You Know What It Is: Learning Words through Listening to Hip-Hop

You Know What It Is: Learning Words through Listening to Hip-Hop

Science February 10, 2012 / By Paula Chesley
You Know What It Is: Learning Words through Listening to Hip-Hop

Can music influence language learning?

Music listeners have difficulty correctly understanding and remembering song lyrics. However, results from the present study support the hypothesis that young adults can learn African-American English (AAE) vocabulary from listening to hip-hop music. Non-African-American participants first gave free-response definitions to AAE vocabulary items, after which they answered demographic questions as well as questions addressing their social networks, their musical preferences, and their knowledge of popular culture. Results from the survey show a positive association between the number of hip-hop artists listened to and AAE comprehension vocabulary scores. Additionally, participants were more likely to know an AAE vocabulary item if the hip-hop artists they listen to use the word in their song lyrics. Together, these results suggest that young adults can acquire vocabulary through exposure to hip-hop music, a finding relevant for research on vocabulary acquisition, the construction of adolescent and adult identities, and the adoption of lexical innovations.


“Everything that hip-hop touches is transformed by the encounter, especially things like language… which leaves [itself] open to constant redefinition.” Jay-Z [1] (p. 80–81)

In 1979, Rapper's Delight by The Sugarhill Gang became the first hip-hop song to receive national radio play in the U.S. For many outside of New York City, Rapper's Delight was a first exposure to hip-hop. Couched in all the novelty was a non-mainstream vocabulary, much of which was African-American English (AAE; also called African-American Vernacular English or Black English). AAE words used in Rapper's Delight, such as fly(“cool/attractive”) and bad (“cool”), subsequently enjoyed some prominence in Mainstream American English (MAE; also called “Standard” American English) throughout the 1980s. Could it be that non-African-American speakers learned these words through listening to hip-hop songs such as Rapper's Delight?

Possibly. A speaker's vocabulary grows dramatically during adolescence and young adulthood [2], although more research is severely needed to investigate how this occurs. During these stages, various media forms are used for socialization purposes [3]. Perhaps it is not surprising that, given enough visual and linguistic context, speakers appear to acquire vocabulary from watching movies or television shows [4].

It is less clear, however, that vocabulary acquisition can take place through listening to music, particularly hip-hop. Even outside of hip-hop, listeners often misunderstand lyrics: they were seven times more likely to incorrectly transcribe sung words than spoken words [5]. Thus we would expect music listeners to have only a thematic understanding and memory of lyrics; previous research suggests this is the case [6], [7]. Furthermore, several barriers make it difficult to adequately understand hip-hop lyrics in particular [8], [9]:

  • The lack of lyrics available in album liners, which is far more common in hip-hop than in rock and pop albums;
  • The presence of background music and samples;
  • The fast pace of many rappers, often too fast for comprehension (in this paper I adopt a generally accepted distinction between rap and hip-hop: rap consists of spoken rhymes, while hip-hop music constitutes the musical genre that raps often occur in [10]. In the target demographic, it is highly probable that most exposure to raps occurs through listening to hip-hop music; hence this study examines learning through hip-hop music, or hip-hop for simplicity);
  • The voice quality, which can be excited, shouting, or otherwise emotionally charged;
  • Unfamiliar language. Like other forms of verse, this includes atypical syntax and lexical items that better conform to verse structure. Hip-hop is also rife with double entendres and deliberately obscure language [11] (p. 73). For speakers of MAE, the prevalence of specific AAE vocabulary can make hip-hop lyrics even more difficult to understand.

These factors make for “excruciatingly difficult” conditions for lyric comprehension and transcription [9], not to mention subsequent vocabulary acquisition. A well-researched example of vocabulary acquisition under suboptimal conditions concerns hearing-impaired populations, who have lower vocabulary acquisition rates than their non-hearing-impaired counterparts [12]. Similarly, it seems challenging, perhaps especially for non-African-Americans, to acquire vocabulary as a result of listening to hip-hop.

On the other hand, adolescents and young adults listen to quantitatively more music than previous generations [3]. For example, 79% of American teens and three-quarters of 18–24 year-olds have an mp3 player [13]. Due to the ubiquity of not only mp3 players but also smartphones and internet connectivity, these populations receive increased linguistic input from popular culture icons such as music artists. From its South Bronx roots and subculture origins, hip-hop music has evolved to be fully mainstream [10]; many adolescents and young adults are regularly exposed to it. In listening to the same songs more, listeners benefit from repeated learning, enabling them to better process details. Furthermore, the availability of videos online enables immediate video viewing, which could facilitate vocabulary acquisition by offering visual context accompanying unclear lyrics whenever listeners want to watch. Websites devoted to slang, such as Urban Dictionary, and to hip-hop/AAE vocabulary in particular, such as Rap Dictionary, allow for explicit querying of words with unclear meanings, and Rap Genius aims to explicitly decode hip-hop lyrics, with or without new vocabulary.

Widespread listening to particular artists using the same words could lead to large-scale vocabulary acquisition across social groups. In fact, given the increasing prevalence of the media in young adults' lives, it is surprising that few studies examine first-language vocabulary acquisition through the media. This is particularly important research since vocabulary acquisition represents long-term learning: unlike speed, memory, and reasoning skills, vocabulary skills improve with age [14].

The context of AAE in the U.S. is ideal for testing vocabulary acquisition through listening to hip-hop music. Although AAE and MAE are mutually intelligible, AAE has regular linguistic features, including vocabulary differences, that make it a legitimate, distinct variety (or dialect) from MAE. Due to continued segregation patterns for African-Americans [15], [16], many MAE speakers might rarely interact with speakers of AAE. When they do, it is possible that AAE speakers do not use full-fledged AAE [17]. On the other hand, as the prestigious linguistic variety amongst hip-hop artists, AAE is often used in hip-hop lyrics [18]. Hip-hop could thus represent a primary means of exposure to AAE vocabulary for many MAE speakers.

To see if speakers might be learning AAE vocabulary from hip-hop, I studied speakers' comprehension vocabulary of AAE by asking them to give definitions for a subset of AAE lexical items that could likely occur in hip-hop songs. Due to hip-hop's genre-specific themes of violence, however, the AAE vocabulary used in hip-hop should not be considered representative of AAE vocabulary in general. The term grip is an example of a stimulus of item in this study, occurring in the 2003 Jay-Z song Dirt off your shoulder at 1:52–1:56.

(1) I paid a grip for the jeans, plus the slippers is clean Anecdotally, some listeners report not understanding the above lyric at all because of the fast tempo, but the visual context of xtagstartza frameborder="0" height="480" href="http://

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