Language teachers may be advised to get children singing if they want to see rapid progress, groundbreaking University of Edinburgh research suggests.
It found that adults who listened to short Hungarian phrases then sang them back performed better than those who simply spoke the phrases.
People who sang the phrases back also did better than those who repeated the phrases by speaking them rhythmically, a technique used by some language teachers.
The research backs up many teachers' belief that singing is a useful method for learning a language. But while there is a range of research showing the benefits of song in mastering a native language, the University of Edinburgh knows of no such studies assessing the impact on learning an unfamiliar foreign language.
Hungarian was chosen because it is unfamiliar to most English speakers and difficult to master, with a completely different structure and sound system from the Germanic or Romance languages such as Spanish and French.
Three randomly assigned groups of 20 adults took part in a series of five tests conducted by researchers at the University of Edinburgh's Reid School of Music.
The singing group performed best in four of the five tests. In one test, participants who learned through singing performed twice as well as those who learned by speaking the phrases.
Those who learned by singing were also able to recall the Hungarian phrases with greater accuracy in the longer term.
Karen M. Ludke, who conducted the research as part of her PhD at the university's Institute for Music in Human and Social Development, said: "This study provides the first experimental evidence that a listen-and-repeat singing method can support foreign language learning, and opens the door for future research in this area.
"One question is whether melody could provide an extra cue to jog people's memory, helping them to recall foreign words and phrases more easily."
The study is published in the journal Memory amp; Cognition.