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Bilingualism in music: a cure or curse for monolingualism?

In a world in which more than half of the population can speak more than once language it has become increasingly common for an artist who is multilingual to sing not just in their mother tongue, but also in another language with which they are familiar. Bilingualism in music is nothing new but it certainly has seen a dramatic rise in recent years with artists such as Camila Cabello, J Balvin and Cardi B (alongside musical legends like Shakira and Celine Dion) producing songs written in multiple languages. However, this raises questions as to the impact of bilingual music on cultures. Does bilingual music allow these artists to reach out to English speakers and encourage them to understand a new language? Or does it undermine the importance of the language and the culture to which it belongs?

Indisputably, the rise of bilingualism in music can be attributed partially to globalisation. In this modern age, the process of interaction between people, companies, and governments worldwide is certainly increasing and the music industry plays a part in this. The world of music has, in the last few decades, seen increasing interactions between continents and their music styles – for example, the traditions of Latin American music have become intertwined and included in Western English-Language pop music. Indeed, the distance between Spanish-language pop and English-language pop has diminished rapidly in the last few years. On the one side, English-language artists have started creating massive hits based on drum patterns coming from Latin pop. The underlying beat of reggaeton, called dembow, has become more and more popular. There has also been an increase in musical collaborations between English speaking and Spanish speaking artists. A key reason for this is commercial incentive. Indeed, Latin American and Spanish music is consumed on a huge scale and western music producers, eventually realising the lucrative nature of this industry, have jumped on the opportunity through the vehicle of bilingual collaborations. This, in turn, has led to the explosion of bilingualism on the Western music scene. 

It is hardly surprising that the second most common language used in Western music is Spanish and its Latin American variants. This is largely thanks to the popularity of Latin American genres such as reggaeton in the West. Reggaeton, a music style that originated in Puerto Rico during the mid-1990s, is defined by its catchy lyrics and freedom of lyrics. Its popularity in radio and on the clubbing scene has led to its dominance on music charts across Europe and America. Artists such as Cardi B, Beyonce and Justin Bieber have collaborated with Reggaeton legends such as Luis Fonsi, J Balvin and Daddy Yankee to create hits such as ‘I Like It’ which appeared on Cardi B’s album Invasion of Privacy and have consolidated the prominence of bilingual music in the Western world. Perhaps the most recognisable example of afamous western artist aiding the spread of bilingual music is Justin Bieber’s collaboration with Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee to produce the remix of ‘Despacito’. Although the original version proved highly successful in numerous countries, the remix version,released on April 17, 2017, has been widely credited by music journalists as being instrumental in popularising Spanish-language pop music in the mainstream market again. The success of the song and its remix version led Daddy Yankee to become the most listened-to artist worldwide on Spotify on July 9, 2017, being the first Latin artist to do so. ‘Despacito’ was cited by Billboard’s Leila Cobo as the song that renewed interest in the Latin music market from recording labels in the United States.

In 2017, two of the most popular singles in America were bilingual: ‘Despacito’ and J Balvin’s club classic ‘Mi Gente’ which gained incendiary power thanks to a Beyoncé cameo. In both cases, the English-speaking singers made notable effort to acknowledge the dominance of Spanish-language pop by singing in Spanish. Indeed, despite the commercial benefits that these artists certainly received perhaps the most important outcome of their success is their cultural impact. The rise of bilingualism in music has led to the evident diversification of the musical landscape in the West and a significant increase in linguistic appreciation. These collaborations have opened audience’s eyes and ears to the diversity of music across the world. It has shown them the value of different musical styles which are linguistically diverse from the western norm. 

However, songs are not only being written with verses in different languages, now many bilingual artists record multiple versions of their hit songs. For example, Enrique Iglesias’ ‘Bailando’ exists in two versions, one in Spanish and English and one entirely in Spanish. In a similar way, Christine and the Queens wrote lyrics for every track of her album ‘Chris’ in both English and French. The reasons for these choices can be considered twofold; the first is personal and the second more cultural. Increasingly, artists are wanting to connect with their heritage and with the cultures that they identify with. Celine Dion is a key example of this; she grew up in Quebec, a predominantly French-speaking province in Canada, and so, honours this fact by singing almost as much in French as she does in English. On a wider cultural scale, by producing two versions of songs these artists succeed in widening their audiences. They make their music doubly accessible – encouraging their listeners to witness the blurring between culture, language and music. 

The comprehensive effect of bilingualism in music on listeners and audiences is, I believe, yet to be fully seen. However, the early impact is encouraging. Recently, Italian band Måneskin have been making waves across Europe and America after their win at Eurovision. Indeed, the role of international competitions like Eurovision in promoting bilingualism and linguistic diversity in music should be noted. It was Måneskin’s win at Eurovision which has allowed this band to broaden their audience across Europe and America. Their winning songZitti E Buoni’ was the first song in Italian to get into the UK Top 20 in 29 years and is an encouraging sign that the world of anglophone music is diversifying. Importantly, another one of their tracks, this time written in English, ‘I Wanna Be Your Slave’ also placed in the UK Top 40 – perhaps indicating progress in the idea that artists need no longer to be constrained to producing music in just one language. As summed up by Victoria De Angelis, the group’s bassist, their Eurovision success had now given them the “chance to experiment” as “it’s always been the goal to write songs in both languages.”

In all, the rise of bilingualism in music has meant that bridges are being built between people from different linguistic backgrounds and cultures. By giving a broader range of people access to music written and produced in multiple languages allows them not only a glimpse into bilingual culture but an insight into different ways of seeing the world and expressing thought. The act of engaging in musical expression with multiple languages makes bilingual music intrinsically more nuanced than monolingual music ultimately encouraging audiences to broaden their minds and appreciate the linguistic variety of the world. 

Image credit: CC BY-SA 4.0w

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