Music & Language

Can music influence language learning? The case of hip-hop.

I came across an interesting article in PloS ONE this week that I thought you may enjoy, dear reader. The article is written by a linguist, Paula Chesley, from the University of Alberta in Canada and asks the question, ‘Has Mainstream American English (MAE) been influenced by the vocals in hip-hop’. The research has implications for our understanding of how musical traditions influence mainstream language development within a culture.

It is not a surprising fact that speakers acquire vocabulary by watching films or TV, but there is not a great deal of evidence that listening to music has a similar influence. On top of this, the present paper argues that hip-hop is especially problematic as a test case for an effect on language development due to a number of issues:


1) Hip-hop albums rarely include lyric sheets (more likely in pop and rock albums)

2) The fast pace of rappers can often impair comprehension of the words uttered.

3) The voice quality, often in shouting timbre, can also impair comprehension of the exact lyrics.

4) Hip-hop is full of atypical syntax, double entendres, and deliberately obscure language, which can include mixtures of two or more languages.

So there are a number of factors that mean that hip-hop in particular creates ‘excruciatingly difficult’ conditions for lyric comprehension and transcription, and subsequent vocabulary acquisition (Devlin, 2010). Given these difficulties, why might we suspect that hip-hop is influencing language?

Young adults listen to more music than previously recorded generations in America and hip-hop has now evolved into widely available mainstream music. It is also one of the most popular video media music genres and there are a number of websites devoted to documenting the slang and ‘urban language’ that is used by different hip-hop artists.

The study set out to test 166 non-African American young people’s understanding of ‘African American English (AAE)’ terms, which are frequently used in hip-hop. She hypothesised that a higher level of familiarity with hip-hop would be correlated with a higher level of understanding of AAE vocabulary.

The dense multiple regression linear analysis revealed that three main factors predicted knowledge of hip-hop AAE: musical preferences, weak social ties to African Americans (negatively), and knowledge of popular culture. Specifically, listening to more hip-hop and knowledge of African American social culture (e.g. TV shows with a majority AAE speaking characters) were related to a higher comprehension of hip-hop AAE language. Conversely gender, age, ethnicity and hometown had no significant influences on the results.

 Did any particular artist have an influence? Did popularity of artists have an effect? The results revealed that general use of a hip-hop term most strongly predicted vocabulary acquisition; so the more that a word is used in a similar context by different artists, the more likely it is to be picked up in general language acquisition. But there was also a predictive relationship between preferred hip-hop artist and knowledge of words used by that artist.

Overall the results indicate that people can acquire vocabulary by listening to hip-hop and that this process is influenced by factors including cultural knowledge, social ties and musical preferences.

The next step would be to carry out controlled experimental studies to determine more reliably how exposure factors influence vocabulary acquisition. The author believes that knowledge of AAE used in hip-hop music may be linked to music listening preferences even if peer group usage and media exposure could be controlled in a systematic way. Further work can test this hypothesis more directly.

This study utilises a comprehensive modelling analysis and draws on linguistic methodological traditions to answer an ecologically valid and interesting psychological question – can the dynamic processes of language acquisition and evolution be influenced by exposure to music? The paper makes a good case for a direct influence in one of the most difficult vocal genres, hip-hop.

Article: Chesley, P. (2012) You know what it is: Learning words through listening to hip hop.


  • Javier Rojas

    I am really glad I have found your website Victoria. I am an english teacher in Japan graduated from the UK. I have personally experienced the influence of music in language learning. I teach preschool and primary school kids. The preschool lesson is based on songs and rhymes with actions included. I can undoubtedly say that this group is much more confident and fluent in the language than my primary school kids which just follow the books and try to understand the patterns.
    I am really astonished to see the little kids learning vocabulary, grammar patterns, improving pronunciation, intonation and even correcting mine as I am not an english native speaker.
    After seeing such a good results I am myself using simple songs to learn Japanese. Music and singing are my biggest passions so I hope I can succeed. If so, I am surely give you a report about it.

    Thank you for reading my comment!!
    I am really enjoying your blog.

    Best regards,
    Javier Rojas

  • A Black Person

    “African American English” aka. Black People language, this is inaccurate and blames all slangs and incorrect use of vocabulary on all black Americans by using this label, I DO NOT AGREE

  • vicky

    African American English (AAE) is the term reported in the above scientific paper, which is why it is reported here on the blog. Furthermore it is not an “innaccurate” term. Read the webpages above. AAE, AAVE or Ebonics are all recognised academic terms used by linguists of ALL races. In fact, Ebonics, which means ‘black speech’ (a blend of the words ebony ‘black’ and phonics ‘sounds’), was created in 1973 by a group of black scholars. Rather than “blaming slangs” as you put it, these terms are used to help classify a unique and fascinating form of language that many people devote their lives to studying. All human language is beautiful, as is all human music.