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Beatlemania: Abbey Road, Language and English as a Second Language

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Abbey Road by The Beatles is not only a fine collection of rock music, it's also a popular tool in ESL classes because of its unique linguistic properties.

I was born long time after The Beatles broke up, but the band loomed large in my house. My parents were just slightly too old to be true Beatles fans, but they both loved music, and The Beatles proved to be one of the very few 'modern' bands that wormed their way into Mom and Dad's record collections. Amidst the Frank Sinatra and Johnny Ray, the classical composers and even some Country and Western music, there were a few Beatles albums: Revolver, Rubber Soul and Abbey Road.

Growing up, I memorized Abbey Road. While much of the music my parents enjoyed left me cold, this album set deep hooks into me. It's also become a fascinating study of language for me as I've progressed into my career as a translation professional, and unsurprisingly it's a musical work that is actually embraced by both linguists and people who teach English as a Second Language (ESL).

Abbey Road: The Stats

There are 2,176 words sung on Abbey Road -- 505 of them unique. The average song on Abbey Road has 128 words -- and a remarkable average of 50 unique words in each song, making the songs very fertile from a linguistic point of view. These stats are a bit skewed because Side two of the album (and I'll leave it to the younger readers to discover what those mysterious words refer to) is, famously, dominated by a lengthy medley of short scraps of songs, some of which are only a few seconds long. Lacking choruses or even traditional structures, this medley has more unique words than a few longer songs would.

Abbey Road and ESL

This linguistic fertility is also remarkable because most of the words used on the album are what are known as 'general service' words to the ESL community. General service words are the words that are considered most useful -- there are 2,000 of them. The idea is, if you learn these 2,000 words and basic English grammar, you can communicate in just about any situation coherently and easily.

As a result, teaching ESL using Abbey Road is quite popular. First of all, it's fun to teach and learn with music. Second, the music of The Beatles is popular just about everywhere -- the songs are familiar. Third, many of these songs have been translated and covered by artists from different cultures and languages, so there's an existing reference point. All of these factors make learning English from Abbey Road much more fun and exciting than sticking to textbooks or other tools.

All of this just goes to show that you can't always predict the cultural impact of a work of art. Abbey Road was written, recorded, and released long before I was even born -- and here I am writing about it!