If Music is a Language, What Can We Learn From Polyglots? 6 Tips on Practicing from World-Class Language Speakers

Nathan Phelps
9 min readJan 7, 2021
Music is a Language

“Music is the universal language of mankind.”

― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

We hear it all the time — music is a language. The language of emotion, of the spirit. It allows us to “speak” to one another without using words.

And it’s true. Music, especially music composed and performed by the same person, offers an immediate portrayal of someone’s soul. It’s a vulnerable act that communicates emotions everyone, regardless of their social conditioning or culture, can appreciate and respond to.

If we accept this notion, then shouldn’t musicians have something to learn from the world’s best language speakers — the renowned polyglots? Polyglots who speak 7, 8, or even more languages are exceptional at processing and digesting information, which is what we’re trying to do in the practice room, right?

Here are 6 lessons you can take into the practice room from polyglots, collected from a variety of TED Talks, scientific journals, and blogs.

#1 Develop a “mistakes-oriented” mindset

A common trait in polyglots is their joy in making mistakes. Benny, an Irish polyglot who can speak 7 languages fluently, tries to make 200 mistakes a day. He makes screwing his top priority.

Why? Making mistakes is the byproduct of pushing yourself to the edge of your abilities, making it the most tangible evidence of learning. You make an error, observe why it happened, and try again.

Does this mean we shouldn’t play things correctly? Of course not. It just means we need to embrace the spirit of making mistakes.

Sid Efromoivich makes the point that we’re only familiar with the sounds and structures we already know. Even if we say something correctly, it will feel wrong at first. So force yourself to be wrong more often, and own it. Feeling insecure and making mistakes during practice are signs that you are going beyond your database.

It’s what I like to call the edge. Practice, unless you are preparing for a performance, should not sound good. You should be making mistakes. You should be pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone — practicing at your edge. If your practice doesn’t consistently reside there, progress will suffer.

#2 Learning a language is about optimizing exposure

Music is a Language

“Immersion” is a word we hear often in the world of language. If you want to learn a language, “you just need to hang out with people who speak it.” Or more drastically, “go live in the country” where they speak the language you want to learn. Immersion is touted as the fast-track to learning, and for good reasons.

Increasing exposure to sound and opportunities to make mistakes is critical to acquisition speed.

Gabriel Wyner, another polyglot, makes the point that the idea that children make better language learners is a myth. Apart from a brief developmental stage when their hearing is more nuanced than adults, it’s not fair to compare yourself to a child’s language prowess when you think about it. If you’re 500 hours into French and are baffled by how good a French 5-year-old is at speaking, think about how often they are being exposed to French. Assuming they grew up in a French-speaking family, they have been exposed to thousands and thousands of hours of French — even by age 5. If you had that same exposure, you would be even better.

All polyglots find ways to build exposure into their daily lives—even outside of living within a specific country. They change their phone to the language they want to learn, they hire native language learners online to speak to daily, they watch movies in that language, they listen to the radio — anything they can do to get “more exposure” becomes a habit.

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We can do the same for music. Don’t just learn jazz or funk because it’s cool or prestigious. Choose the genre you want to learn (because you want to play like that) and then live it. Make finding new records in that genre a habit. Build playlists. Listen to them when you take a run or when you’re at work. Try writing songs in that genre. Try and match your tone to the players you love. Record yourself to double-check it. Make the genre an active part of your life.

But remember…

Exposure isn’t enough. We must take and absorb these inputs in an active, focused manner.

“Exposure to language alone, however, is not enough for learning. Children need to practice what they hear and take account of feedback on their usage. Research shows that adults offer feedback with considerable frequency when young children make errors, whether in pronunciation (phonology), in word-from (morphology), in word choice (lexicon), or in constructions (syntax)[*].”

You should always strive for active exposure over passive exposure. Sure, you can fall asleep to bossa nova for three years and maybe pick up some things, but that practice pales in comparison to playing and making mistakes with someone who knows the genre.

If you’re looking for more on how to effectively absorb your practice, then check out this post.

Note: Polyglots also stress the importance of not spreading yourself too thin. Don’t try to learn three languages or genres of music at once. Pick one and go all-in.

#3 Get an accountability partner, teacher, or someone to practice with

Music is a Language

Polyglots stress the importance of having someone who is better at you correct you — just like a parent does with their child. This opens up a channel for instant feedback (which is critical in making productive mistakes) and gives you some healthy accountability.

For musicians, that means friends and teachers. If you can’t afford a teacher, find someone who is better at the genre you want to learn and think about what you can offer in return. You all could choose tunes and meet up to work on them together, prepare solos, and get better at music together.

#4 Connect as many senses as possible during your practice

Music is a Language

“Language needs to be processed, not memorized.”

Polyglots love to say that you need to give your learning “life”. Wyner points out that “memories are not stored anywhere specific, they are stored in the connections between places on your brain.” The key to memory isn’t only repetition, although spaced repetition is an important practice for retention.

Creating connections between emotions and senses to what we’re learning is much more important. Mnemonic devices (attaching images, locations, and visual stories to words) are the most classic example of this, but it gets interesting when you think about this in terms of improving processing in the practice room.

Instead of just reading music or watching someone play the solo and repeating it based on their fingerings, try this approach instead to make sure you are ingesting what you want to learn:

  • Choose a solo you love (motivation!)
  • Think about why you want to learn the solo. What are you hoping to achieve? What do you want to sound like?
  • Learn the solo by ear.
  • Sing the solo note for note without your instrument. Make sure you are singing the pitches accurately. Take it in small 2–3 groups of notes if you have to.
  • If you can accompany yourself, play the changes while you sing the solo over top of it. Do not move on until you nail it.
  • Stop. Visualize yourself playing the solo. Think about the fingerings, the way you’re breathing, the tone you want to have, the feel — all of it.
  • Turn on a voice recorder or something similar.
  • Record yourself playing the solo over the changes.
  • Listen back.
  • Identify what could be better and repeat.
  • For bonus points, transpose the solo into different keys and repeat.

What are we activating by practicing in this way? We are connecting emotion, motivation, sound, touch, and sight — all at once. This is the best way to internalize music.

#5 Start with the most common words and phrases

In romantic languages like Spanish or French, the top 100 most common words make up around 50% of the conversations you’ll have. The top 1,000 make up more than 85% [*].

What happens when we apply this thinking to a style of music? Genres are defined by their parameters, after all — that’s the point. Take a Google Doc or page in your music journal and think critically about what makes the genre, well, the genre. What is fundamental to it? What rhythms are used? What are the most common phrases? What scales are most often used?

As a simple example, let’s take the blues. We know the pentatonic, blues, major, and minor scales are used most often. Okay, so we need to master those. We also know that the one, four, and five dominant chords are critical. Okay. What about licks? Blues turnaround licks are instantly recognizable. Is it really blues without a walkdown on the dominant five chord? Okay, so we need to learn a few walkdowns and then make a few of our own — making sure it sounds like blues. See how that works?

We can pull an infinite number of practice exercises uniquely fit to our level of playing and goals via this thinking.

#6 When you learn something new, use it right away.

Music is a Language

Polyglots continually stress the importance of use in language learning. You will almost certainly forget words, phrases, and licks if you don’t use and absorb them. If you memorize the word for “ivy” in French but don’t use it again, chances are next time it comes up in conversation you won’t remember it.

When you learn a new lick, phrase, or melody, there are three main ways to make sure it sticks around in your playing — I recommend doing all of them:

  • Sing the lick, phrase, or melody accurately. Feel the rhythm and notes. Pay attention to the phrasing.
  • Transpose the lick into other keys. This is extremely difficult at first but is incredibly valuable. Push through on this! Try to swap it to 3–4 keys at a minimum (and make sure to pick keys you aren’t as comfortable in).
  • Make your own licks based on what you learned. Take the “spirit” of the lick, whether that’s the rhythm or intervals and create your own licks that are inspired by the one you learned. This, combined with transposition, is how you process instead of memorize music.

And remember, in order to truly assimilate the lick into your own playing, you need to understand its harmonic context. If you don’t know when you can use a lick and just memorize it without any context, it won’t be accessible.

BONUS: The Most Important Polyglot Secret of All

The most important factor of all, and the one that is most often overlooked, is the act of finding your motivation — your why.

When you go to scientific journals and search language learning, you can notice a pattern: “role of growth mindset” “power of self-regulation” “passion and perseverance” — all of these have to do with our mental approach to language learning [*].

The same goes for music. Practice what motivates you. If you aren’t inspired by a song, don’t force yourself to learn it. Switch to one that does. Why would you want to internalize something you don’t really like? How is that getting you closer to your goal?

On a related note, this is why keeping multiple goals on deck is important — that way you can switch to the one you are feeling most motivated to work on at the time.

Making the process of practicing exciting is what will get you better faster than anything else because it fosters consistency and creativity. If you dread woodshedding, it’s time to make a change.

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Nathan Phelps

Nashville-Based Writer & Musician —Writing about practicing music and whatever else comes to mind.