Cécile Corbel & songs in foreign languages

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.

Biology of the language-learning brain

A lot of my friends are neuroscience majors so, out of curiosity and because I had some extra space in my schedule, I decided to take an intro-level behavioral neuroscience course this semester.


I have never experienced a class so frustratingly boring in my life.  And it’s a real pity because I know that neuroscience can and should be somewhat interesting (it’s the brain, for heaven’s sake) but… it’s not.

Except for today.


We started talking about language and cognition and of course my ears perked up because I’ve always had a fascination for the science behind learning a foreign language.  How does the brain comprehend new phonemes and new grammar structures?  Where and how does it form a new “dictionary”?  How does it affect other parts of behavior?  To what extent is language a learned behavior and to what extent is it innate?

If anyone else is interested in this topic, I suggest NOT taking a neuroscience class.  Instead, try perusing The Language Instinct by Harvard professor, cognitive scientist, and linguist Steven Pinker.  What an incredible book.  It ties language to science to psychology in a neat, seamless fashion.  (That book really deserves it’s own post.)

Anyway, our class is taught by an MD which means we approach language from a clinical point of view, basically by asking questions like – if you have a lesion in this particular part of the brain, what happens to your language ability, what happens to your understanding?  For example, damage to the frontal lobe of your brain may lead to Broca’s aphasia where the patient can comprehend and analyze everything that’s being said but cannot express language (either spoken or written).  This makes sense because the “Broca area” of the brain is involved in speech delivery.  On the other hand, damage to the temporal lobe may result in Wernicke’s aphasia, which is characterized by an ability to express language but not understanding.  The “Wernicke area” of the brain is responsible for retrieving correct, meaningful words so any lesions in this part of the brain results in nonsensical speech.  Interesting.

We also talked about something that’s probably more relevant to me and other readers of this blog – how multilingualism works.  Most people know that the younger you are, the easier it is to learn a new language.  Precisely, 8-11 years or younger.  And this is because of brain plasticity, or it’s ability to change as a result of one’s experience.  It’s truly incredible how plastic your brain can be at a young age.  For example, my five-year-old cousin can understand and speak the six different languages she’s exposed to on a daily basis – Marathi (her mom’s mother tongue), Hindi (her mom’s second language), Telugu (her dad’s mother tongue), Kannada (the local language where she lives), English (which she learns in school) and Tamil (her great-aunt’s second language).

Obviously when you know that many languages, your brain has to have specific areas where it stores these language “dictionaries” (i.e. the vocabulary and rules of the language that you have to remember).  Otherwise, you’d be randomly using words from the different languages when you speak.  What is fascinating is that if you learn multiple languages when you’re at a younger age (<8 y.o.), your language dictionaries are stored in the same part of your brain.  But when you learn them when you’re older, your brain is less plastic and your foreign language dictionaries are stored in a different part of your brain, away from your mother tongue dictionary!

Now, knowing that, what if someone has a stroke?  Stroke happens when certain parts of the brain don’t receive adequate blood supply and, if that part of the brain has to do with language, stroke may result in the inability to understand and/or formulate speech.  BUT!  What if you are bilingual and you have your language dictionaries stored in different parts of the brain?  Then, a stroke patient could potentially lose the ability to communicate in one language but be perfectly fine in another language!  (So it’s a stretch, but yes, there are health benefits to learning languages.^^)

My neuroscience professor insisted that it is very difficult for “normal” people to learn foreign languages once they are an adult.  According to him, because the adult brain is less plastic, it constantly translates the language it is learning back into its native language.  Well, I disagree.  I was like that with Korean at first, but now I feel like I can read and listen to Korean and understand in real-time.  I used to think that anyone who wanted to learn a language can sit down and do it, as long as they had the time and the will.  Turns out that success is not entirely dependent on the amount of effort put in.  Success in language-learning as an adult is in part determined by genetics.

You know polyglots, those geniuses who seem to pick up foreign languages as easily as they breathe?  Turns out that’s genetic as well.  My mom’s been saying this for years – my grandfather is a polyglot and she insisted that I got my language thing from him but it wasn’t until I heard it in class that I really believed it.  Turns out that it’s possible the Broca area of the brain might be organized differently in those who are polyglots and in those who are not.

Whew.  I could go on and on but I’ll stop now before I write a book.  As a scientist and an aspiring (?) polyglot, I just get so enthusiastic about the link between science and language.  Check out Steven Pinker’s book for more about this awesomeness!!  XD