Singing in a foreign language can be both beautiful and challenging. I’ve done this on a number of occasions, most recently performing a duet of The Prayer. Thankfully I had studied a little bit of Italian in high school and in university, but sometimes for some of the unfamiliar languages, I wished I had a guide to help me sing them well.
Here are the top 8 tips for singing in a foreign language:
- Understand the lyrics
- Study the pronunciation of each word
- Memorize the song in sections
- Listen to the song on repeat
- Practice saying and singing the lyrics
- Immerse yourself in the culture of the language
- Practice without a recording
- Sing with confidence
It’s easy to read through a list, but I will explain these tips in more detail and provide some examples of how you can do them. For information on finding a song that's right for you, click here.
1. Understand the Lyrics
You won’t be able to connect with a foreign song if you don’t understand what you are singing.
It is easy enough to find out what you are singing. You can find the translation of the lyrics by using online sources such as google translate or even finding a website that has a more in-depth translation of your song.
You might even want to go more in-depth and look into the meaning of each word, rather than the phrase as a whole. For example, the phrase “L’eterna stella sei” means “you are the eternal star”, but more specifically, “L’eterna” means “eternal”, “stella” means “star” and “sei” means “you are”.
Languages that have their own alphabet, such as Vietnamese or Russian, will be more challenging as you will also have to transcribe each letter of their alphabet into one from our own. You will then have the English spelling of the foreign lyrics, and can go onto translating that into English.
Another helpful thing in understanding the lyrics is the reason why it was written. If you are singing a song that was a part of a musical or opera, find out more about the story-line and how the song fits into that story. If your song is a stand-alone, find out a bit more about the artist who wrote it and what inspired them to write it.
Is it a love song? Or is it about bitter revenge? The back-story plays a huge role in how you sing the song. You should also make sure you have the right tone in your voice for the theme of the song.
2. Study the Pronunciation of Each Word
English is quite unique in the way we pronounce our words and vowels. So make sure you find out the pronunciation of each sound in the language your song was written in.
For example, the word ‘che’ in Italian is not pronounced as it reads in English (with a ‘ch’ as in chair), but is pronounced ‘ke’.
You could study the pronunciation while you translate. If you are using an online translator such as google translate, you will have the option to listen to the pronunciation of each word you are searching for.
An easy way of learning the correct pronunciation is to listen to a recording of the song. This way you can hear each word, as well as whole phrases. This will help in identifying which words have more emphasis in a phrase, and which words are barely audible (ie they are spoken very quickly without emphasis).
Once you have listened to the correct pronunciation of each word, make notes for yourself on the music so you can remember as you read through the lyrics.
3. Memorize the Song in Sections
It is very difficult to memorize not only a new song, but also a new language. Let alone all in one hit.
Be kind to you brain and break the song up into smaller chunks that you can work through. In modern songs, there is usually a chorus, a few verses and a bridge.
If you are singing a modern song, you might find it easier to start by memorizing the chorus. Because the chorus is usually the same lyrics every time, and is repeated throughout the song, this will allow you to learn most of the song quite quickly.
More traditional songs, such as hymns, can be made up of several verses, or you might find an older song that consists of a series of different sections. Either way, you should be able to identify each section to compartmentalize the song.
Once you have identified the different sections, work on each one individually until you can sing it fluently. Then move onto the next section.
4. Listen to the Song on Repeat
Listening to the song over and over again will help immensely. Your brain will be hearing the lyrics, the pronunciation, the rhythm and the emotion behind the words.
Try to do this actively and passively. Actively listening to the song means sitting down with your speaker or phone and paying attention to the details of the song. You may be doing this as you try to break the song up into sections. But this active listening will draw your attention to the finer details.
Passive listening is simply putting the song on in the car or at home. You might be driving, cleaning, hanging out the washing or studying for your next exam. Whatever you are doing, your brain is still listening to the music and lyrics.
You may even listen to the song as you fall asleep!
5. Practice Saying and Singing the Lyrics
If you can speak the lyrics, then you most certainly can sing them.
Try reading the lyrics out loud to yourself until you feel comfortable with them. This should be done after you know the correct pronunciation, otherwise you might get used to saying the words incorrectly. Then you would be more likely to sing them incorrectly during your performance.
Once you are confident with speaking through the lyrics, you can start singing them through. By separating these two steps, you are giving your brain only one thing to think about at a time until you are familiar with pronouncing the foreign words.
One way to memorize the lyrics is to write them by hand. It is up to you how many times you want to write them out, but at least twice should give your brain the opportunity to recognize the words. You can even speak the words out loud as you do this to kill two birds with one stone.
6. Immerse Yourself in the Culture of the Language
You may not be able to make a weekend getaway to the country of origin, but you can still immerse yourself in the culture from home. This is something that is not necessarily essential to studying the foreign lyrics, but certainly adds a bit of fun.
A great and fun option is to have dinner at a restaurant of that culture. This will allow you to experience not only the delicious variety of food, but also listen to the accents of staff members and listen to cultural music in the background. You should get a feel for the origins of the language.
An easy option is to watch movies in that language. You should be able to pick up on the accent as well as the mouth movements of those speaking the language. Some languages use very open-mouthed sounds, while others may have tighter and wider mouths as they talk.
If you can pick up on and copy the subtle and unique mannerisms of those who speak the language, you might find the pronunciation of the lyrics comes more naturally to you.
7. Practice Without a Recording
Once you feel like you have mastered the lyrics, try singing the song through without the recording. You can either practice A Cappella, or still have a backing track (with no singers), but you should have the opportunity to practice performing in the foreign language.
You will also need to make sure you can sing without the lyrics in front of you. They should be memorized. That will force you to sing the words fluently as you are not reading, but speaking them. As we speak, we think more about the flow of the sentence, rather than each word separately.
One thing you can do to help you remember the lyrics is to memorize the first word of each phrase. That way, your brain should have already categorized the rest of the words of that phrase together, so it will come from your subconscious memory.
8. Sing with Confidence
As long as you have put the effort into trying to memorize the lyrics and pronounce each word correctly, you should trust yourself to sing the song fluently. This can sometimes mean making sure you have complete control over your voice so you have one less thing to worry about.
Confidence goes a long way in making it look like you are singing the lyrics with ease, even if you feel like you still haven’t quite mastered it. It will also stop you from focusing on doing everything correctly, so you can focus more on the emotion of the performance.
Most of all, make sure you enjoy it. It’s a unique opportunity to be able to sing in another language. Have fun with the experience.