Good music makes me so, so happy.
I’ve been listening to a lot of “experimental” electronic, indie rock, and singer/songwriter type music these days. When I listen to music in a language I can understand (English, Korean, and some Japanese), lyrics are often the most noticeable element of song for me and vocals tend to stand out against the backdrop of instrumentals. But in other languages, vocals become mere morphemes without meaning, indistinguishable from the other layers of sound in a song. A friend and I were discussing how sometimes we prefer to listen to songs in languages we don’t understand – for me, at least, it’s because it lets me interpret and feel the song in my own way without being hindered by semantics.
Recently, this friend introduced me to a singer who, as she described it, has “the voice of a siren.”
Cécile Corbel is a Breton singer and harpist who, in addition to having the most enchanting voice I’ve ever heard, also composed the score for the Studio Ghibli film 借りぐらしのアリエッティ (The Borrower Arrietty). That’s her singing a song from the film in the video above and, yes, she is singing in Japanese! Corbel’s native language is Breton – a Celtic language that originated in the British Isles and is spoken predominantly in Bretagne, France – but she also sings in French, English, Italian, German, and Irish. And true to her roots, many of her songs have a gorgeous Celtic feel to them.
Here’s one of my favorites by her – “La Fille Damnée” in French.
It’s been ages and ages since I heard anything in French and, as per my usual weakness with French, I understood very little about what this song was about until I looked at the lyrics in French (so I guess my four years of French in high school wasn’t all for naught? Heh.) But that wasn’t necessarily the point because I wasn’t really trying to understand this song. Corbel has a voice that I just want to listen to and feel without thinking.
But then I noticed something interesting. I remember when SNSD’s “I Got a Boy” came out and English-speakers “misheard” the chorus (“I got a boy 멋진, I got a boy 착한”) as “I got a boy munchin’, I got a boy chicken.” It’s as though your brain takes the sounds of a language you don’t know (e.g. Korean) and forcefully tries to apply meaning to it using a language that you do know (e.g. English). Now, I’ve listened to Korean music for years so I never “misheard” those lyrics in English. Even when I come across Korean speech or lyrics that I don’t understand, my brain still recognizes it as Korean.
Now the weird thing with me is when I listened to one of Corbel’s songs in Spanish among others, I kept hearing what sounded weirdly like Korean or Japanese or even Hindi words. Never once did my brain try to “Englishify” what I was listening to, despite the fact that 99% of the time I open my mouth to speak, I use English. I wonder if this is a result of the fact that the vast majority of songs that I listen to are not in English, even though I use English in my daily communication. But something similar happens when I watch movies in foreign languages to which I have little to no exposure – let’s say German or Thai. I’ve found this to be really disorienting because my brain keeps trying to hear Korean or Japanese in the dialogue, not English, even though the vast majority of movies I watch are in English. It’s almost as if my brain understands I’m hearing something in a foreign language, makes a switch from English, and tries to interpret it in my next-most-proficient foreign language. Does this happen to anyone else? And I’m not sure but is there a technical linguistics/cognitive science terminology for this phenomenon?
It’s crazy. I’ve been thinking more and more about neurobiology these days and how fascinating it must be to study the brain in the context of language acquisition. I wonder if there’s a way to visualize a phenomenon like the one I described happening using fMRI – do different parts of the brain light up? Is the neural connectivity changing? Does synaptic plasticity affect whether or not you experience something like this? Gah, so many delicious questions. I should dig into the literature sometime.