The “Flow” of Fluency: How to Freestlye Rap in a Foreign Language

While living in Rio de Janeiro last year, I would religiously attend the “Rap na Farani” hip hop event every thursday in Farani park, a block away from Botafogo beach. In these gatherings, amateur musicians would break off into separate “rodas” or ciphers and rap improvised lyrics over live guitar and percussion instrumentals.

I randomly stumbled upon the event on my way home one evening, and once I realized what it was, I knew I couldn’t leave without kickin’ a little sumthin’ sumthin’ real quick in English. Taking advantage of the fact that I look more Brazilian than most Brazilians, I threw the audience for a loop when I started my rap in Portuguese and transitioned smoothly to an English freestyle:

Ninguem me entende, quando eu falo/ Eu sou americano com sotaque carioco/ oops *carioca, por favor desculpa/ mas deixa-me speak English and I promise you no Bullsh*%t!

English: No one understands me when I speak/ I am an American with a Rio-native (Rio-native intentionally pronounced wrong) accent/ Oops I mean “Rio-native,” please excuse me/ but let me speak English and I promise you know Bullsh*%t

The audience was impressed, but I was disappointed in myself. I had considered myself “fluent” in Portuguese and prided myself on my English freestlying ability, but it took me almost 15 minutes of serious mental exertion just to conjure up those two mediocre bars of Portuguese rap. I had a strong sense that my Portuguese was missing a certain “something,” and I resolved there and then to find out exactly what that “something” was by hunkering down and stepping up my Portuguese rap game.

Unexpectedly, after an intense week of listening to and rapping Portuguese, my normal Portuguese skills improved drastically. I no longer needed to actively listen or think of things in my head first before speaking.  Portuguese just felt easy to me all of a sudden.

The “something” I was after was starting to take shape within me, and now that I know what exactly that “something” is, I am convinced that it is THE most valuable asset for a language learner to have.

The Difference Between Words and Sounds

This “something” I keep referring to is the unconscious command of speech sound. Whether they’re learning Portuguese, Patois or Punjabi, I always tell people the same thing: speech is NOT a sequence of words, it’s a sequence of sounds. Words are fickle and unreliable as language learning tools. A single word’s pronunciation will vary depending on factors related to the speaker (e.g. region, gender, social class, level of education, emotional state, etc.) and factors related to the context (e.g. surrounding words, grammatical mood, lexical stress etc.).

This how you can learn a thousand vocabulary words and still understand nothing that a native speaker says.  It’s not that you don’t know the words, you just don’t have the ability to recognize them in real time.

A more efficient approach is to focus first on mastering all the component sounds of your target language before studying the meanings associated with those sounds. As it turns out, the majority of phonemes (distinct speech sounds) in one language will also exist in the next language. For example, as an English speaker, you already know 22 of the 25 phonemes of Spanish. What makes Spanish sound so different from English is how these phonemes combine and “flow” in normal speech. If you dedicate the time familiarizing yourself with this “flow” before doing anything else, you will develop a mental sound framework flexible enough to incorporate new words and structures regardless of variation in pronunciation.

Lyrical Music as a Means to Building Second Language Flow

Through a process I call Rhythmic Phonetic Training, I train students in the “flow” of their target language by teaching them to sing songs with a perfect accent. Each time they recite these song lyrics, they actively develop the ear sensitivity and speech organ muscle memory needed to process and speak the target language unconsciously.  Indeed, several studies have already shown that learning song lyrics helps develop the fundamental language ability of segmenting word boundaries in connected speech.

My language program is named The Mimic Method because the student’s first goal is to develop an ability to effortlessly and accurately perceive and reproduce native speech, or “Mimic.” As Benny very correctly argues in his Language Hacking Guide, the only real way to learn a language is to put yourself out there right from the start and maximize your amount of language input and output. The Mimic ability optimizes this experience by freeing up the mental resources learners typically waste struggling with pronunciation and segmenting native speech. With the sound-processing on autopilot, you can dedicate more brainpower to acquiring new expressions and structures as you become more comfortable in more contexts.

Optimizing Rhythmic Phonetic Training through Rap

I generally build my Rhythmic Phonetic Training materials around the musical tastes of my students, but the truth is that rapping is far superior to melodic singing as a learning tool. There are several technical reasons for why this is, but I won’t get into them here. In short, because rap more vigorously highlights the natural rhythm and sounds of a given language, the act of rapping is more effective in developing the language student’s mastery of that rhythm and sound.

Think of rapping like language sprinting. Each time you hit the track and do an intense rap circuit around the track (nice pun huh?), you break down your language muscles and regenerate stronger ones with rest. Eventually, normal speaking just feels like a “walk in the park” in comparison.

If you’re like most people, you probably wouldn’t describe speaking in a second language as a “walk in the park,” in which case you probably never even considered the possibility of rapping in a second language. But just like language, rap is nothing more than a series of sounds strung together rhythmically. If you break things down and start off slow, you can learn to rap a song just as you would learn to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the Piano.

Take this line from the song “Somos Pacifico,” by the Colombian Latin Grammy award winning rap trio, ChocQuibTown. First read the line, then listen to it on loop.

Si dejaste al que está malo o te lo ha rumbeado?

If you read the sentence in its fully-enunciated form, you will count 18 syllables. But if you count the number of syllables the rapper actually says, you will only count 14. What happened to the other four? They were lost in the “flow” of connected speech.

This is how words can be misleading. In connected speech, certain sounds are dropped or fused into an adjacent word, completely transforming the words themselves. So looking up song lyrics online can only take you so far.  If you really want to learn the song, you first need to learn the rhyhtm.

In Rhythmic Phonetic Training, I use what I call Universal Rhythmic Binary to reduce speech to its most elemental form of stress and syllable. In URB, DA represents a stressed syllable and di represents an unstressed syllable (the syllables with the most stress are emboldened and underlined). Listen to the audio line of URB, then try to sing along with me.  Repeat this until you have the line committed to memory.

DA di DA di DA di DA di | DA di DA di DA-DA

Once you have the rhythm down, the next step is to learn the individual syllables. Listen to the same line slowed down 40% and follow along with the special rhythmic phonetic transcription.  Then listen to and try to repeat after me as I articulate each syllable individually.

SI de HA te KE ta MA lo O te LO rum BYA – O

If you have no Spanish experience, you might struggle with the alveolar trill, or “rolled ‘r’” as it’s commonly referred to. The rest of the sounds in this phrase, however, also exist in English and should thus be no issue.

Now that you know each individual syllable, all you have to do is say them in order slowly and gradually speed it up until you get to the original tempo. At first, this will be awkward and difficult since your mouth has never made these sounds in this combination before. This is why your mouth needs training in foreign language just like your fingers need training for the piano. Try repeating after me while keeping the beat in the audio file below.

Voila! You just rapped your first Spanish line. With proper instruction and sufficient practice, you can learn your first rap verse in just three days. As you progress, you will find that each verse is easier to learn than the last one. This is because all speech draws upon the same limited set of sounds and rhythm patterns, so as you expand your repertoire, you will run into more and more already familiar patterns. Eventually you will be able to learn lines on your own with just a few listens. This level of rhythmic perception is perhaps the most valuable asset you can have for language acquisition. It is also key to becoming the Ill-nasty multilingual freestyle rapper you always dreamed of becoming.

How to Freestlye

It’s one thing to recite pre-fabricated lyrics, but to come up with your own on the fly is something else entirely. Flocabulary, the education company that brings hip Hop to the classroom, has a very entertaining but informative ten-step guide for learning how to freestlye. These steps apply generally to freestyling in a second language as well, but these three steps are particularly relevant:

  • Memorizing lyrics to other rap songs to internalize different individual flows.
  • Having an arsenal of “filler phrases” to help you get from one keyword to the next, and
  • Using items in your physical surroundings to come up with the next keyword you want to rhyme with.

In addition to these general strategies, I’ve created my own special exercises for building freestyle ability in a second langauge.

Exercise 1: Snoop-Doggifying it

Rap icon Snoop Dogg is famous for adding the “-izzle” suffix to the end of words to make everything rhyme with everything. In effect, he made freestyle rapping the easiest thing in the world.

You can achieve a similar effect by rapping your way down a list of rhyming words. Google search your target language’s translation of “rhyming dictionary” and input whatever word comes to mind into the search engine. Start easy by simply chanting each word on the list out loud to a steady beat.  Then, try to go down the list with more complex rhythm schemes.  Switch up the order of words with each attempt.

With this exercise, you are developing the ability to anticipate a strong musical beat and line it up with your keywords, which will vary in number of syllables and stress placement.  Listen to this example of me rapping through the rhyme list for the spanish word “cosa” (thing).

cosa, fabulosa, brillosa, moza, osa, alumbrosa, chistosa, saboreosa.

English: Thing, fabulous, shiny, girl, bear, bright, funny, tasty

Step 2: Write your first Verse

Choose a word to input in the rhyme dictionary and learn the meanings of four of the words (this is also a very effective way to learn and memorize new vocabulary). Next, write out four well-thought-out lines with these words as the final keywords of each line. Recite the rap over and over again until you have it committed to memory. Here’s an example with “cosa” again.

Eres una mujer saboreosa/ Pero se dice cuando hay algo brillosa/ se tiene que tener cuidado con esta cosa/ Y por eso yo la dejo, no la quiero a esa moza.

You are a fine woman/ but they say that when you have something shiny/ you have to be careful with that thing/ and for that I’m leaving her be, I don’t want that girl.

Step 3: Improvise on your first Verse

Now using the same list of keywords, try to improvise the four lines. Don’t worry about keeping to a strict meter; take as much time as you need for each line. The point of this drill is to develop your general creative ability. When you first do this, your improvised lyrics won’t differ much from your original written ones, but with each attempt you expand your horizons and thus your general ability to vary your verses. Listen to this example of me freestlying in Chinese (not my strongest freestyle rap language) with the rhyming words hao (good), zhidao (know), pao (run) and zao (early). yang, ni hao?/ wo mei you zhidao/ ni zhei yang keyi pao/ pao de hen zao.

English: How’s it going how are you?/ I didn’t know/ that you could run this way/ run so early.

Step 4: Rap in Phonologically Consistent Gibberish

Phonologically consistent gibberish is nonsensical, made-up words that are made up only of the speech sounds of the target language. The point of this exercise is to develop your ability to “flow” within the sound constraints of the target language without having your native or other foreign sounds interfere. To catch the flow, start with the first two lines of your written rap, then just go into it. It’s okay to throw in real words and phrases, but the most important thing is to keep the flow going whether it makes sense or not. Below is an example of me rapping in English-Sounding Gibberish.

Step 5: Just Do It

Just like with anything else, the only way to really get good at something is to jump in and do it. Start by flowing without worrying about meter, and whenever you get stuck on a word, write it down and look it up later on the rhyming dictionary. When you get more comfortable with this, add a steady meter to raise the stakes. Use the Flocabulary freestyle techniques to make your rhymes more sophisticated and longer lasting. As you get better, you’ll eventually be able to keep a flow going for several grammatically correct bars. From there, it’s simply a game of endurance.

Wait. Why Am I Doing This Again?

A fast growing body of research suggests that our brains acquire musical systems much in the same way we acquire languages. Indeed, several experts have conducted studies showing that musical training increases a person’s language-learning aptitude. Moreover, many scholars argue that everyday speech is analogous to musical improvisation, since both involve spontaneous creation of meaningful sound within constraints. In my own research, I try to apply these new insights to the practice of second language education. Given freestyle rapping’s unique position at the convex of musical and linguistic improvisation, there is no doubt that it has enormous potential as a language-learning learning tool.

But even if learning to freestyle ends up doing nothing for your language skills, how badass would you be if you could start a dinner party conversation with: “This one time at a park in [insert exotic locale here] when I was freestyle rapping in [insert exotic language here]…”

[insert awe and adulation from your peers here]….


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