Greater than 2 minutes, my friend!
On New Year’s Eve, a friend of mine posted a song that usually comes to mind this time of the year, Happy New Year by ABBA. As I watched the ‘video clip,’ I found myself reminiscing about my childhood, when I listened to their songs as a young girl, singing along and just soaking in the beautiful music. As I got older and my music tastes changed, ABBA’s music still had a special place in my heart. But as my English got better, I found the lyrics somewhat clumsy: it sounded as if the words were written by a non-native English speaker. I also started hearing the singers’ accents. As I listened to Happy New Year a couple of days ago, I realized that all these factors did not stop them from selling 380 million albums and singles worldwide and becoming the third-best-selling group of all time, behind the Beatles and Queen and ahead of the Rolling Stones.[i] It might seem counterintuitive, but their imperfect English did not slow them down; it probably was one of the factors that ensured their success.
We professional linguists (translators, interpreters, and teachers) tend to be perfectionists, striving for a better command of a language (both native and learned). Because of our self-awareness, we sometimes put mental blocks and limit ourselves to what we think we can do. Meanwhile, some others whose language proficiency might not be as good as ours go on to make the most of it. A few names come to mind: Demis Roussos (60 million records[ii]), Scorpions (100 million records[iii]), and Europe (over 10 million records[iv]). Their English was not perfect, but they became hugely popular in Europe and around the world.
Did they succeed despite or because of their non-native English?
In my opinion, the fact that they were non-native English-speakers served to their advantage.
- Their initial target audience was their own countrymen, i.e. their average listener probably had basic or intermediate English.
- The audience wants to understand what is being sung and relate to it, and unpretentious English is a good approach. Clichés and slang do not resonate with non-natives.
- On a personal level, they connected with their listeners by subtly encouraging them to use their English skills (listening, understanding, and singing the lyrics).
In other words, ABBA identified with their listeners, reached them on their level, and engaged them. And yes, music played its part.
As we go through our lives, we can either be bogged down by being overly self-critical (the proverbial half-empty glass), or we can use our knowledge to make the world around us better (the half-full glass).
Finally, here are some lessons we can take home:
- Be propelled by the abilities and skills that you have.
- Look for new areas of influence or for new ways to use your talent.
- Reach out to people who need someone like you. Find ways to connect to them and empower them.
“Happy New Year/Happy New Year/May we all have our hopes, our will to try…” (ABBA)