Your heart is where your language love is

Your choice of language: what does it say about who you want to connect with?
Your choice of language: what does it say about who you want to connect with?

Just recently a friend turned me on to the fantastic multilingual video of “Let it Go,” the hit song from the Disney movie “Frozen,” and as a polyglot sucker for pop music I’ve been indulging my love of languages and emotional music. This video smoothly blends 25 languages into one, seamless video.

I thought I was excited, until I found that the song was translated in its entirety into 42 languages, as reported here. So I started listening to whole versions of the song, and many of them have subtitles. Heavenly! (I love the Serbian version a lot!)

This polyglot effort coming from a US corporation reminded me of the somewhat controversial Coke ad during the 2014 Super Bowl, “America is Beautiful,” where young girls sing, “America the Beautiful,” in seven different languages. I wrote about it previously here.

The choice of languages for each song makes a statement about who each corporation is trying to connect with, where their heart is. From this choice, we see that Disney inclines towards Europe and her descendants, while Coke attempts to unify Americans of all stripes.

The languages

The song “Let it Go” focuses heavily on European languages in the 25 language version of the song. Of the 25 languages, 19 of them were European, and I include Latin American Spanish and Canadian French as European languages. All of the Germanic languages were represented except Icelandic, and only Romanian was missing from the Romance languages. The other six come from East and Southeast Asia. No languages from the Middle East or Central or South Asia–not to mention Polynesia or the Americas–were included. The different languages definitely cast a “pale” hue.

The Coca-Cola ad, in contrast, displayed a broader diversity in the languages chosen, but seemed pointed at an American audience. The statistics on the most common US languages come from the 2009 US Census survey. The commercial included seven languages, but you can find two more versions (Mandarin and Arabic) if you dig deeper. Note that these languages are among some of the most widely spoken in the US.

  • English-1st most widely spoken;
  • Spanish-2nd most widely spoken;
  • Tagalog-4th most widely spoken;
  • French-5th most widely spoken (Senegalese variety is represented in the commercial);
  • Hindi-15th most widely spoken (but many speakers of other Indian languages also know Hindi, so speakers may be more);
  • Chinese (didn’t make the final cut)-3rd most widely spoken.

The other languages, Keres and Hebrew, require further explanation. Keres is a Native American language spoken by some of the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest US. Hence it is exclusively an American language. I can’t explain why the commercial would use Hebrew. Maybe it was used to counterbalance Arabic, and Arabic didn’t make the final cut. Another reason might have been to cover more geography; no other Middle Eastern language made it into the commercial.

Why pick these languages?

The contrasts between the two videos struck me, because the Coca-Cola ad covered more geography in seven languages than “Frozen” did in 25. Only the Coca-Cola ad included languages native to the Americas, the Middle East, and South Asia, though “Frozen” covered East Asia, but not Coke. Moreover, Coke nailed American languages better than “Frozen.” “Frozen” covered Europe completely, from Catalan to Swedish.

Each song connected with a particular audience. Coke spoke to Americans of all walks of life, not only with the song chosen, but with the languages it was sung in. It represented the wide corners of the world from which those Americans came. Moreover, they picked speakers of every race and complexion, especially with the delightful choice of an African French speaker. “Frozen” spoke to lovers of Disney all over the world. It saturated Europe and the major European languages of the Americas. The Asian languages came from the richest markets of the region.

By seeking to speak to Americans from all over, Coke continued its brand of togetherness, teaching the “world to sing.” People from all over the world are united in the US and by Coca-Cola. They also managed to make a statement about the international breadth of American identity and origins (and so angered many Americans in the process–see links below). “Frozen” meticulously addressed every people in their own context, although the context seemed to be selected by economics: Europeans and East Asians tend to be richer.

I believe that the Coke ad made an interesting statement about Americans, transcending the stereotype of “English only.” “Frozen” was less compelling, trying to speak to every niche in Europe while ignoring whole continents.

What did you notice in the multilingual “Frozen” song? Did it remind you of anything besides the “America is Beautiful” ad? What other corporate multilingual effort have you noticed?

What does your choice of languages say about you? Where is your heart?

Photo credit: @boetter / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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10 thoughts on “Your heart is where your language love is

  1. Unfortunately, I can’t see or hear “Let it Go” without thinking of “The Ballad of Arthur Darvill” (see here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNDyBBAjRHg for the original and here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Znv7Y3lLNU8 for the Spanish subtitles), but I enjoyed listening to this version of it! Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the movie (nor, in fact, did I know it was a song from a movie…) so some of the context was lost.

    I was both pleased and disappointed with the range of languages there. I was pleased to see languages like Catalan and Flemish, which are usually overlooked, but disappointed that other major languages like Hindi, Arabic (any sort!), and Swahili were missing. Also I was a little confused to see two dialects of both French (French and Canadian) and Spanish (Spanish and Latin American), but only one dialect of English (American) and Portuguese (anyone know whether this was European or Brazilian?).

    Maybe the full 42 languages included some of those key missing languages?

    The only thing I can think of that this reminds of me is “Skype me Maybe” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6HZbBLl4FA0), although YouTube has quite a lot of Disney songs in multiple languages.

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    1. I agree! Thanks for posting. I went and looked up some of the singers. Many of them are accomplished pop dinners in their own country.

      I also thought it was interesting that the French and Canadian French singers stew the same.

      From this video I got the impression that the group of singers is not terribly diverse.

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  2. You might one day look at language of heart matters near the end of life…when a person ages/has dementia or in final stages of life:

    My partner’s mother could only speak and understand German in the final months of her life.
    My father (who died in Dec.) increasing lapsed into only Chinese in last few months.

    Both of these individuals were fluently bilingual in English and mother tongue for over last 60 years of their lives. lst few decades was only their mother tongue.

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    1. Thank you, Jean! That is a story that is fascinating intellectually and touching emotionally.

      I recently started thinking about our idioms in English (and also used in other languages), “mother tongue” and “native language.” In these metaphors, our language births us and we inhabit these languages.

      Some people cut the tie with their first language, as I see with adult children of immigrants. But there is always an emotional connection with one language or another.

      On the neurological side, how is a “mother” language stored in the brain in the way that a comfortable, fluent language is not?

      I’m no neuroscientist, but I hope one is looking into this…

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      1. I’m certain some scientific research has made some inroads on brain acquisition and retention of mother language vs. a comfortable fluent language.

        Maybe it’s the most important words that addresses our child/primary needs (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), are retained from our mother tongue. It is for me… I learned English when I was in kindergarten onward …even though I was born and raised in Canada.

        Now I’ve only retained 10% Chinese in a bastardized way.

        It has been shown by neuroscientists recently that knowledge and use of 2 languages, staves off a few years of dementia.

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      2. I’m happy you have some Chinese left in you. English is probably your “native” language, but your brain is too smart to let all the Chinese go. It set up all sorts of emotional connections linked to those Chinese words and phrases. (Food, for example? I have a Canadian friend whose parents were from Yugoslavia, and he says he speaks “kitchen Serbian.” If there is a “geography” of mother and home and love and conversation, it’s the kitchen. Language probably starts in the kitchen.)

        I also know of lots of cases where people have lost a native language through traumatic brain injury, stroke, etc, and retained a second language.

        I’m happy someone is working on this!

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