Review: Berlitz’ Earworms Musical Brain Trainer

Berlitz Earworms Musical Brain Trainer

I recently grabbed myself a copy of Earworms – Musical Brain Trainer (from Berlitz) to help reactive my French and to try out its unique method for language memorization.

Every now and then I like to buy myself various seemingly innovative language products so I can give them a test drive and see if they live up to their claims.

Most of them don’t, but I have to say that the Earworms series has impressed me.

Earworms MBT is available in loads of different languages at various levels, only costs a couple of bucks and is instantly downloadable.

If you’d like to head straight over and see what they’ve got you can do that here. :)


The science behind Earworms MBT

I’m sure we’ve all had moments where we’ve had some seriously annoying (or seriously good) song stuck in our heads after hearing it on the radio or TV.

There’s a reason why songs get stuck in our heads and it has to do with a part of the brain called the Auditory Cortex – the part of the brain that processes sound input from the ears.

The Auditory Cortex also (at least partly) helps process (visual) sign language in congenitally deaf people and lip readers (cf. Finney, Fine & Dobkins), and is responsible for auditory hallucinations in schizophrenics (people who hear voices).

What this basically means is this part of the brain is actually capable of producing virtual sounds (e.g. generating voices in our head or our own inner voice, watching lips moving and hearing what’s being said in our own minds, etc.).

When we’ve got a song stuck in our heads it’s actually the Auditory Cortex putting the song on virtual replay, even if it’s a new song that we’ve heard for the first time. There’s a good article by Beaman & Williams here on “stuck song syndrome” if you want to read a bit more about it.

The folks over at Earworms MBT decided to tap into this and see if they could exploit that part of the brain for language memorization – if we can get songs stuck in our head then surely we can get languages stuck in our head too, right?


How Earworms MBT Is Presented

The CD’s have a series of catchy music tracks with dialogue between a learner and native speaker over the top of the music.

The native speaker teaches the language to the learner and they respond back and forth to the beat of the music, with occasional rhythmic repetition of certain phrases. It is not sung, however. They speak naturally.

For those of you who teach ESL, it’s almost comparable to a jazz chant.

They align themselves with Michael Lewis’ Lexical Approach, starting with phrasal chunks (e.g. “I’m going to take you”) and then they break it down (“I’m going”, “to take you”).

I’ve talked about the importance of chunking before. The British Council also has a good page for more info on Lewis’ approach here.


What level is Earworms MBT aimed at?

Each language comes with two volumes:

Volume 1 is aimed at survival basics. If you’re a complete beginner and just want something to help you get acquainted with the new language then this would benefit you.

Volume 2 is somewhere between Upper-Elementary and Low-Intermediate. It still contains a lot of basic language but some of the grammar and vocab it presents puts it at a slightly higher level in my opinion.

I’m using volume 2 for my French which is fairly good for where I’m at right now.

I’ve had a listen to the samples of the other languages on the Earworms MBT website and they all seem to be of equal, good quality. The Arabic one is excellent for low-level learners too in my opinion (MSA).


Two criticisms of Earworms MBT

There are two problems with this series:

  • The topics covered are a little touristy. Even in volume 2, a lot of it is geared toward restaurants and reservations which in my opinion is not overly useful or relevant to most people. This is a problem that exists with most products though – they should spend more time on everyday language rather bookings, ordering food and so on.
  • They should bring out a Volume 3 and 4 for higher level learners.

The chunking + stuck-song approach has enormous potential for higher level learning using more useful, everyday phrases so I hope that Berlitz expands on it in future.

EDIT: Since writing this review, higher level volumes have now been released! Click here to check it out :)


Create your own earworms tracks

I thought I’d experiment a little and have a bit of fun with the idea. Here’s a tiny segment that I’ve cropped from An Ghaeilge Bheo (an incredible book for Irish that I picked up this week) and put to a catchy music tune (La Noyee by Yann Tiersen [from the movie Amelie]).

I’ve put the original segment and the version I edited myself here so you can see what I’ve done. It’s a sloppy job because I put it together quickly for this post, but you can see how potentially effective it is in getting you to memorize chunks.

You could also record your own voice doing this rather than use another recording:

Edited Version:


Tá… tá… 

mo theaghlach fhéin… mo theaghlach fhéin… mo theaghlach fhéin… mo theaghlach fhéin…

Bhuel, tháim pósta… le sé bliana…

Bhuel, tháim pósta… le sé bliana… bliana…

agus… saolaíodh iníon… saolaíodh iníon… 

agus… saolaíodh iníon… óg dom ansan… óg dom ansan…

mí… Márta… mí… Márta…

seo caite… seo caite… 

mí… Márta… mí Márta seo caite… 

so thá sí nach mór ceithre mhí… ceithre mhí… ceithre mhí…

so thá sí nach mór ceithre mhí…

agus athrú mór…

I used Audacity (a free, open source audio app) to do this and it’s very easy to do. If you want some instructions on how to do it let me know in the comments section below and I’ll write a post detailing it.

As for Earworms Musical Brain Trainer, if you want to get yourself a copy in the language you’re learning, you can buy directly from their website here.


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Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

Defining Language Hacking: Lessons Learned From Hacking Chinese

Hacking Chinese

This is a guest post from Olle Linge who runs an excellent blog called Hacking Chinese – Everything You Need To Know About Studying Chinese But No-One Will Tell You.

Olle’s a native Swede with a few languages under his belt (including English), with years of experience learning Mandarin Chinese and being immersed in the language in Taiwan.

He’s one of the go-to guys for anyone interested in Chinese, and for those who aren’t his blog offers some very sound advice for general language learning. Make sure to check it out. 


Olle Linge Hacking Chinese

A couple of years ago, I was living in Taiwan and was seeing this girl. We spent quite a lot of time together and we spoke mostly in Chinese. One evening, we were chatting about something I’ve forgotten now, when she suddenly broke into laughter. I was perplexed, because what I had said was in no way meant to be a joke. When I learnt that she laughed at my pronunciation, I felt a bit hurt. I care a lot about pronunciation in any language. Then, when she calmed down enough to explain, she said “when you said that, you sounded just like a foreigner”.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but that’s probably the highest praise I’ve received from anyone. It meant that overall, my pronunciation had become good enough for her not to think about it too much while we talked. Only when I slipped on a few tones did she actually think about it. Of course, I don’t mean to say that my pronunciation is perfect, I still have a lot to learn now, two years later, but I will always remember this moment fondly. It was the first time I realised that I had actually learnt how to speak Chinese. Other people might have told me that, but this reaction form this girl was completely innocent and honest. She didn’t even intend to praise me.

More Westerners start learning Chinese today than ever before and I’m sure they’d be interested in knowing how I got there and what I’ve learnt since then. I started learning Chinese in 2007, mostly as an experiment. I had been interested in Chinese martial arts and philosophy for quite some time, and when a friend told me that it was possible to study the language for one year at the university, I felt that a break in my teacher courses was warranted. A year wouldn’t matter very much and it would sure be an interesting experience.

Little did I know that the decision I made was just the first in a series of events that leaves me where I am now, four years later (whereof two were spent in Taiwan), preparing to study a master’s degree in Chinese for native speakers. It feels weird to contemplate that I didn’t even intend to learn Chinese only a few years ago! I still have a long way to go, but looking back, I realise that the road behind me isn’t just a short walk in the park either.

So why did I do it? Why did I spend thousands of hours learning a language as foreign as Chinese? Some people say they do it because it will give them good career openings, some say it’s because it’s because they want to travel in China or be able to talk with Chinese people. In a sense, I could say that these factors have influenced me as well, but I’d be lying if I said that any of them were my main motivation.

No, instead, I’ve learnt Chinese because I really enjoy it. I love studying languages and for some reason, I love Chinese more than any other language I’ve encountered. If you’ve ever felt any kind of interest towards a subject, it’s not hard to understand how someone can spend ten thousand hours over just a few years pursuing ever increasing knowledge.

It’s not a quest for an illusory goal, it’s a passion to see and hear more, to know what lies just around the corner. It’s about wild detours and exotic side quests. There might be a goal somewhere at the rainbow’s end. Perhaps, but I don’t really care. The rainbow looks pretty enough from here.

Even though I think that pleasure of some kind needs to be the cornerstone of all long-term language learning, there is of course much more to it than just frolicking in the wilderness. I’m a very analytical person and I’ve spent many, many hours studying how to study, conducting experiments and seeing how I can improve my own learning. This is also essential. There is of course some widely accepted results from research into second language acquisition, but language learning is an extremely complex process and each situation is unique. Perhaps your analysis and your experiments are only relevant to you personally, but isn’t that enough?

Olle LingeThis brings us to the topic of language hacking. Some people think the word “hacking” is out of place here, but I think it describes perfectly what I’m talking about. Hacking is about gaining knowledge that is hidden behind something, perhaps a cipher. Learning a language is much like this, it’s about breaking the code and understanding the inner workings of the language, to get to know its soul. But there is more to hacking than that. If you can’t hack something, it means that you can’t do it because it’s too boring or too difficult. If you hack a language, you make it interesting and meaningful. Perhaps it won’t be easy, but it definitely won’t be impossible!

Another key element in language hacking is listening to others. Sure, your situation might be unique and specific to you, but that doesn’t mean that what other people have discovered is useless. You don’t need to invent the wheel twice. Yes, you need to make sure that you actually need a wheel, but if that’s what you want, you should check out the designs other people have been working at. You might want to adapt to better suit your needs, but if you want to build Rome, starting out as an amphibian in the ocean simply won’t get you very far.

The most common mistake I see beginner language students make is that they only pay attention to what’s immediately in front of them. If they have a test next Friday, they focus exclusively on that. They use the method they first happen to stumble upon and then sticks to that, without even trying other methods. This is the opposite of language hacking. Since you’re reading this article, you are at least moderately interested in making your language learning more efficient, which is the first step. What next? Here is some advice:

  • Don’t just read about different methods, actually try them
  • Don’t be afraid to experiment
  • Regularly take a step back and relate what you’re doing to your long-term goals
  • If you don’t enjoy yourself, you’re doing something wrong
  • There is no substitute for investing thousands of hours

These five points all overlap and enhance each other: If you don’t read what other people have to say, you might miss some great ideas, but if you only do that, you won’t spend the hours you need. Likewise, if you don’t enjoy yourself, spending thousands of hours will be a pain. If you don’t relate your learning to an overall structure, you risk losing focus.

Next, I would like to return to the picture I used earlier with a foreign language being an exotic landscape. I didn’t write that because I like flowery metaphors, I did it deliberately and for a very serious reason. I’m convinced that in life (which includes language learning), attitude is everything. If you have the wrong attitude, the easiest task might become impossible to achieve. With the right attitude, you can reach the stars.

I think the mind of the curious explorer is the most suitable for language learning. Look at each word as a precious stone, see how it reflects the light in different angles. Enjoy it. When you encounter something you don’t understand, see the mystery as a skein of silk thread that needs to be disentangled before you can understand its intricacies.

In other words, we need to view the world with the eyes of a child, but analyse what we see with an adult brain.

You might have noticed that I haven’t said very much about learning Chinese in particular. That’s because I believe language learning is essentially the same regardless of languages. This deserves more focus that strategies only useful for that particular language. Still, I do want to provide some more advice regarding learning Chinese in particular:

Chinese is easier to hack than most other languages. Saying that Chinese is completely structured and logical would of course be a lie, but I do think that it’s easier to find patterns when studying Chinese compared to many other languages. Note that these patterns don’t have to actually mean anything, just as long as they’re helpful.

For instance, when learning characters, it’s quite easy to separate most characters into smaller component parts. You can then connect these parts with mnemonics, making it a lot easier to remember how to write that character. Note that when doing this, you’re not really after the true etymology (which usually is partly phonetic anyway), you’re after something which makes remembering easier.

Chinese also features a number of sounds that are weird to the Western ear, including a number of tones. These take a while getting used to, but I find it extremely important to not only practise the tones and the sounds, but to actually understand them. If you study in China, make sure you have someone teach you this in English. I’ve met many, many students who learnt tones entirely in Chinese and missed some important rules, especially for how tones change (tone sandhi). Of course, practising with natives is very good, but do make sure you understand what you’re doing. Tones are much more important than you might think at first. Learn them properly from the very start.

Finally, be persistent when you practise. It’s easy to believe that just because no-one corrects you, your Chinese is very good. This is probably not the case. The better your Chinese gets compared to other foreigners, the less likely people are to comment on your language skills in negative terms. They will praise you for saying “hello” with the correct tones, but they won’t tell you that actually”hello” is a bit awkward in this situation. If you want to master Chinese, you really need to realise that you have a long way to go. You also have to convince others that you enjoy having people point out your shortcomings (and you should enjoy it, too). Studying Chinese to a level where you can communicate is quite easy, but after that, complacency starts becoming a real problem.

Learning Chinese is indeed a long journey, but it’s a fascinating and worthwhile one. If you want to read more about what I’ve learnt along the way, head over to Hacking Chinese, where I’m trying to share my own thoughts with other learners in order to make the journey a little bit easier and even more enjoyable.


This was written by Olle Linge from Hacking Chinese.

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Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

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