The Human Antennae: how listening to Russian will help you sing Better English

When you listen to a new song for the first time, you listen hard. You listen for the Important Words, the ones that carry the emotional message.  If the singer is doing their job properly, even when the song is in a language that you don’t speak, you will still pick up the extra emotional charge of certain sounds within it.

Try this: here’s one of my favourite songs in Russian. Yes, Russian. Don’t be scared.  The singer makes the emotional charge available to you, as one human being communicating with another. Like a foreign language exchange student who goes home with a whole new stock of English swear words, you will feel the emotionally charged words leap out of the soup of unknowns.  Honestly. Have a go. Which word or words jump out at you? :

How did you get on? Which word, or group of sounds drew your attention most? What was different about them? Did the singer sing them more loudly than the others? More deliberately? Did he change his expression when he sang them? What were you picking up with your antennae? Or was the emotional message too subtle to be able to describe it in words?

I know which word jumps out at me, but it might be different for you. There is no ‘right’ answer. All answers say something about human emotion. Just write the word or words as they sound to you – don’t worry about getting them ‘right.’ All phrase books rely on an approximation of sounds. Unless you’re writing them in Russian, they’re always going to be a shadow of their real selves.

If I tell you that the song is sung by a young soldier who is about to go to war and is thinking about all the beauty, love and life that he will never experience, are you surprised? Had you picked up the fact that the song’s a sad song?

When you’re the one singing, in English, you’re in charge of delivering the emotional message. You won’t always be singing to native speakers of English. You need to communicate the message of the song, using words, but knowing that some of your audience won’t know those words. How will you do it?

Our friend with the accordion communicated the central message of his song to you powerfully and perfectly. And it didn’t matter that you don’t speak Russian, did it?

© Sing Better English, 2014


8 thoughts on “The Human Antennae: how listening to Russian will help you sing Better English”

  1. I wasn’t sure if it was sad or happy because he changes his expression for moments from sadness to some kind of extasis. After I read what you said about the meaning of the song, I though in those moments when he intensifies de feeling and his eyes are full with light, he may be talking of those things he’ll miss.

    You’ve made me recall my perception of English songs before I learned English. It is still funny when I listen to a song O used to like as a teenager now that I understand the words. You are right, the feeling is there no matter what in the ones I liked back then.


    1. Hi Pati – yes, I think you’re right. The song moves between wistful and joyful – when he’s imagining all the lovely things he’ll never experience. I suppose that’s what gives it its power. Apparently the soldier would only have been about 14 years old.

      Did a particular word jump out at you? It’s hard for me to judge how strongly any word would shine – now that I know the song and as the word that I noticed first is one I learnt in Russian many, many years ago. Anyway, I think different words might attract the attention of different people.

      Thinking about the perception of songs before you understand the words – I remember, when we lived in a Spanish village, at the end of the school year there was a festival. Each class, from the 3 year olds up, performed a song or danced. The 8 year olds did a flamenco dance to an Eminem song. They knew that Eminem was trendy at the time. All the swear words passed them by – all they could hear was the tune and the beat. It was surreal to watch these happy 8 year olds smiling and dancing as Eminem spat out motherf****er etc. The parents smiled benignly and clapped. Nobody, except us, understood what he was singing. To the people of the village, it was all just sounds.

      Back to the Russian song. Spoiler Alert: If a particular word hasn’t popped out of the Russian soup, there’s a translation here


  2. I won’t dare to tell you the words that jumped at me because it’s bad enough what I do to your language, Elaine (I wrote you this morning from my cellphone on the train and now that I read it again, I’m too ashamed). Well, you win, there was something like “raviotsa” and “miñá” and after reading the translation (sorry!) I guess the second one is part of the phrase that means “Not for me”.

    It’s terribly sad and you are absolutely right, the feeling is there.

    In my way from the train station to the office, I recalled one of the songs I mentioned this morning: London London. I didn’t understand anything but “London” and yet I felt touched every time they played it on the radio. Last year I told José about that song and he found out that it was in fact written by Caetano Veloso when he was exiled there. We also like this version.

    Have a wonderful week, bella.

    p.s. That flamenco dance moment must have been priceless. My sister says “La ignorancia es atrevida” 😉


    1. Hi Pati – you win the prize. Yes, miña (the Spanish ñ provides a really cool way of transposing the sounds, doesn’t it? ) or menya means ‘mine.’

      It’s interesting how the word in Russian carries quite a different emotional cargo from the word in English. It works well in the song because of its two syllables too. In English, if a soldier sang ‘this won’t be mine’ it would sound a bit thin and there’s no room within the word to bend it or stretch it to encompass more emotion. It also doesn’t carry the same meaning of ‘this will be denied to me’ as clearly in English as in Russian. In English, ‘this won’t be mine’ sounds clunky. ‘Mine’ sounds too possessive in English (in my opinion) to work in this song. In Russian it has a meaning, within the song of ‘this won’t be made available to me’ or ‘this won’t come into my life.’ It feels as if the natural flow of life is going to be interrupted by war. In English that feeling isn’t as clear. It would sound more as if there are choices that the soldier won’t be able to make. Funny, isn’t it, how the same meaning – ‘mine’ – feels quite different and offers such different possibilities for songwriters in the two languages.

      Menya/miña is the word that jumps out at me too. Whereabouts did you hear ‘raviotsa’? It could be a couple of things. Is it repeated or is it just once?

      I really like the way the accordion player sings the song. I like the way he slows down in the last line. It’s a powerful piece of music. We were in Berlin this week and now I wish I’d got Ruben to sing Ne Dlya Menya when we were visiting the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park. It’s one of the most gracious pieces of architecture I’ve ever seen. I liked the fact that it was designed by an artists’ ‘creative collective’ and that the engineer was a woman. It’s on the scale of Aztec temple complexes that I remember from Mexico (like Teotihuacan) and has the same awe inspiring effect

      I’m going to listen to Caetano Veloso. Thanks for the links.


    2. Hi Pati – just listened to Caetano Veloso – he’s got a lovely, silky way with English. Very attractive to my British ears. He sounds so relaxed. Have you seen him singing his version of Billie Jean? I really like it. He adds something to the song – and you can hear all the lyrics when he sings them.

      By the way – who is the man on stage with him when he sings London, London?


  3. yep, like pati the “miñá” thing stuck out to me…

    and WOW is that really a song sung by a soldier before he goes off to war? i thought that it was a sad, bittersweet song but he performed it with such strength… just like one marching through the bitter cold; the landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, but the cold stings at the inside of the lungs at the same time…. and so one must give priority to the marching on rather than the observance of beauty. but it’s still there, the mixture of both.

    i love russian and easter european folk songs! especially in the ‘waltz’ 6/8 time signature !! so … full of character and history and feeling somehow.


    1. I think it’s sad because he’s talking about all the things that will never happen in his life, because he assumes he won’t come back from the war. It’s not one of those ‘here we go off to war, hurrah’ songs. He’s dwelling very much on the thought of the things he’ll miss. Did you see Ruben’s translation of the lyrics? It’s here


      1. oh my…. after reading the translation i’m surprised he sings with such strength in his voice…. isn’t the certainty of death a disempowering or weakening concept?

        R did a lovely job of the translation! kudos! so impressive to be bi-/multi-lingual! i picked up german in my 20s and think there’s still quite a bit i’m missing!


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