Multilingual singers know that music is one of the few truly universal languages. It communicates to people regardless of their ability to comprehend the lyrics, and it has the ability to evoke a response in babies and animals alike.
As it turns out, this concept of “music as a language” doesn’t come out of left field. An article in Psychology Today examined the link between music and language learning, and though it noted that music and language are processed by different areas of the brain, it made an interesting case for why musical ability can enhance one’s ability to learn a second language. Both rely on the ability to detect differences in pitch, meter, rhythm, phrasing, interpretation, tonal memory and more.
Researcher Anita Bowles and her colleagues put 160 native English speakers to the test by having them learn a number of Mandarin pseudo-words — Mandarin being a language that relies heavily on tonal nuance. Long story short, those who had previously studied music had a slight advantage when it came to discriminating tones.
In another study led by Diana Deutsch, native speakers of Vietnamese and Mandarin were better at identifying musical pitches than speakers of English or French, and were more likely to have absolute pitch.
Though there’s no conclusive evidence that musicians are necessarily better at picking up new languages, it’s not uncommon to find famous musicians who are handy with a second, third, fourth or even fifth language.
Here are 10 well-known multilingual singers, artists or bands who have made it a point to perform in multiple languages. And when you’re done, be sure to take our poll at the bottom of this page to let us know who you think deserves the most credit for their multilingual ways.
Among the world’s multilingual singers, this Colombian chanteuse has a truly global disposition (and the ability to communicate pretty fluently in Spanish, Portuguese, English, French and Italian). In 2011, she briefly considered recording an entire album in Arabic to pay homage to her Lebanese roots, though she admitted to not knowing the language very well.
She’s also seeing to it that her son, Milan, grows up similarly well-rounded. She exposes him to Spanish, Catalan, English, French, German, Russian and Chinese.
In the video above, you can hear a compilation of her performing in eight different languages.
The former Fugees mainstay has made his Haitian roots (and his experience as an immigrant) a cornerstone of his narrative.
He’s been known to blend French, Creole and English into his music, but in this video of him performing at SXSW, he freestyled in French, German, English, Japanese and Spanish.
During his performance, he said that “to be an artist, you have to be 360.”
World-famous tenor Andrea Bocelli doesn’t limit himself to his native Italian. He also sings in French, Spanish, English, Latin and Portuguese.
Here he is at the memorial concert for Lady Diana at the London Wembley Stadium in 2007, performing “The Music of the Night” in English.
Aside from being one of the highest earning musicians in history, Celine Dion also has a wealth of languages under her belt. Aside from English and French — two languages she’s well-known for — she has also sung in Spanish, German and Japanese, as well as Neapolitan, Latin and Mandarin.
Here she is performing at the 2013 Chinese New Year’s Gala in Beijing.
The Cuban-American singer earned a French minor during her undergrad studies at the University of Miami, and prior to making it big as a singer, she went on to work for the Miami International Airport’s Customs Department as a translator. She was even approached by the CIA as a potential recruit.
In her 2013 album, The Standards, she weaves in five different languages, easily making her one of the most beloved and well-rounded multilingual singers around: English, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese.
“I’ve had the good fortune that my music has reached people on a global level, so when we first started talking about this album, I knew that I wanted to incorporate “standards” from around the world. I stuck to the Romance languages — Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese — which all are a part of me,” she told Hollywood Reporter in an interview.
In the video above, she performs a medley in Portuguese, Spanish and English.
Though she’s not necessarily one of the most prolific multilingual singers, Lady Gaga has made an overt stylistic choice to include foreign languages in her work. “Bad Romance” features a bit of French, and she speaks Italian in “Born This Way” — not to mention Swedish in the opening scenes of the video for “Paparazzi,” and a bit of German when she was touring there.
“For Gaga, speaking a foreign language is often an artifice,” writes Amber L. Davisson in Lady Gaga and the Remaking of Celebrity Culture. “One might argue that she uses it to signal her work as artistic and also that it is an appeal to her global fan base. Just like clothing choices and music style, the incorporation of foreign language also functions to signal who Gaga is as a celebrity. It communicates her desire to be understood as an international superstar. Speaking multiple languages places Gaga in multiple communities.”
Here she is singing “La Vie en Rose” at Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday celebration.
The Swedish pop group was handy with more than a few languages.
Aside from their native Swedish, and English, which is the language most American audiences were acquainted with their music in, they also recorded in French and German to reach their fans in those markets more effectively.
Just to round this out, here’s a video of them singing in Spanish.
The acclaimed gypsy punk band is headed up by Eugene Hütz, a Ukrainian-born singer, composer, disc jockey and actor.
Aside from being able to speak Ukrainian, Russian and English, Hütz also frequently sings in Romanian, and he’s been known to sneak Spanish and Portuguese lyrics into his songs.
Here he is singing in various tongues in the aptly-titled “Trans-Continental Hustle.”
Spektor was born in Moscow, but she made a name for herself in the United States after her classical piano training morphed into a distinct and contemporary sound.
In an interview with Mother Jones, she discusses the global influences that shaped her: “I don’t know if it’s just going through immigration really early in life but, we went through three places … So I think it kind of made me just all around feel like language is so arbitrary. It’s as arbitrary as borders and it’s all manmade. And if you deconstruct it, it’s just cool sounds. And certain feelings get triggered by those sounds. So, it feels like a color. Or a sample. I guess sometimes English doesn’t feel like enough. But, you know, I also make up words and make up sounds, so I guess nothing feels like enough!”
Her song “Aprés Moi” is a medley of English, French and Russian.
Do made-up languages count?
The Reykjavík natives have created a beguiling body of work that’s mostly sung in Icelandic, and occasionally in English. But they’ve also taken to escaping the limitations of known language altogether through a made-up language called Vonlenska, which essentially translates to “Hopelandic.” The impressionist, so-called “nonsense” language conveys all kinds of emotive qualities without conveying any sort of concrete meaning.
On the band’s FAQ page, they explain that frontman Jónsi elected it as “a form of gibberish vocals that fits to the music and acts as another instrument. Jónsi likens it with what singers sometimes do when they’ve decided on the melody but haven’t written the lyrics yet.”
You might just have to listen to it.