Sunday, January 29, 2012

How to sing a song in a foreign language

“Great, a new song to learn.”

Chinese song

Photo by Michael Wu

“Oh, no, it’s in ‘foreign’. Help!”

listening or reading?

Some songs in foreign languages are very short and have just one or two words. For example, a Georgian Mravlažamier or the South African Senzenina.

In these cases it’s easy to learn the words by just listening. Close your eyes, hear the word spoken to you, an image may (or may not) come to you. Feel it on your tongue, enjoy the sound and the shapes your mouth makes.

Other, longer songs, will need written lyrics and this is where it can get difficult.

break it down

It can be daunting to see long, unfamiliar foreign words written down. Zulu, German, Georgian and many other languages often use much longer words than English.

Rather than trying to deal with these in a single chunk, it’s much better to write the words out with breaks between the sung syllables.

So instead of dithotonyana, you would write di – tho – to – nya – na.

transcribing weird characters

Some foreign languages have completely different alphabets (Hebrew, Russian, Georgian, etc.). In these cases you need to transcribe them using equivalent English letters. It’s not always possible to do this 100% as English has a limited number of sounds, so you might have to approximate.

Other languages use English letters, but have a few that we don’t have in English. e.g.  ž š č ñ ö ç. Again, write down the nearest approximation.

It is possible over time to recognise these and pronounce them appropriately, but to start with it’s easier to transcribe them into equivalent English sounds.

Other languages need to be simplified somewhat because our ears simply can’t hear the subtleties. Georgian, Gaelic, etc.

get into the rhythm

Although it doesn’t particularly help to keep repeating the words by speaking them before you sing them (song lyrics are stored with the music, it’s not like rote-learning poetry see How songs are stored in your brain), it can help to speak the words in rhythm. This can help anchor the unfamiliar words so you don’t trip up over them when you come to link them with the tune.

beyond the first verse

I’ve talked before about how we tend to over-practice using the first verse words when learning a new song in harmony (see How to deal with song lyrics). The problems are even more evident when singing in a foreign language.

When we get to verse 2 the song can grind to a halt as people struggle with the new lyrics. The secret is to soldier on even if you’re getting the words wrong. The next time round it will get better. Don’t let the words dictate as you’re learning.

don’t panic, the lyric police aren’t in!

Yes, we need to respect other languages, but some people get so hung up on being absolutely totally and perfectly correct when they’re learning a song that it holds things up. Nothing terrible is going to happen to you if you get the occasional word wrong. Next time round it will be better. Finally it will be spot on.

it’s all in the vowels

What usually gives away that you’re not a native speaker of a particular language is the vowel sounds. A clear example is the English ‘you’ sound instead of ‘yoo’ or ‘yu’.

In many foreign languages the vowel sounds are what are known as pure Italian vowels. That is, the five vowels we use in English – A, E, I, O, U – but in their ‘pure’ form as they are used in Italian (and many other languages).

By ‘pure’ is meant no diphthongs. A diphthong is when there is more than one sound involved in a vowel (so the tongue has to move). For example, in English when we speak the vowel ‘I’ it sounds something like ‘eye’. But the ‘pure’ version of the vowel sounds more like the ‘I’ in the word ‘it’.

always assume someone in the audience will understand

Don’t think that a foreign song is just a series of random syllables joined together. It’s a real language and needs to be respected. Behave as if there will always be someone in the audience who understands each foreign language you’re singing in. There usually is!

they do things differently in Slovakia (or Uruguay or ...)

Many people focus on the meaning of a song, whatever language it’s in. But that doesn’t always help.

There are often huge cultural differences. What might appear to be a funeral march could be a love song. What, at first listen, is a jolly dance song might be a sad story about lost love. In fact, knowing the meaning can sometimes be a drawback! (see also Song meanings lost in translation)

foreign lyrics can be easier to remember

It might appear to be a difficult slog at first, but if you don’t speak a particular language, the only way you can learn it is by the sound of the words, one syllable at a time.

However, if the song is in English, you don’t make quite as much effort and often end up recalling the meaning in which case you’re likely to paraphrase and put wrong words in.

unfamiliar languages can be easier to learn

If we have a smattering of the language we’re learning a song in, it can be an obstacle. If we have vague memories of our school French or Spanish we can end up stumbling over words or getting them confused with others in French and Spanish songs. If a language is completely unknown to us, we just have to get on learning it by rote.

discover your inner Slav (or Gambian OR ...)

We’ll never get the pronunciation exactly right, nor the quality of the singing, but it’s worth making a stab. One of the easiest ways is to do a bit of character acting.

It can be a stereotype, but by pretending you’re from the culture of the song you’ll end up feeling liberated and less English. You might think you’re going over the top, but it takes a lot of effort before the results can actually be heard by the audience.

learning is a process

Be patient. It takes a long time to learn a song properly whether it’s in a foreign language or not. Don’t let the unfamiliar words hold you up. The first time around you might make lots of mistakes, but it will get gradually easier and more accurate. (see also Learning songs by ear)

don’t forget different learning styles

Some people are far more visual than others. I am one of those. I find it a struggle to remember a foreign word if I don’t see it written down. I only have to see it once, then that image helps me to ‘hear’ the word.

Other people are not that visual or might have some kind of reading difficulty in which case a sheet of foreign words can be very off-putting. Take into account the many different learning styles when teaching a foreign song.

some languages are harder than others

At first you might think that all foreign languages are equally difficult. When I started my first choir, we found all languages difficult. But over time, we started to become familiar with the vowel sounds of Serbo-Croat and even began to recognise certain words.

What turned out to be the hardest languages were those from these islands! Welsh we kind of nailed, but Scottish Gaelic was fiendishly hard.

I bought a song arrangement which had been written out phonetically, but that was even too hard so I had to write out the phonetics phonetically!

go to the source

There’s nothing better than hearing someone native sing the foreign song you’re working on. Track down recordings, see if there’s someone from that culture in your local community, check out YouTube for native singers.

No need to copy them exactly, but you’ll get a good feel for the language by listening to a few examples.

your handy hints

Do you have any other suggestions or handy hints for learning and singing songs in foreign languages? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Chris Rowbury's website:

Chris Rowbury


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