You may be an IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) superstar, but if you do not fully comprehend the language you are singing you are missing out! Americans often see foreign language as another course in the curriculum rather than a chance to become bi- or trilingual. It is simply unfortunate that American singers do not grow up with the same language faculties as many European singers.
That is why the day 23 challenge is to work to become fluent in other languages.
If you are striving to become an international diva, working on your languages is just a given. Even if your main goal is to get your Doctorate, you must have a substantial understanding of the main singing languages: Italian, French, and German. (You can even through in Russian and Spanish for good measure.) For the first part, working in a foreign country, being able to communicate with your colleagues in real time is a highly-desired skill. Knowledge of foreign languages may help you land the job and get yourself there initially. However, the real benefit will come in the form of being able to understand your own contract negotiations and efficiency in rehearsal. Lack of understanding will put the singer at a disadvantage in both business and social situations. Part of being a good colleague is being able to be “on point” in rehearsal and constantly having to stop to get clarification about basic directions will surely grate on everyone’s nerves. Plus, you may want to socialize with your fellows outside of rehearsal time and they will most likely want to converse in their native tongue.
Most people in the world are multilingual, and everybody could be; no one is rigorously excluded from another’s language community except through lack of time and effort. Different languages protect and nourish the growth of different cultures, where different pathways of human knowledge can be discovered. They certainly make life richer for those who know more than one of them.
(Nicholas Ostler, Empires of the Word) ¹
One of the main reasons for committed language studies is better understanding of the vocal line. Composer that set texts in their L1 often instinctively place the weak and strong beats of the words appropriately with the strong and weak beats of the music. However, that may not always be the case. Your understanding of the distinct cadence of the language is invaluable to you as a performer for this reason. Demonstrating your comprehension of the correct accent and word stress is one of the many ways you can set yourself apart in the competitive world of auditions. An added bonus: innately understanding the text of your role, not just the IPA, will be less stressful during the performance because you will feel more natural and able to tell the story. You may also find that “Foreign language learners have better listening skills and sharper memories than their monolingual peers.” (Lapkin, et al 1990, Ratte 1968)² Better listening skills and a sharper memory? Sign me up.
Although numerous commercials would have you believe that you are just 15 minutes a day away from speaking another language, singers know that it takes more concentrated effort than that. Language study is like voice training – you have to be in a training mindset. “The adult [language learner] learns best not by rote, but by integrating new concepts and material into already existing cognitive structures.”³ I encourage you to find programs that do not rely solely on short-term memorization. There are many good CD version language-learning out there that you might even find at your library (for free.) I suggest trying Simon & Schuster‘s Pimsleur Method discs in as many languages as you can get your hands on. I once had a coach that told me she put them on her iPOD and listened to them during her workout sessions for a double whammy of feel-good achievement. I also recommend trying some local meetups groups for picking up conversation in another language. There is nothing quite like immersion that teaches you a language in record time. Baltimore has 22 Meetup Groups alone that match “Language & Culture.” Another option you could seek out is taking a class at a local community college, college, or university.
There is no limit on learning languages which can be a blessing and a burden. Yet, you will amaze yourself at the level of satisfaction you will find in comprehending your foreign language texts and roles. It takes a lot of consistent hard work to be a diva. People still want to believe that you sprung up from the shadows fully-trained, but you know the sacrifices you have made for the dream and that will feel the most rewarding.
Have any suggestions for singers looking to improve their foreign language skills? Have you found your roles more rewarding when you innately understand the text? Think that IPA is enough? Tell me all in the comments below.