How Does Music Bridge Language Barriers?

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Despite my blog’s focus mostly on movies, books, television, and plays, I love music.  What amazes me about music is that it always conveys emotion, either in a big or small way.  You don’t even need to have or understand lyrics to feel something from music, which is quite unlike most other media.

When I finished reading Rebecca a few weeks ago, I decided to look into the musical version of the book I knew was coming to Broadway.  I discovered that Rebecca: The Musical is originally a Viennese production, entirely in German.  I began to listen to some of the songs, and though I do not understand more than a few words of German, they were simply astounding.

The following is a great example:

If you’re familiar with the story, you might be able to figure out what scene this song references.  (If you’re interested, click here to hear the song in English.  It sounds strange translated, doesn’t it?)  The menacing, palpable power of this song commanded my attention when I first heard it, so much so that when I think of Mrs. Danvers now, I think of this song – in German.  It also kind of made me want to learn German.

International music like this can increase interest in the language itself.  After researching other German-language musicals, I’ve noticed that there are English-speaking fans who have expressed interest in learning German because of them.  But German is an international language.  What if the language of a song isn’t as major as German?

Take a look at this video of South African singer Miriam Makeba singing what in English is known as the “Click Song.”  (Embedding is unfortunately disabled.)  You don’t need to understand the words to feel that this is a joyous song.  But what I love about this video is that Makeba uses music to instruct people about her language, Xhosa, demonstrating that those “strange” sounds do in fact have meaning.  She also increases understanding of her culture.  Music demonstrates that media that can be used for cultural good instead of just entertainment.

A more contemporary example is Scottish singer Julie Fowlis, who has made the decision to sing almost exclusively in Scottish Gaelic.  Below is one of my favorite Julie Fowlis songs:

Fowlis, who hails from North Uist in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, was appointed the first Gaelic language ambassador in 2008 and works to ensure that Gaelic language and culture stay alive.  But she is first and foremost a musician.  Though only about 60,000 people speak Scottish Gaelic, Fowlis’s music has become enormously popular.  This article discusses whether singing in Gaelic is a benefit or handicap to her music’s commercial appeal.  Most recently, Fowlis sang two songs for Pixar’s Brave.  In a twist of irony, however, these two songs are in English, though Pixar did use one of her Gaelic songs in a TV spot for the movie.  I readily admit that Fowlis’s music is one of the reasons why I wanted to Scottish Gaelic (and ultimately took a class).  The language of her songs has such a distinctive voice that it compelled me to look into it further.

Do you listen to music in languages you don’t understand?  Have you ever had a similar experience of wanting to study a language because of a song?  Are there any foreign language songs you love despite not understanding the lyrics?

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