The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

Earworms Review (MBT) + How To Create Custom Language Tracks


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. Berlin & Weyand), 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:

Original:

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.

 

Comments

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  1. la verdad no me agrado mucho este producto de berlitz: poco contenido y muy basico.. supongo que la musica tiende a ayudar a fijar por mayor tiempo la informacion en nuestro cerebro y si bien me parece que tienen un buen manejo inicial de este concepto, no avanzan mucho ni en contenidos ni en la forma de presentarlos.. mi calificacion del mismo producto, en una escala de uno a cinco, seria de 2.5

  2. It's a fabulous find. I've just downloaded the Italian version to my iTunes and I'm loving it. I often listen to Baroque or Italian music during my Thai studies but this seems to be the best method so far. It'd be great for learning Thai too (now off to create a few Thai audio files…)

  3. Thanks for your review. I also need to refresh my French, so I'll give this a shot.

    1. Great. 🙂

      Be sure to let us know what you think of it.

  4. Very interesting! I'd love to see a post explaining how to create one's own recordings.

  5. Nice review, Donovan. I just want to point out a couple of minor typos or spelling errors:
    seemingly (not seamingly); repetition (not repitition).

    1. Much appreciated!

      Fixed. 🙂

  6. Thank you very much for your detailed review! I just needed to read it before chosing another 1 of these courses for a new language (I've done languages at university & I've always found music/listening kind of learning the best approach possible to start with the process, just like a child subconsciously does with the mother tongue ;-).
    I still remember my first videocassette purchased in Am. Eng. when I had struggled so much to grasp the flow of the speech…(anything really, LOL!) compared to the luxury of this new media era where it's so much easier to try to learn if one cares, & you can even have fun in the meantime with the free variety of stuff that we have available.

    I wanted just to ask you if you know Noble's courses for Collins brand, & before him the famous ones of Michel Thomas, that basically use the same concept…I've found them rather good at least to become more confident with pronunciation & vocabulary.
    Besides I agree with you, modern courses should focus not mostly on the touristic side but be more open to "every day tongue".

    Ciao caro, keep up the good work (good luck with your current challenge too) & to the next article then!

    1. Thanks a lot!

      I am very familiar with those courses but I wouldn't say they're the same as Earworms MBT. They're quite different in fact. I've never been a big fan Michel Thomas to be honest.

  7. Gotta say, Donovan, your site is definitely my favorite language learning site and I check it every day for new posts. In my opinion, you have the best views and methods of language learning, and as a fellow linguist, I really like that you include your linguistic knowledge into the site as well. I'd like to try this method out by creating my own clips, and I noticed that you said in the article to post in the comments if anyone wanted to see an article written on how to create them, so here's one of those comments!

    1. Thanks very much for such a great compliment! It means a lot to get feedback like that.

      I'll put that tutorial up soon 🙂

  8. Hi. Can i use it for learning german even if my english is not so good? Earworms MBT (German) is not available for italian speakers: i'm italian.

  9. I'd like really to know how to create my own earworms tracks: could you give me please please any advices? I'm able to use Audacity.

  10. Great recommendation. I’m walking around humming Vol. 1 right now, its so catchy.

  11. Please post a tutorial re earworms–making own recordings, using Audacity. Thanks in advance. Enjoy your posts. Am finally going to seriously gain fluency in German (beyond my background of high school Latin & high school German).

  12. I’ve never tried it before but it looks interesting.
    It seems to me that I red somewhere, many years ago, that there was a Welsh or an Irish but I can’t remember well or I’m confusing with some othe courses.
    Can somebody confirm ?
    Thanks

  13. Sorry I don’t understand your answer. ???

  14. I tried Earworms Rapid Arabic. I guess the part that works is it’s not fatiguing, even if I’m too burned out to practice a language seriously, the music can fade into the background, I can do something else, and will occasionally focus on them speaking Arabic. Marlon Lodge has a pleasant voice, and I don’t think I could get tired of hearing Riem Elfar’s “mhmmm” a thousand times, so there’s that.

    But when it comes to the concept, that the music helps you remember stuff better, I don’t buy it. Not the way it’s implemented. I noticed that I could remember the word for “two” much faster than any of the other numbers, while “seven” I could recognize but couldn’t reproduce (it sounded something like sabath, so I know it when I hear it but if I try to recall it sabath dominates). The reason I could remember two is because in addition to going through 1 to 10, there’s a part later where you request a room for two.

    That means the memorisation comes from standard spaced repetition, except here it’s just by accident instead of planned, so you only get a few words instead of having a course structured where you review the same words in different situations to solidify.

    Production I found to be quite poor, there was one lesson where the guitar strum kept landing on the English word as Marlon was saying it, rather than when Riem was saying the Arabic. I’m not sure if they were listening to the music as they were recording or not, but it seems like they just patched them together afterwards. One lesson there’s some empty space where they’re saying nothing, and another they get cut off as the song fades out. There’s also a point where Marlon has to ask which way a word is pronounced, and Riem has to say “the second one”, which looks like they were just doing everything in one cut, as if Riem were just being paid for the one hour, and they both had a script to read off. There’s also a point where Riem tells two different Arabic words for the same English word, Marlon asks if you could say the same phrase with the words swapped. Riem meekly responds “you could say it like that”, which left me very unconvinced and wondering what the explanation was why one way is much better than the other.

    There might be a way to make the concept actually work, but it would involve planning out the lessons around the music, and composing the music to fit the lessons, rather than just being a phrasebook with music running in the background.

    For the price, I’m not bent out of shape, but I could only see myself recommending it to someone who isn’t seriously interested in learning a new language, doesn’t want to put any effort into learning, and is happy to just know a few words and phrases in a language, bringing them to ILR 0+ after 6 to 12 months of intermittent practice. Perhaps if they’re planning on visiting an Arabic speaking country, but know they’ll be staying in a hotel with English speaking concierge, and want to just show a token effort of having learned the language.

  15. Great post, I really like the review format.
    Also, shout out to the Earworms customer support for being outstanding in helping me investigate their product.

    That said, I’m still unconvinced this is more effective that Michel Thomas (or like courses). Only difference is the music track and what I would call “the rate of increasing difficulty”. I’m a B1-B2 in French, so I’m comparing Michel Thomas’ Total French and Earworms French Vol. 3.

    Simply put Michel Thomas move forward very slowly and is deliberately spacing the word reps. Earworms did a concept – or phrase – then moved on; it was a more challenging sentence or phrase by the end of the “phrase building”, but nothing impressive.

    I’m really seeking an audio learning aid part from French films (no subs), something that I could do at home, on my commute, or otherwise. It’s feels a bit frustrating when all the audio products stay in A1/A2 territory.

    *End rant

  16. I would like to see an explanation of how you do this. I am learning Romanian and the materials out there are imho not so great. Maybe you can make a video if you don’t want to write it down?

  17. Hi Donovan,
    Please tell us how to use Audacity to make earworms tracks
    Thanks

  18. This is the most exciting language idea I’ve seen recently. I’d like to try making my own track for Hungarian. How do you use Audacity to make it?

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