I’m sure I’m not the first to discover this, but it’s a new discovery to me, and perhaps it will be new to someone else.
It is said that music is the universal language. Or maybe it’s a smile that is the universal language. Whatever. Let’s say they both are. Music speaks even without words, of longing, love, lust, loss, loneliness, light…the entire range of human feeling and desire expressed without a word, but with the fullness of notes and the intricacy of harmony and rhythm. When we add the poetry of lyrics, we layer music with even deeper meaning.
It seems to be generally agreed that the hardest part of learning a new language is understanding it when a native speaker is speaking it. We hear an endless, seamless stream of syllables and it’s hard to find the spaces between words, between sentences. Add in colloquialisms and slang, and the difficulty level has increased a few more notches.
One day a couple of weeks ago I was poking around Pandora trying to find a station I wasn’t bored with (and considering Spotify a little more seriously) when a Latino station caught my eye. I tuned in.
“El día que no podemos olvidar…” I was singing along when it it dawned on me that I’d not only understood, but I’d internalized what I was hearing.
As I listened to some love songs and ballads in Spanish, I realized the difficulty is not the same with singing. Song lyrics are a form of poetry, the words chosen not only for their meaning, but for their rhythm and grace within the tune. Music lets words glide, and the pacing of a melody allows natural breaks between words and lines of verse so it’s easier to tell them apart. When you can easily distinguish one word from another, it becomes easier to identify common phrases and words that are used often. Unfamiliar words stand out more clearly, to be looked up or figured out from context.
I have always had admiration for those who brave coming to a new country and a new culture in order to build a better life. There is a whole new respect for those learning English when we experience first-hand how difficult it is to assimilate a new language. Although we may have a good textbook grasp on vocabulary and grammar, native speakers are hard to understand no matter what the language is. It is kind of us to have patience with those learning English, for us to remember that it’s difficult. We. Do. Not. E-nun-ci-ate. Every. Single. Word. We talk fast, we make diphthongs out of vowels and slide over consonants so everything runs together, and our words and grammar are far from textbook. Regional accents add another degree of difficulty. (Of course, I do not have a regional accent. Everyone else does.)
Before we criticize someone’s broken English, we can remember that means they speak more than one language. Can we say as much for ourselves?
Here’s a song I like by the Argentinian band Enanitos Verdes (“Little Green Men”):
Listen image: ky_olsen, Flickr/Creative Commons