Music by VICE

How The Beatles Taught Me English

The Fab Four prompted me to learn a language so I could understand their beautiful songs I loved so much.

by Olga Mecking
Jun 22 2017, 2:16pm

"Dad, Dad, wake up," I yelled in Polish as I stormed into my father's bedroom. I knew better than to wake up my father, but the circumstances were extraordinary. Normally, my father would have been extremely annoyed, but he must have known that something was up, so he opened his eyes and mumbled, "What?"

"That song from the movie we saw yesterday. I wanted to sing it to myself and I forgot! How did it go?" My father didn't complain. Instead, he sang "Yellow Submarine" for me. At seven years old, I saw the animated movie. Even though I was way too young to understand the puns, it was the beginning of a life-long love affair.

While my friends at school in Warsaw, Poland, in the early 90s were swooning over the American boy band New Kids on the Block, I listened to The Beatles. I responded to their music on both an intellectual and emotional level. But there was one problem: They sang in English, a language I didn't speak.

I'd grown up with my native Polish and German, languages I'd learned as a child, but no English. While The Beatles sang two songs in German, "Komm, gib mir deine Hand" (I Want to Hold Your Hand) and, "Sie liebt dich" (She Loves You)—with terrible accents—the rest was in English. Therefore, I had no idea what they were singing about. Their music was a powerful motivator to get me interested in this language because of the way I felt when I listened to it.



At first, I sang along without understanding the lyrics, but slowly, I started to make sense of the words. Some of the easier ones, I understood without any issues. Yes, I get it. You want to hold her hand. Others, not so much. Sometimes, I'd have to ask my mother, but in many cases, even when she translated the words for me, it still didn't make much sense. For example, why was John calling himself the walrus? He didn't even look like one.

Interestingly, Lennon wrote this song because he got a letter from a student who was analyzing Beatles songs in his English classes. As a result, John tried hard to find the most confusing lyrics he possibly could for his next song, "I Am the Walrus." I guess he was successful in his endeavor, at least as far as students of English are concerned.

But the beauty of Beatles songs lies in their rich and vivid metaphors. Who doesn't want to be loved eight days a week? And don't we all need a rest when we've been working like a dog? The songs were also a help when learning grammar. For example, for passive voice, just listen closely to "All You Need Is Love":

"There's nothing you can do that can't be done
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
It's easy"

Read More: Me, My Mom, and Paul McCartney: From the Iron Curtain to the California Desert

No, he's wrong, I thought. I could learn how to play the English grammar game. But no one will tell me it's easy. It took a lot of time and effort to get where I am now.

By the time I was a teenager, and knew some of the language, my father went to Canada for a few months and came back bearing gifts: a rain poncho with a maple leaf on it, and a box containing the whole Beatles CD collection, a song book, and a book containing all the guitar chords to their songs. I went through their whole collection, starting with the early albums, like Please Please Me, and then moved on to the later, more complex albums: The White Album, Revolver, or Abbey Road.

My father warned me that I would be very disappointed once I understood the lyrics. I wasn't. On the contrary, they were perfect. Take this, for example:

"There's a place where I can go when I feel low when I feel blue, and it's is my mind, and there is no time when I'm alone."

As a shy, introverted child and later young woman, I loved living in my head. The Beatles had songs for all of my moods, from funny ("Yellow Submarine"), to sweet ("Here Comes the Sun"), and angry ("Help!"). The latter especially resonated with me throughout my teenage years. My collection allowed me to observe how their music (and hairstyles) changed with the times. At first, they were just a band singing other people's songs. They were the world's first boy band, their styles carefully curated and marketed. But soon they developed their own style, and were not afraid of experimentation, adding, among others, India-inspired sounds and instruments.



Out of the Fab Four, Ringo was my favorite. John was too wild, Paul too mainstream, George too spacey. Ringo, with his nasal voice and shy personality, seemed just right.

However, I was still shocked to find that my idols weren't resistant to drugs, alcohol, and even domestic violence. At an exhibition of Annie Leibowitz's photos, I saw an intimate photo of John Lennon with Yoko Ono, only four hours before he was murdered. It was with further disbelief that I discovered that "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" probably wasn't a song about a girl called Lucy after all. Despite the fact that the Beatles disbanded, I only thought of them together, even as I enjoyed Paul McCartney's "Off the Ground."


A few years later, I moved to Hamburg, Germany, where I met my future husband. One of our first dates was at the Beatles Memorial in St Pauli. After all, Hamburg was the place that catapulted them into stardom. "Is that all?" I said, staring at the rather humble monument in Hamburg's Red Light District. He nodded. It was a little bit disappointing, but I was still glad to live in a city where my favorite band became famous.

With time, I discovered other bands and music genres, although I stuck to classic rock bands. It may be interesting that most children rebel through music, but somehow, I ended up liking the exact same bands my parents listened to. Nirvana was very popular with me for a while, even though my father considered their lyrics "pornographic." I started saying things like, "The Beatles are my favorite band but they're not the world's best band." In my view, that title belonged to Queen.

These days, I enjoy a wide variety of music, although I tend to prefer classic or alternative rock. Thanks to my husband's love of Spotify, we discover new bands regularly. I play Beatles music for my three children, especially "Yellow Submarine" and "Here Comes the Sun." I'm 34, and I've been sharing my writing with the world, in English, for six years. I have been published in many prestigious publications, including the Washington Post, and others. I write as well as any native speaker, even though I still speak with an accent.

I feel English is like a mother tongue to me. After all, my mother speaks it and she was my first English teacher. But throughout her lessons, and language classes, there were always four other people involved—John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

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