How to Do Polyglot Karaoke, Even If There are Only English-Language Songs in the Catalogue

I’ve performed Karaoke songs in a total of thirteen languages to date, not only have I done languages like German and Swedish but also Breton and Greenlandic. In an era in which English-language songs seem to be taking over everywhere, how do I do it?

This piece has been requested for a long time no one has ever written a piece on this before, so I’m going to relate my procedure as best I can.

For one, let me detail the variety of karaoke events I’ve been to thus far in my life:

  • The ones that take place in a bar with many people that sign up and take turns. (In some Chinese ones, you also pay one dollar per song).
  • The room that you rent with your friends, and
  • The living room variety in which you and your friends scramble for what you can find on YouTube or other video services.

For (3), the process in singing songs in other languages can be fairly straightforward. Find songs in your target language that you know happen to exist in Karaoke versions and just sing away (given that I’ve never heard a Breton-language cover song, this is how I got that language on the list).

For (1) and (2), as I already mentioned, you’ll usually need to rely on foreign-language covers of English songs, although you may be lucky and find songs in western European and East Asian Languages in your catalogue (e.g. French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, etc.). This is particularly common in establishments in international cities owned by people from Latin America or East Asia.

If you are in another country, you will usually expect to find hit songs not only in that country’s language(s) but also in the languages of nearby countries. (One example that is hardly surprising is that Swedish songs can be found in many Finnish karaoke establishments. I have a vague memory of Polish ones having some German- and Russian-language songs as well, and had I been more astute at the time I might have noticed ones from other Slavic-speaking countries as well, such as Czechia or Ukraine.)

You can use your smartphone in order to have the lyrics on reference, or otherwise you can memorize them beforehand if you’re feeling committed.

So, where do I find foreign-language cover songs?

  • Disney’s Musical Films

 

Ah, yes, these have been covered in a vast host of languages, almost all Asian and European (although The Lion King was dubbed in Zulu and Moana / Vaiana was dubbed in Tahitian with a Maori dub on the way). What’s more, these covers are due to the official localization efforts of the Disney Corporation.

You can find many of the lyrics for these versions available online, and even if you can’t find them on lyric websites, you could find them in videos (in which the localized language in subtitled) and then you can type them out and post them online or just e-mail them to yourself.

These are usually by go-to songs in multilingual karaoke, although there are some things to know about:

 

  • Some songs require very fast-paced singing or chanting (“Friend Like Me” from Aladdin, “You’re Welcome” from Moana / Vaiana). Unless you’re okay with messing up in front of other people, rehearse these beforehand. Obviously the better you know the language the more readily you’ll be able to use it quickly.
  • Some languages are “latecomers” to the Disney localization game (the Baltic languages [Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian] as well as Vietnamese come to mind). Interestingly many of the Nordic dubs (and some from former communist countries such as Hungary) were actually done in the 1990’s. Interestingly while the voice of Bianca the The Rescuers was a native Hungarian speaker (Eva Gabor), she could not actually voice the character in the Hungarian localization because she was deceased by the time it was in production. Some of the localization collections cover the whole collection of Disney films (even Icelandic, oddly enough) others start from a certain point (I think the Baltic Languages were from 2010 onwards).

 

  • YouTube / iTunes Store Fiddling Can Actually Turn Up Some Interesting Song Covers Across Many Languages

 

Yesterday I purchased a Burmese music album (10 USD for 101 songs, that is NOT a typo!). Across that album (entitled “Greatest Hits”), I encountered past Eurovision Songs, Britney Spears, “You Raise Me Up”, and ABBA…in BURMESE.

I’ve come across a number of very surprising covers, including Chris Brown in Tok Pisin, “Puff the Magic Dragon” in a host of languages, and “You Raise Me Up” in GREENLANDIC:

 

 

There’s seldom a chance that typing in “covers in (INSERT LANGUAGE HERE)” is actually going to turn up meaningful results. You’ll just have to play around with recommended videos, playlists and what-have-you until something interesting comes to you. When I bought that Burmese album, did you think I was getting a bunch of cover songs? Well, it was in the iTunes store, but I don’t have the time to listen to 101 song previews and I hadn’t purchased any new music since early July.

This is one way that the fact that English songs are “taking over the world” can be used to your advantage: you can find fan-covers and fan-translations of a lot of these online. Sometimes you may encounter “singable translations” via lyricstranslate.com or even find them in YouTube Comments(!) And this time, you have many, MANY more languages represented.

Also, one thing I should mention is that a lot of English-language pop songs are commonly translated with singable versions into Irish, which probably has among the richest collection of cover songs out of any market out there (except for maybe Myanmar or other East Asian countries that, as of the time of writing, I don’t know a lot about).

 

 

A lot of these Irish songs also come with full lyrics and English-language translations of these Irish-versions.

 

Other Comments

 

You’re probably wondering, “won’t people think I’m a weirdo for doing this?”

Well, let me tell you, in the United States, I’ve got NOTHING but positive reactions from doing this (from the audience, at least). Some organizers have had mixed reactions but nothing wholly negative (one encouraged me to “sing in Klingon next time”)

I’ve even got some prospective students and friendships out of it, not also to the mention the time I was stopped by a stranger in a bar saying that he saw me sing the Lion King in Icelandic…five months ago! (I do an awful job at being forgettable…)

And, of course, if you’re together with your polyglot friends, you’re with people who think like you, so what more is there to want?

Also, people are not going to be judgmental about your accent, even if you encounter native speakers of the language (happened once when I sung a Polish song), you’ll actually get more enthusiasm from THEM than from anyone else out there.

One of my big life lessons from a few years ago was that “different always does better in the store”. In the store of life, as long as you abide by the social contract, being different and doing it differently will only do you wonders.

Happy singing!

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The True Transformative Power of the Icelandic Language

Imagine having the ability to have spoken with your ancestors from 500 years ago. Imagine what you would learn from them, what sort of insights you would have about the way you and your family viewed the world, and even how minor things like their mannerisms and body language made you what you are.

From a physical standpoint regarding living beings, as far as I can tell, this is impossible.

But one language in my journey stood out, even more so than the dead languages I had studied and forgotten (namely, Ancient Greek and Latin), as one that was like that ancestor. Upon talking to him/her, it brought all of my interactions with the rest of its family members into place.

I am of course, speaking about the Icelandic Language. And this post is, of course, in honor of Iceland’s National Day.

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It goes without saying that the contemporary language of Iceland, while in name the exact same language that Leif Erikson spoke, is now a lot different.

For one (and NOT a lot of articles about Icelandic will mention this!) Icelandic took not only English loan words from recent times, but also Danish, French and Spanish loanwords from even further back. What more, a lot of the purist words from the Icelandic Language Academy did not end up sticking with the general populace (the exact same thing happened with the Hebrew Language Academy in Israel).

That said, it goes without saying that Icelandic is significantly more purist than many other languages that have had to deal with the same “dance” that they did (translate internationalisms vs. use them straight outright).

In fact, this is one aspect in which Faroese differs from Icelandic, by virtue of the fact that more Danish loanwords, many of them internationalisms, found their way into Faroese and not into Icelandic. (Although Faroese has significant fewer internationalisms than any of the mainland Scandinavian languages of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish).

Anyhow, I’ve come to write about what made the Icelandic language so transformative for me.

  1. It caused me to think about language evolution and what can happen to versions of a language over time.

 

The Norwegian of a thousand years ago would have been mutually intelligible to an Icelandic speaker. In fact, that same Old Norwegian was actually used in the latest “Civilization” game, with an Icelandic voice actor, no less!

 

Icelandic was (and is) very heavily grammatical, with a lot of case endings, three genders, verb conjugations and very much unlike what the mainland Scandinavian Languages are today.

For those unaware: a language like Swedish or Danish does not even change verb endings for person. It would be like saying I is, you is, he is, she is, etc.

The Mainland Scandinavian Languages did away with case endings although a small amount of idiomatic expressions survived that use them (hint: look for a preposition and then a “u” or an “s” at the end of a noun that follows!). Most Norwegian dialects kept the three genders, although Swedish and Danish reduced them to two, not unlike Dutch, in which the Masculine and Feminine became the “common” gender.

This also glosses over completely the fact that French and German words found their way into the Scandinavian Languages on the mainland while usually passing Iceland by.

What exactly accelerated language evolution? Perhaps low population densities and a lot of contact with foreigners, as well as heavily centralized authorities caused these simplifications to happen.

Given what happened to Icelandic’s immediate family members, it really makes me wonder what sort of language changes the next stages of human history will hold. Already we are witnessing an increasing amount of English content throughout almost all languages on the globe, much like the French and German languages impacted the languages of the Scandinavian mainland.

It’s truly a humbling perspective to have.

 

  1. It made me think about what language purity really what (and wasn’t)

To some degree, I’ve also had a very similar experience with Hebrew as well. Like the people of Israel, the people of Iceland have had prolonged contact with English-speaking armies, who brought along their music, television and, most infamously, their profanity.

For those unaware, Iceland had an American army presence throughout most of World War II, because the allies wanted to ensure that Hitler could not reach Canada from the Danish overseas territories (which could have been Hitler’s rationale behind invading Denmark in the first place). Ensuring a presence on Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands was of the upmost importance to the Allies.

Many, many articles have been in awe about the purity of the Icelandic language, and which is a little bit funny when you end up listening to Icelandic Rap and easily lose track of how often English words (as well as Anglophone cultural references) are used!

Purist language or not, every language has to share the world with somebody. Israeli Hebrew is the language of Abraham and David – with limitations. Modern Icelandic is the language of Leif Erikson and the first European-Americans – with limitations. That’s not a bad thing in the least, it just serves to show that true purism, especially for smaller nations, is not always within reach.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think about what smaller languages can be

 

Ask people about whether or not the Icelandic language has a future, and you’ll get many answers.

A few months ago, there was a well-publicized article about Icelandic being underused in technology (and I’ll have you all know that, while I’m writing this article, my Windows 10 system is in a [complete] Icelandic translation!) It told horror stories about 14-year-olds in Reykjavik choosing to chat to each other in English rather than in Icelandic, and that the world should be very worried indeed!

But at the Endangered Language Alliance meetings, I heard a different story: those holding up a language like Icelandic as THE success story for smaller languages. In all of recorded history there have been about 1,000,000 Icelanders tops. And yet, all of Disney’s animated canon is dubbed into Icelandic with all of the songs translated and rhymed! (Disney does this to a lot of other languages as well, no doubt, although obviously most of them are from the developed world. Also, the song translations are not thoroughly accurate reflections of the original English song lyrics, there are liberties taken but that doesn’t make it any less fantastic!)

With a language like Breton, I’m concerned for its future. I can’t always find a continuous stream of content, often a lot of people from Brittany have only a rudimentary knowledge of the language (if any at all). Comments on the internet written in Breton can be sparse, even when you know where to look. Breton seems to have been relegated to a niche environment, thanks largely to French governmental policy. That saddens me but that just simply means that I have to keep on maintaining my knowledge of Breton even more strongly.

But with Icelandic, I can easily hop onto almost any website in the country, and the comments sections will be teeming with Icelandic, the menus will be fully in Icelandic and unchallenged by the presence of any translations (most of the time). Anywhere in Icelandic settlements, even in the most touristy areas, I find that Icelandic is the dominant language I hear on the streets.

Thousands upon thousands of people throughout the globe have a desire to learn it, and many of them get permanently enamored with Icelandic, finding themselves with a treasure they’ll never give up.

The Icelandic-Language music scene is very much alive, with thousands of songs to choose from in dozens of genres. The government is actively interested in keeping the language alive, and I’ve heard that if you even go so much as to hint that the Icelandic language isn’t worth keeping alive, prepare to invite the distrust, if not in fact outright isolation, from your Icelandic peers.

Yes, in Reykjavik once or twice I encountered an ice cream store with the flavors written out in English rather than in Icelandic. I don’t doubt the problems that journalists have written about. And I think that more Icelandic products in the realm of technology need Icelandic localizations, even if it may not serve a very practical purpose in their eyes.

But whenever I think about what a small language can and should be, I would have to agree with my ELA friends and say that Icelandic is the platinum standard for small languages in the 21st century. If Breton or Irish or the Sami Languages or any endangered tongue on the face of the planet would be in the situation Icelandic is in now, there would be month-long celebrations held by its speakers.

 

  1. Icelandic Made Me Think about How to Learn Grammar and Difficult Pronunciation

 

“I’m going to try that evil language again!”, proudly exclaimed one of my students (whom I regularly teach Swedish). “I just seem to have trouble knowing when I should pronounce the ‘g’ hard and when I shouldn’t”

Not gonna lie: I considered writing a piece about “Why Icelandic is EASY”! And I thought for a while and I thought “Uuuhhhh…there are English cognates….uuuhhh…okay, good. Grammar? No….how about…pronunciation? Mostly regular but given how often Icelanders slur and leave out consonants….no…yeah, I got nothin’…”

I’ve struggled with all of my languages, even the English creoles. Got news for you: in language learning, you sort of…don’t have a choice…except for…to struggle…until you find yourself…not struggling anymore…

Icelandic was no exception. Reciting grammar tables didn’t really help. I got the pronunciation and I was imitating the voices I heard in the apps and yes, singers (not just local favorites like Ásgeir Trausti and Rökkurró but also the aforementioned Disney songs localized into Icelandic, some of which I’ve even sung at crowded karaoke bars to standing ovations! I tell you, I have this crazy theory that almost everyone living in the U.S. has a secret crush on Iceland. And it sometimes isn’t so secret…)

But I found myself at a loss for the first few months knowing when to use what case when and even if I was getting verb forms right.

What did I do?

Instead of doing the thing I would have done in college and just studied the tables endlessly until their stuck, (TERRIBLE IDEA by the way! Even with memory devices, it might not all stick!) I made a point to listen to Icelandic music every day for months at a time. Even if I couldn’t understand everything, I would be able to detect patterns involving prepositions, pronouns, and the way Icelanders actually pronounce words.

For more on Icelandic slurring, I bring you to my other success story about the Icelandic Language.

 

  1. Icelandic made me think of how, if enough people study a language, it will genuinely have an impact on the language’s future.

 

Few smaller languages (less than 1 million native speakers) are as popular as Icelandic (although Irish might come close sometimes).

I am thrilled to see, especially in light of the 2017 Polyglot Conference in Reykjavik (at which I will be presenting!), hundreds of people taking up the Icelandic Language, seeking to become a part of a culture that sometimes sees itself as under siege (did I mention how often tourists-doing-stupid-things-stories are featured in Icelandic news?)

Whether it be wanting to experience the Icelandic travel bug without leaving your hometown, wanting to experience this ancient culture, wanting to understand other Germanic Languages or perhaps out of sheer curiosity, these people are genuinely ensuring that the speakers of the Icelandic language know that all throughout the world, there are people that think about their mother tongue and want to keep it alive and let other people know about its treasures.

In an age in there are those that fear that a handful of cultures threaten to extinguish all others, I am a glad to be a part of this tradition that helps proudly hold our human heritage to the light.

 

And so can you!

 

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The Day I met Richard Simcott and Alex Rawlings I was wearing this shirt. Two years later, guess where they bring the conference? Coincidence? Maybe not!