As a singer, having lots of strings to your bow is always an advantage in a competitive industry. But should you sing in another language and will it really help your career?
Singing in a foreign language increases your potential global reach and some musical genres require it. Even if you only sing the breakdown in a different language, you’ll appeal to new listeners and add an exotic edge to your performance.
In this article, we’ll uncover the best ways to learn these skills, which artists might benefit from them and how music can even help you learn a new language.
Singing in a Foreign Language
Plenty of artists are bi-lingual, enabling them to record and release albums, as well as singing live in different countries. Equally, there are lots of successful performers who never do it. Whether it’s necessary and useful to you, will depend on a few things.
- Is your native language English? If not, you’ll certainly need to be able to sing in this language, if you want to reach a large audience. It’s not just the UK, but the colossal markets of the United States and Australia that means this is an essential language for successful artists.
- Do you want to sing opera? Is so, you can expect to sing in Italian, German, French and Russian (sometimes Polish, Spanish and Hungarian too) far more than in English. You won’t need to become fluent in all, although professional opera singers do have an acquaintance with each of the main languages of opera. You will need to know how to pronounce the words you sing correctly, according to the relevant accent or dialect.
- Are you planning to sing international genres of music, like K-pop or in Bollywood? Some of these songs have a mix of two languages, so you’ll need to understand and pronounce the lyrics in each.
- Do you sing classical or religious music? Baroque, medieval and modern classical music will differ, but Latin will be a common language for this genre.
Is music a good way to learn a language?
Music is a great tool in learning a language. It’s more enjoyable than just working from a textbook and can be enjoyed on the go – we’ll take a closer look at the benefits and effective ways of doing this later.
However, to become fluent in a language, or even to have a decent level of conversation, you’ll need to study it as well as listening to songs. It’s useful to have a teacher, be it in a group setting, or one on one. And there are lots of groups around the country offering the chance to practice in a relaxed and informal setting, like a cafe or bar.
Is singing in a foreign language a good idea?
You really have to know your audience and strike a balance. If performing outside of English speaking countries, it’s a great way to connect. But it’s inadvisable to sing a whole song or too much of a song in a foreign language (especially at the start) when in an English speaking country. If an audience doesn’t understand or relate to the lyrics and meaning of what you’re singing, you do risk alienating them. And losing the audience is exactly the opposite of what you want to do.
The exception to this, are the genres of music that are specifically written in another language and attracts audiences who are on board with this – like opera and classical music. For pop, hip-hop, rock and other contemporary styles, it’s wise to stick to just short sections for non-English lyrics…like the breakdown…
Singing a Breakdown in a Different Language
Singing an entire song in a foreign language you don’t already speak, can be a significant challenge. But if you’d like to appeal to a different market, there’s a great compromise you can take – just sing a simple breakdown, or chorus in that language. It’ll really create an impact and sound super clever.
What is the breakdown in a song?
The breakdown can be an instrumental-only section, a reduction in instruments, or a vocal-only segment. It’s the part of a song that’s stripped back and simplified. If you’re using an instrumental breakdown, language won’t be relevant. But there are options to switch from singing to a paired back rap during the breakdown or to opt for a spoken word section.
Read on for a great example of how to incorporate a breakdown sung in another language.
Popular songs in different languages
There are very many songs that have become huge hits in the UK and English speaking world, despite being in a foreign tongue – you probably already know the words to many of them.
Here are a few big hitters:
#1 Gangnam Style
South Korean singer PSY took the world by storm with this K-pop contemporary classic, complete with its own comedy dance. It’s cheesy, infectious and perfect for parties. Millions of people have been singing and dancing ‘Oppa Gangnam Style’ ever since.
#2 La Bamba
It’s almost impossible to resist the urge to sing along to Los Lobos’ 1980s Spanish language hit reminiscent of holidays and summer fiestas.
Everyone was doing the Macarena in the 1990s and much of the song’s popularity was linked to its signature dance. This is a great example of a song that works across two languages, using a Spanish chorus, English verses and an English breakdown. This brought it international popularity.
There’s definitely a pattern of Spanish popularity in pop music. This is because the language is spoken in 21 countries. Luis Fonsi’s Despacito is fantastic for getting everyone on the dance floor.
#5 Je T’aime … Moi Non Plus
This infamous song from the 1960s caused a serious stir when it was released, seeing plenty of bans – at the time it was considered to be far too salacious for public consumption. Serge Gainsbourg’s love song was originally written for Brigitte Bardot but became a hit for him and his English girlfriend Jane Birkin.
The name might not be immediately recognisable, but the tune is massively famous and still heard everywhere from adverts to TV programmes, to radio stations. There aren’t many lyrics and it’s doubtful you’ll remember them, but Icelandic band Sigur Rós sure know to write epic tracks.
#7 Rock Me Amadeus
Its English title made it extra accessible, but the rest of Falco’s lyrics to Rock Me Amadeus are in German. The dramatic 1985 song is about the classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his popularity and his debts.
#8 99 Luftballoons
The 1980s was a great time for German music. Nena’s Eurovision hit was later translated into English and released as the iconic, 99 Red Balloons.
#9 The Ketchup Song
This is unusual in that rather than opting for an English chorus and Spanish verses or vice versa, this song uses both languages in the space of a line. The catchy tune from Las ketchup made it number one and has earned its place in the pop music hall of fame.
#10 We No Speak Americano
Yolanda Be Cool & DCUP took an old song and gave it a 2010 facelift. We Speak No Americano became a major hit, not least as it featured in one of the funniest on-screen dance scenes of all time, in The Inbetweeners movie.
These are of course just a few of the fantastic songs that have been recorded over the years. Do you have a personal favourite?
Learning a song in a foreign language
You can sing a song in a language other than your own without actually learning that language – many stars do it to sound exotic. But you do need to learn what the lyrics mean and how to correctly pronounce them. Audiences won’t take well to hearing you mispronounce words in their native tongue.
If you already speak another language, all the better – make the most of it. There are plenty of singers who operate bilingually:
- Celine Dion
- Andrea Bocelli
- Lady Gaga
- Cardi B
- Bradley Cooper
- Nelly Furtado
- Enrique Iglesias
- Jain and many, many more.
How do you memorise a song in a foreign language?
Learning a song in another language is much like learning a song in your own language. Start by learning what each word and phrase means and is communicating. Then use the same methods of repetition and attaching imagery to the lyrics, to help you remember what comes next.
And above all – practice, practice, practice. Believe it or not, your muscles will actually remember the lyrics if you sing them over and over. That means if you’ve sung a song enough, even if your brain fails you, your muscle memory should take over.
Does listening to music in another language help?
Yes. Listening to the song you’re going to sing will certainly help. Especially as it enables you to get to grips with the pronunciation and flow of the song. However, be careful not to copy it exactly. You should add your own interpretation and style to the piece. And make sure the person singing gon the recording is pronouncing correctly. Ideally listen to someone who’s singing in their native language, as you know it’ll be right. Listening to other songs in that language will also help, as it gives you more of an understanding of the language’s flow and rhythm.
Music and language learning
Perhaps you’re approaching this from the opposite side. Maybe you’d like to learn a language and want to use music as a way to do it. Songs are frequently used as language learning aids from a young age, right through school, and even in adult classes. As they rhyme they can be a good tool to grasp phrases and words, while the story element of a song makes it fun.
As many pop songs are quite repetitious and fast, you might not learn masses of words from them, but it is a good place to start. Add a bunch of songs in the language you’re learning to your playlist. That way you can be absorbing it on the go.
Singing can facilitate foreign language learning
The Institute for Music in Human and Social Development and Reid School of Music at the University of Edinburgh carried out a study showing that singing can facilitate short-term paired-associate phrase learning in an unfamiliar language – in this case, Hungarian. A ‘listen and repeat’ exercise was carried out across three groups using either speech, singing or rhythmic-speaking. After 15 minutes, the singing group demonstrated superior results.
This is something that nursery and language teachers have long been aware of though. Children can even learn to sing some of these easy songs before they learn to speak. This goes on to help with literacy as they get older. It’s well worth adopting this ‘listen and repeat’ style when trying to learn a new song, new language – or both simultaneously.
Benefits of listening to music in another language
It’s been proven that children who are raised as bilingual, show increased levels of cognitive development. Listening to music in another language has similar benefits, in that it helps fire up the brain cells and get a wider understanding of meaning and lyrics
Music and foreign language learning
Whereas most foreign language learning tends to be quite formal, listening to music helps to learn more casual words and phrases as well as commonly used slang. This, in reality, is very useful when conversing and trying to comprehend normal conversations. It also has the effect of increasing our own vocabulary and memory.
Language is music: songs in language learning
Do encourage your children to listen to – and sing – songs in languages other than their own native tongue. Studies show that this helps them pick up new languages later in life, due to increased linguistic sensitivity that comes from time spent exposed to these songs.
If you have a second language, even on a conversational basis, have a think about how you could use it in your music. Remember to still make the track accessible – perhaps by mixing it up with English. You could also consider releasing or promoting your work abroad. And add some non-English songs to your playlist, especially if you want to learn a new skill. As an artist, you may end up doing a lot of international travel in future. And being able to speak or quickly learn phrases in another language will come in very handy.
- Is Korean a hard language to learn?
For English speakers, any language that uses a different alphabet is more of a challenge. Similarly, Russian, Mandarin, Arabic and other languages prove trickier than those that have similar roots to English – like French, Spanish and German. The rise of K-pop means that learning Korean can be very useful.
- Can I learn Spanish by listening to music?
It’s not advisable to learn any language just by listening to music alone. Song lyrics don’t always make complete sense and it can be hard to understand what’s being sung. Listening to Spanish music will help though, but it should be alongside lessons or a course of self-teaching.
- How many languages does Erik Singer speak?
Master accent teacher and dialect coach to the movie stars, Erik Singer speaks fluent Japanese, Russian, French, Italian, English and has a working knowledge of many other languages. If you sing in multiple languages professionally, it’s worth working with a coach.
Do you find singing in a foreign language to be challenging, or do you do it frequently? Do you sing the breakdown in a different language? Tell us how you’ve found it and what difficulties you’ve overcome, in the comments below.