiously, on the topic of shadowing with music, I stumbled across this video today of a Russian music student performing "Far an Robh Mi'n Raoir," a song by the late 19th century Gaelic poet Neil MacLeod. It's very clear that this student and his teacher based this arrangement on Gaelic singer James Graham's recording on the song from his Greisean Grèine album and that the student learned the song from shadowing James' vocals (no shame there--seriously, who has heard James sing and not tried to shadow him?). His performance would impress a cèilidh audience for sure, but it is obvious to anyone familiar with Gaelic that he's not a speaker of Gaelic, as there are some important phonemes that just aren't quite there and if he were to speak Gaelic like he sings it here, he would sound unmistakably Russian.

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