Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘song’


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).



The power of song in language learning

Everyone has individual tips and specific techniques on how to learn a language quickly and effectively, ranging from immersing yourself in the culture of the language to listening to hours of vocabulary when asleep. During my final year of secondary school I had to learn French, to a very high standard, in around six months, so was more than willing to try any tip that people provided, however ridiculous they initially sounded.  One of the most successful of these recommendations was listening to familiar songs in French. This began with Disney songs, including those from The Lion King and The Little Mermaid, and then later transitioned into pop songs ranging from Bruno Mars to Celine Dion.

musicThe key to this method of learning is being familiar with the lyrics, and subsequently being able to attribute each lyric you hear to the corresponding line in English. Whilst instant translation can normally be a struggle, the tune and the story told through the song aid a learner’s ability to translate much more quickly, and eventually remove the need to translate at all. By the time the song has been played for the fifth or sixth time, the language becomes familiar and instinctively understood. Listening to The Lion King on repeat for an hour, as instructed by my French teacher, means that I will never forget the word for ‘king’ in French.

When learners become slightly more confident in their language, it is a great step to listen to a few songs which were originally written in the language being learnt. Obviously even the complete beginner is welcome to listen to native songs, but it can seem very overwhelming at first. Songs tend to move a lot quicker than normal conversation, and so it’s very easy to get lost in the speed of the lyrics and not take a lot in. However perseverance, as with any aspect of language learning, is key. Find a song that is relatable and enjoyable and listen to it a few times. If necessary the English translations for pretty much every song are available somewhere on the internet, and can help the initial process along. This process is how I discovered a genuine passion for French jazz, led by the multilingual Ben L’oncle Soul.

Have you incorporated songs into your language learning, or even discovered a passion for songs in another language? Let us know!


Want to join our blogging team? Email to find out more.



Disney’s Frozen – how to find a voice that fits

‘How are we going to do that in 41 languages?’

This was the question that Rick Dempsey, senior vice president of Creative Disney Characters Voices International, asked himself when he first heard the ice queen’s song in the new Disney movie Frozen.

Dempsey has the incredibly interesting (if you’re a language geek, like me) job of finding foreign language voice artists for the localised international versions of the movie. As the market for films, TV shows and games has become ever more global, companies like Disney are having to move fast in producing translated versions of their films. No simple task, considering the entire film must not only be translated, but also adapted to the culture of another country.

And, especially with a Disney film, the voices are incredibly important. Idina Menzel, who sings the original English-language songs, has a powerful, rich and warm voice. Part of Dempsey’s job is to find a singer with similar qualities to the actor’s voice in each country. Not only that, but the translations of the songs must be tailored as closely as possible to the animation. If you ever watch dubbed movies in another language you speak, you may notice that what the voice artists are saying doesn’t match up with the English subtitles… This is because subtitlers often have to change, adapt and tailor the language to match up with the actors’ (or animations’) lip movements, body language and what’s on screen at the time.

Watching the multilingual version of ‘Let it Go’, you can see how fantastically both the voices and the words have been matched up with the original animation, and how the singers have been picked to match the character and to sound as similar as possible to the English voice.

Nat and I often have the similar (but on a much smaller scale!) task of picking foreign voice artists for our apps, including Maths and uTalk. Picking someone for the task isn’t a simple matter of whose voice sounds good – although this is important! We also have to check that each voiceover artist’s accent is appropriate for the target country (i.e. not a regional accent, or that they don’t pronounce any words in a non-native or non-RP way), that the voice sounds natural and native to a speaker of the language (some people who have been in the UK for a long time may have slightly lost their native accent), and that the voice suits the product. For Maths, we look for warm, friendly and young voices with plenty of enthusiasm. For uTalk, clear pronounciation and a neutral accent are most important.

So, I’m definitely keeping my eye out for a job with Disney on localising their next movie!