My saving grace: Non-English music

Cutting Room Floor

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There is a lot going on in the music we listen to. A bass being strummed away, soft “oohs” and “aahs” tucked between chords, the perfectly timed crash of a cymbal — they all fight for your focus and appreciation. Each layer has a different effect on us: We may draw the most joy from an insane guitar solo or feel slightly less alone from relatable messages. I’ve been swayed by both profound lines and euphoric instrumentals, but for me, lyrics always somehow find themselves at the front of my mind. 

Being able to sing along to my favorite songs is paramount. From belting out treasured classic rock to badly rapping whatever hip-hop music I’m in the mood for, I always try my best to memorize lyrics and play a song on repeat until I can master at least part of it. 

While English lyrics are always easy for me to get down pat, whenever I previously listened to a song in a different language, I would never be motivated enough to sit down and memorize words I didn’t know the meanings of. I would only listen to foreign language songs because they were pleasing to my ears and something different from what I was used to; there was something magical and curious about lyrics I didn’t understand. 

When I first began listening to foreign language songs, I was at a standstill, flustered that I was never able to keep up with the singers. The lyrics were important to me, and I hated not being able to sing along to catchy non-English songs that I desperately wanted to.

Eventually starting to translate the words was a mission. I found that English lyrics are easy to digest, but not as gratifying as words that took effort to understand. Being able to finally enjoy every aspect of some songs deepened my connection with the music, an attachment I cherish with each new song that strikes me. 

Wanting to sing along to your favorite songs sounds like a strange and somewhat shallow reason to learn a new language, but I found value in properly understanding songs that resonate with me. I went from only enjoying the instrumentals and mumbling broken lyrics in vain to actually embracing the lyrics.

I didn’t truly consider using music as a vehicle to learn an entirely new language until I took French in high school, when my teacher would introduce us to French films and music as comprehension tools alongside the grammar exercises. I was immersed into the world of Daniel Balavoine, Téléphone and France Gall, and for once, I was able to understand what each artist sang about. I had no urgency then to have every single word memorized, but I found myself singing the French songs I liked both aimlessly and properly. Having struggled to sing along to non-English songs for years, this fueled my passion to better learn the language.

While I did lose my motivation to stay fluent in French as I got older, every now and then I find a new French artist who sparks my interest and I scramble to refresh my conjugations and vocabulary. I discovered Orties, one of my favorite fast-firing French rap duos, a few years ago. This artist inspired me to relearn much of the French I’d forgotten just to be able to rap along to “Plus putes que toutes les putes.”

Learning French songs naturally piqued my interest in the music of other languages as well. For a while, I wanted to learn German, so of course I set out listening to Nena’s and Falco’s discographies. I’d attempt to sing along to “99 Luftballons” and “Rock Me Amadeus” without much initial success, but after learning elementary German and painstakingly reciting each lyric, I was able to follow along at a solid pace. “99 Luftballons” does have an English version, but it just doesn’t feel the same as the original. Learning German through these beloved songs made the language more accessible, allowing me to work on my pronunciation and have fun singing in a language I was practicing.

My music library mostly consists of English language songs, but scattered throughout is a multitude of languages that I eagerly listen to whenever I feel motivated to keep learning about music I enjoy. I’m currently on the journey of learning Italian, wielding the likes of Mina, Patty Pravo and ’70s Rai 3 broadcasts as part of my educational arsenal. I look forward to being able to sing even more songs, no matter the language, from start to finish. The struggles pay off in the end, and as Mina says, “L’importante è finire.”

“Cutting Room Floor” columns are one-off, arts-oriented pieces written by Daily Cal staff members. Contact Pooja Bale at [email protected].