It’s no secret that I’m very passionate about learning languages through songs. I am especially keen on preserving dying languages through listening to songs and also by creating new songs in those languages. (I delivered a TEDx talk on the subject.)
What’s a dying/endangered language?
An endangered language is a language that is dying, meaning that fewer people are speaking it because they are moving to more dominant languages. For example, Native Americans in the United States primarily now speak English and don’t speak their native languages or the native languages of their ancestors.
Inspiring endangered language musicians
I have been working with the endangered language of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) for a couple of years and I am fond of the musicians who create new songs or arrangements in the language. For example, Yasmin Levy in Israel sings Judeo-Spanish songs to flamenco music. Sarah Aroeste sings Ladino music of her own composition and also pre-existing songs in rock formats.
There are videos and articles about indigenous groups in the Americas who are using hip hop and rap music to compose lyrics in their indigenous languages to keep these languages alive. You can read this article in the New York Times about some Central American musical pioneers: Guatemalan Rappers Promote Mayan Language, Stories to Youth.
We need these singers to breathe life into these dying languages.
Critiquing the innovators
Those who critique these innovative musicians sometimes say they are corrupting their languages because they’re using new musical styles or not representing the cultural traditions of the language with modern musical genres. Usually it’s the people who remember how their grandmothers used to sing in the kitchen who are saying that these new musicians are not paying homage to the language because they’re using new musical styles. If the language is dying and somebody is actually trying to do something using modern technology and music, I don’t see any reason to critique them. If anything, I applaud them.
What I find interesting here is that these people who complain that these new musicians are composing in new musical styles are not riding a horse and a wagon to get to work. They aren’t carrying firewood to their house in order to cook on a fire. They’re using the Internet. They’re using cellphones. The people who are complaining about modern musical styles are using modern technology. It’s quite hypocritical to say that a language should only be preserved in the ways that it has been kept alive through centuries if the people speaking the language are using modern technology for other things in their life.
I heard a story of a man from the US who traveled to Germany, the country of his ancestors, and wore lederhosen and was astonished that modern Germans were not wearing these traditional knee-length leather breeches. His image of Germany was the one he saw at Oktoberfest events in the US where people dressed up in old German outfits. Expecting singers only to sing in the same ways their ancestors sang is like requiring everyone to wear lederhosen!
Language evolves; culture evolves.
This isn’t a zero-sum game. Just because somebody would want to listen to Ladino songs to a flamenco beat or to a tango rhythm doesn’t mean that they won’t also learn or listen to the music in the way it’s traditionally sung. For example, I love opera music. I can listen to the French opera, Carmen. I also adore the ballads of Charles Aznavour and Yves Montand. But I also listen to French Arabic Rai music, which is a mixture of the Algerian Arabic dialect and French. Am I corrupting my French because I hear it sung to a traditional Algerian music style? Not at all!
Just because you listen to A, doesn’t mean you can’t listen to B. You can listen to A through Z and all sorts of variants of musical styles. What we need to think about is not saying that one musical style is better than the other and because it is better, it is the only valid way to sing in the language. People have different musical tastes. Somebody who wants to experience and explore their culture and learn their language through hip hop music should be able to do that and should also, if they want to, be able to listen to classical ways of singing in that language. Instead of criticizing people who are risk takers, we should be applauding their efforts because if we don’t innovate, these languages are going to die.