In Britain, popular music has long been connected to ideas of national identity – from Harold Wilson presenting The Beatles with MBEs, to New Labour’s connections with the Britpop movement. However, despite the UK’s cultural diversity, this music has always been in English. When I moved to Germany, I quickly discovered that German radio stations play music in English, Spanish, French and many other languages alongside music in German. In the UK however, I have never heard foreign-language music to this degree on any “mainstream” radio channel, even though you don’t necessarily have to understand the lyrics to appreciate a great song when you hear one. Therefore, living in an increasingly multicultural world, I can’t help but wonder why experiencing music in different languages was so unusual when I was growing up in England.
There have of course been some non-English language songs in the British charts over the years, but historically these have been predominantly either dance or novelty tracks, such as The Macarena by Los Del Río or Gangnam Style by Psy. These exceptions have also been few and far between, and in the 16 years between the two afore mentioned songs (the Macarena was released in 1996, and Gangnam Style was released in 2012), there wasn’t a single song performed in a language other than English to feature in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. More often than not, these tracks were one-hit wonders, and their success was not representative of a wider appreciation of foreign language music.
This is largely because most of the world’s recorded music is controlled by “the big three” – Universal, Sony BMG and Warner – corporations established in Britain or America who together control up to 80 per cent of today’s market. Most music listeners experience new music through radio and the music charts, and as these platforms are monopolised by these major record labels, English-language songs receive the most exposure and are therefore more likely to be widely listened to. This has led to countless international artists choosing to sing in English out of fear that an international audience wouldn’t accept their music in its native language. For example, while Nena’s 1984 hit 99 Red Balloons was an international hit in German, it had to be translated into English before it was released in the UK because “Britain was considered too insular for it to be a hit in a foreign language”.
However, over the past few years technology has been facilitating a surge in the popularity of non-English language music internationally, including in Britain. Over 1.9 billion people access Youtube every month, and as 85% of these use the service to listen to music, Youtube currently has approximately 1.6 billion music-consuming users and accounts for 46% of all global music listening hours on streaming services. Equally, Spotify reaches 200 million people every month, while Apple Music reaches around 60 million people a month. Due to the popularity of these online streaming services, it is now easier than ever for consumers to access music which would be traditionally outside of what was promoted within their cultural context. Furthermore, the relatively recent turn towards one-size-fits-all release dates means that music is more likely to be released in one language – rather than in localised versions for different markets. The internet has also made it easier for fans to form international communities, to share new music and to translate lyrics to better understand music in languages other than their mother tongue. Artists are still not given an equal platform however, as many playlists on streaming services are still influenced by major record labels, with a 2014 study estimating that four million songs on Spotify have never been listened to. However, modern technology still improves the chances of non-English language music from gaining wider exposure, and it is no longer uncommon for multiple songs in languages other than English to feature on the Billboard Hot 100 within the same week.
Because of the size of it’s audience, this shift towards music in languages other than English has been particularly visible on YouTube. In 2015 YouTube’s global Top 10 list was composed entirely of English-language songs, and in 2016 there was only one non-English language song in the same list. However, by 2017 YouTube’s global Top 10 featured six non-English language tacks, with the number one track being Despacito by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee – the first video on the platform to ever reach 6 billion views. This trend continued into 2018, by which point YouTube’s global Top 10 only featured two English-language songs - Girls like You by Maroon Five at number three and God’s Plan by Drake at number eight. Like in 2017, all the other songs on the list were in Spanish. However, it is not just Spanish language songs which are benefitting from the increased accessibility of non-English language music. K-Pop has also seen a massive surge in popularity, with Korean language bands managing to top the music charts and sell out in venues across the US and the UK.
This is positive news for linguaphiles, as researchers at the University of Edinburgh have found evidence that singing can help facilitate foreign language learning. With only 1 in 4 British adults able to speak a second language to any ability, it perhaps seems natural that commercial radio has historically rarely chosen to playlist material that their audiences wouldn’t easily understand, but this seemingly serves as a self-serving prophecy, as a lack of exposure to foreign music leads to a decreased interest in learning other languages. The language learning platform Babbel claims that music can be a very useful tool for learning a new language – as it can improve memory, help develop pronunciation, and introduce language learners to new words and phrases. The language app Duolingo launched a Korean course in 2017 which now has almost 3 million total learners and includes some lessons that are based around K-Pop, given that Korean learners often talk on the site’s message boards about being inspired by K-Pop acts and Korean TV to try the language. The popular language learning blog Fluent In 3 Months also praises music as a language learning tool, adding that because it is portable, music can help you to practice your target language when you are on the go.
However, it is not just major languages which have been featured in modern popular music. Australia’s music industry has been increasingly embracing Indigenous artists – as demonstrated by the popularity of music festivals like Boomerang. Similarly, while Celtic languages (like Gaelic, Welsh and Cornish) are still spoken in the UK, these are often reserved for traditional folk music, and Celtic music rarely features in the music chart. Nevertheless, artists like the Welsh-Cornish Gwenno have been challenging this with some success in recent years. This has been particularly important for the movement to preserve Celtic languages, with the Cornish Language Board crediting Gwenno’s music for a 15% increase in the number of people taking Cornish language exams during 2018 (the Cornish language is listed as “critically endangered” by UNESCO).
Beyond promoting language learning, diverse music also enables exposure to other cultures, customs and people more generally – promoting tolerance and understanding in the wider community. When young people who listen to non-English language music think about other countries, they are much more likely to be aware of that country’s culture, and much less likely to see others as strange and different from themselves. As music trends are generally set by the young, I believe that the increasing popularity of diverse music is a reason for optimism – as it demonstrates a turn away from the nationalist and isolationist discourses that are so prevalent today.