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Posts tagged ‘music’


5 ways to be happy like the Bhutanese

Recently, we were recording the Bhutanese language of Dzongkha for uTalk (now available!) and realised we knew hardly anything about the Himalayan kingdom. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are visiting as part of their Royal visit to India and Bhutan; so we thought we would do a bit of reading – and now we want to move there.

Gross National Happiness is an actual thing in Bhutan! Rather than measure the GDP (gross domestic product) the Bhutanese measure how happy their population is. In 2015 it found that 91.2% of the population would describe themselves as happy – whether ‘narrowly, extensively or deeply happy’; they classed themselves as happy. How lovely is that? But how do they do it? Here are some tips on how to make your life a little bit happier.

1. Turn off your computer, phone, Internet connection

In Bhutan the Internet didn’t arrive until 1999, so why not try to go Internet free. I know this is shocking – a lot of us are glued to our smartphones. But, why not try turning it off? Even if just for an hour every day, take a break from the cyber world and do something else instead. If you tend to use your smart phone before bed try replacing it with a book. A lamp doesn’t emit a stimulating light like your smartphone, which keeps you awake for longer; let’s be honest who doesn’t love extra sleep.

2. Listen to some music

Apparently Bhutan’s King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is a huge fan of The King of Rock, Elvis. So put on your blue suede shoes and get dancing, singing, or just listen to some music. Spotify have some perfect mood boosting playlists and motivational songs.

3. Have a cuppa

A cup of tea, or a warm drink – if you’re not a tea lover, this can help to relax you. In Bhutan they have their own version of ‘tea’ called suja, described as thick and creamy, made of salted yak butter. Instead of serving it with a rich tea biscuit, it comes with dry popped rice.

4. Take up yoga/meditation

Find your zen! The Bhutanese allow for daily meditation sessions in school, and play traditional music to sooth students instead of a school bell. Doing yoga or meditating is the perfect way to zone out after a stressful day. There’s now such a thing as yoga with bunnies or even goats in some places.

5. Go for a bike ride

Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s dad (the previous king of Bhutan) used to ride up and down the mountains of Bhutan. Some of the locals in Bhutan are sure they have seen him cycling around the town in his spare time. Going for a bike ride is a great way to get some exercise and it releases feel-good endorphins. Apparently it also helps you to sleep more deeply and will help ease any guilt from snacking.

What are your top tips to live happy?



5 times you spoke Italian and didn’t know it

Did you know that you speak Italian?

No, really – you do. And we don’t just mean that time you ordered a pizza. Here are a few words you’ve probably used at some point, but might not have realised were Italian:


Longer than a short story, but not quite a full novel. Well-known novellas include John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and MenDie Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) by Franz Kafka and Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decamerone (The Decameron). The word ‘novella’ comes from the Italian meaning ‘new’.


The use of this term to describe photo-journalists who follow and take pictures of celebrities can be traced back to a character in Federico Fellini’s 1960 classic movie, La Dolce Vita. Reports vary as to why Fellini chose this name for the independent photographer in the film, but one version of events claims it’s a word from an Italian dialect describing the annoying noise made by a small insect.

Paparazzi - from La Dolce Vita

A cappella

Anyone who’s seen Pitch Perfect will know that a cappella means singing without any musical accompaniment, but its literal meaning in Italian is ‘in the manner of the chapel’. And it’s not the only Italian word used in music; the list is seemingly endless but a few examples are piano (quiet), allegro (lively and fast), crescendo (getting louder) and lacrimoso (sad).


The first spiders to be called ‘tarantulas’ were named for the Italian city of Taranto, where they were first found. Interestingly, these weren’t the hairy beasties we call tarantulas today, but what are now known as wolf spiders. (Not that we’d want to find either of them in our house.) Many people in southern Italy during the 16th and 17th century believed that a bite from the spider would cause a hysterical condition called tarantism, which could only be cured by dancing the tarantella.


Graffiti comes from the Italian word ‘graffito’, which means ‘scratched’, and in art history the term is used to describe work created by scratching designs onto a surface. The word dates back to the 19th century, when it was used to describe inscriptions and drawings found in the ancient ruins of Pompeii, and today has taken on a mostly negative connotation – no matter how skilful the artist, graffiti is generally considered synonymous with vandalism.

Graffiti - from 'scratched' in Italian

There are plenty more examples of Italian words that have found their way into other languages – among them:

Stiletto: from the Italian word ‘stilo’, meaning ‘dagger’.

Mafia: its origins are uncertain, but many believe it to be from the Sicilian word ‘mafiusu’, which means ‘swagger’ or ‘bravado’.

Extravaganza: a spectacular theatrical production, which takes its name from the Italian word ‘stravaganza’ (extravagance).

Quarantine: derived from ‘quaranta’, the 40 days of isolation required to try and halt the spread of the Black Death in the 14th century.

How many Italian words have you used recently…?



5 great songs to help you learn English

Everyone knows the key to language learning is immersion, but upping sticks and moving to the country where your language originates from is a huge commitment and not always possible.

However. There are a few things you can do to help your learning along. Watching films (with or without subtitles, depending on how brave you are), reading an online magazine or newspaper entirely in the language you’re trying to learn, and if you’re really fearless, try changing the language on all your devices – phone, tablet, computer and so on. Just be sure you know enough words to change it back.

Learn a language by listening to musicMy personal favourite way though, which I actually use myself when I am learning, is to listen to music. There is no quicker way to immerse yourself in a language, learn pronunciation, subject word order, vocabulary, colloquialisms, hidden meanings and double entendres, and so on. The list is technically endless and completely adaptable to whatever level you are.

Here are my five favourite English songs that I use in class with my students; what would you add to the list?

Passenger – Let Her Go

This song is perfect for learning English. The song is played just about everywhere so it’s instantly recognisable, the pace is not slow enough to make you feel daft but not so quick as to make you feel lost, and the most important thing is that Mike Rosenberg, the singer and face of Passenger, has a beautiful, clear voice that not only is nice to listen to but easy to understand.

Coldplay – The Scientist

Another really good song for learning. Clear lyrics, slow pace, understandable voice, (thanks, Chris Martin), and an interesting video to talk or think about once you know all the words. Resultant group discussions have included trains, drinking and driving, graffiti, and the environment. Watch the video if you’re not sure why.

Snow Patrol – Chasing Cars

What is good about this one is not so much the pace of the song but the simplicity of the lyrics. The verses are really short, and Gary Lightbody’s pronunciation on this one is a gentle exposure to the Irish accent in song. If you choose this song as one of the first to learn with, you’ll feel a real sense of achievement quickly because it’s such a simple one to learn.

Muse – Feeling Good

Music trivia for you first: did you know that this song was first written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the 1965 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint and has been covered by, amongst others, Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr and Michael Bublé? I have chosen the Muse version because I personally love Muse, plus Matt Bellamy’s voice on this one is slightly harder than my previous suggestions. Why is this a good thing? Well, the song is very recognisable and most people have heard at least one version of it, so when you hear this version you’ll likely know some of the lyrics already and will be exposed to yet another accent – and you’ll understand it. Bonus!

Maximo Park – Acrobat

I am a mean teacher. Or I can be. So when I am presented with a student who says they can understand all English lyrics and I know otherwise, I give them this track to try. Because all the verses on this track are spoken, which sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s not. The beautiful Paul Smith is from Teeside, so firstly we have the exposure to the accent and secondly, he doesn’t speak slowly at all. By the time you get to the first chorus you’ll probably throw your pen down in relief and look at your paper in alarm with the five words you’ve managed to scribble down. But it’s worth it. I promise.

If you’re not sure how to use music to learn a language, here’s my ‘how to’:

  1. Choose a song and listen to it a couple of times.
  2. Listen again and start writing down the lyrics that you recognise. Repeat as often as your patience allows.
  3. Look up the lyrics, either with something like AZLyrics or Lyric Translate, the latter of which will actually have your lyrics and the translated version side by side.
  4. Watch a lyric video so you can see the words whilst you hear them. Singing is optional but hey, why not?

Sound easy? Give it a go!




Way, Haul Away… Sea shanties and language learning

Last weekend, I spent a very merry, slightly tipsy few days at the International Sea Shanty Festival in Falmouth.

International What, now? Allow me to explain.

Sea shanty festival, FalmouthEvery year, Falmouth town hosts a three-day festival of nautical songs and chants, to which people flock not only from all over Cornwall, but from foreign parts too – Ireland, Brittany, England, even America. Every B&B, campsite and hotel is full to the brim with shantymen (and, increasingly, some shantywomen!), and the streets swarm with be-smocked musicians and the occasional pirate. Nearly every pub (of which Falmouth has a very generous range) becomes a venue for the various shanty bands, who also play on street corners, outside shops and in the public squares.

Each hour, a venue’s lineup changes, and you’ll see canvas smocks in Breton red, navy blue and stripes scurrying from one establishment to another as they get ready to set up for their next gig. Every year, I make elaborate plans to switch venue every hour to see all the bands I want to see, but inevitably the beer in one pub ends up being unusually good, and a seat becomes vacant, and 7 hours later you find that somehow you’re still in the same venue and 7 different bands have floated on and off stage before your eyes, whilst old-timers have come and shared your table and had a natter about… well, everything under the sun. Which is all very much in the spirit of the festival.

So what is a shanty?

Most people think the name ‘shanty’ comes from the French ‘chanter’ (to sing). Although there’s some debate about this, what’s definite is that a shanty is a traditional form of song sung by sailors, which aims to reflect the rhythm of the work on deck (hauling halyards, pulling the anchor, setting jibs, winding a capstain). Often, a lead shantyman will give the ‘call’ and then the other crew will give the ‘response’ (short, sharp calls and responses for the jobs requiring bursts of energy; longer, more lyrical ones for the slower jobs). Working shanties often feature the nature of the work itself as the main theme – ‘Haul Away Joe’, ‘Wey, hey, blow the man down!’ – but for those lonely evenings or periods of comparative calm, there are the wistful shanties which recall the shore and all its comforts – ‘Spanish Ladies’, ‘Maggie May’ – and remind the young sailors of their sweethearts left behind (often including a not-so-veiled warning about what said sweethearts are most likely getting up to with other boys whilst their sailors are at sea).

Who sings shanties nowadays?

There are plenty of shanty bands around the country – and the world. This weekend alone, I saw bands from Falmouth, Treverva, Salisbury (not a lot of sea in Salisbury, but there you go), Brittany, Exmouth, Holland, Poland, Yorkshire, and plenty more places. Some are professional groups with regular gigs of their own, whilst others are more casual affairs – people who just love to shant!

What’s all this got to do with language?

I’m glad you asked. The thing is that although shanties get sung in all sorts of languages and dialects, you never, ever feel left out by not understanding the words. Turn up to one of the Breton bands and (unless you speak Breton or Cornish), you probably won’t have a clue what the words mean, but you’ll definitely understand the spirit of it, and before long you’ll find yourself singing along to the chorus, arm in arm with everyone else. In part, this is because shanties are very repetitive by nature, so it’s easy to pick up on lyrics and sing along.

All of which makes me think that singing has got to be a great way to pick up a new language – and any type of song will do! Nursery rhymes, pop songs, national anthems, folk songs, poems, choral music, raps; it all helps, it really does. I still remember all the Zulu words to ‘Siyahamba’, which Safia and I learned over just a few days (video evidence below). And even if you don’t know exactly what all the words mean to begin with, it’s a huge encouragement to be able to fluently reel off a couple of sentences in your new language, all learned through song.

…Way, Haul Away,
We’ll Haul Away, Joe!




Music: Siyahamba

Today we have a musical treat for you! Here’s EuroTalk’s Safia and Nat singing South African hymn Siyahamba (which means ‘We are Marching’ in Zulu).