Singing in Foreign Languages

by on November 26, 2011 » Add the first comment.

Every year, The Christmas Revels has a different theme. Those themes bring different languages with them. And different languages have different levels of difficulty. Before this year, the toughest show I’d been in for languages was the Scandinavian show in 2005, when we sang in Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, and Finnish.

Some of the dictionaries I've used over the years to help me learn lyrics. From left: Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Spanish. Photo: Helen Fields

Actually, that one wasn’t all that hard for me because I speak a little Norwegian, and once you know Norwegian, you basically know Swedish and Danish, too. They’re all very closely related. Finnish, on the other hand, isn’t even Indo-European (the language group that includes English, French, and a whole slew of languages from Russian to Hindi). Finnish is Uralic, the family that includes Hungarian and Estonian. For the songs in Finnish, I was basically memorizing nonsense syllables along with everyone else.

This year’s equivalent of Finnish is Arabic. We’re only singing three songs in Arabic; mostly we’re singing in Spanish and a few other languages that are closely related to Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, but it’s reasonably familiar, and I can look up the words I don’t know in a dictionary.

But with Arabic, I’m lost. We’re given translations, so I can find out what the songs are about, but I don’t know the individual words. This makes memorizing the songs extra-challenging. I’ve come up with little stories based on what the words sound like, or words they remind me of in other languages. A line in “Qum Tara” reminds me of the Norwegian for “I got some tuna,” for example.

Memorization isn’t the only problem with singing in Arabic; pronunciation is challenging, too. Arabic has a lot of sounds we don’t have in English. Sometimes in rehearsal it feels like we’re having this conversation:

Chorus: “eh”

Rachid Halihal: “No, it’s ‘eh.'”

Chorus: “eh?”

Rachid: “No, it’s ‘eh.'”

Chorus: [confused]

It reminds me of when I taught English in Japan – Japanese doesn’t have an “L” sound, and the “R” sound falls kind of in between our “L” and “R.” One time I was teaching a private lesson on directions, and I discovered that when I told them “turn right at the light,” the words “right” and “light” sounded exactly the same. I showed them the difference in how I form the two sounds. They could see it, but they still couldn’t hear it.

So, now that I’m singing in Arabic, I think I understand a little bit of what those Japanese students were dealing with. We’ve been told how to handle the Arabic vowels, so don’t worry. I don’t know that I’m going to be able to produce exactly the right vowel, but at least I know how to make that pesky “eh” sound so that it doesn’t sound totally wrong.

Fun website about languages

Learn more about the 2011 Christmas Revels: Andalusian Treasures
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