Lyrics vs. production: what do you gravitate towards? 

A bilingual student shares how much value the lyrics hold in their music listening experience.

Have you ever wondered what kind of attention you devote to lyrics or production in a song? Why do people listen to music in a language they don’t even understand? 

Teaching at the University of the Philippines Diliman, ethnomusicologist Lisa Decenteceo explained in a Vice article that “there’s something about the appeal of words as sounds, beyond their meaning in a language.” Indeed, “sound symbolism” is part of the picture when passively or actively listening to music, which is the relationship between utterances and their meaning.

Regarding listening to music in a language that isn’t so familiar to us, music teacher and music therapy master’s student Thea Tolentino also features in Vice how “most of the time, when listening to music in a foreign language, we enjoy the lyrics as sounds and not words.” Tolentino also adds that a process called entrainment retains the link between the response of sound and the brain which “synchronizes our breathing, our movement, even neural activities [with the sounds we hear].”

First-year communications student Zixuan Li is fluent in English, Mandarin, Cantonese and some French. “My main focus has always been the melody of a song because I just inherently never find myself gravitating towards lyrics for some reason,” she says. 

No matter the language, lyrics are never something she pays natural attention to unless she actively chooses to. Recently, Li has been incorporating more of an intentional concentration on the meaning of a track alongside the sonic elements. 

She says that when she sings along to a song, even when it is one she has listened to countless times, she still doesn’t know what is coming out of her mouth. “It’s like muscle memory and sounds to me, instead of being literal words that I process,” she adds. 

When it comes to the contrast between music featuring different languages she knows, Li admits she mostly listens to music in English despite her mother tongue being Cantonese. “I think in theory it tends to be easier to pay more attention to the lyrics in my first language since it comes easy,” Li shares. As for English and French, she says it takes more work and energy. 

Moreover, Li finds that a song’s structure will sound completely different in a certain language. Even if the songs are both in the same genre and hold similar melodies, their respective languages will make it so that lyrics in French, for example, will make a song sound drastically dissimilar to Li as opposed to how a Cantonese lyrics’ tone merges into a song. This all influences her direct notice of the lyrics’ meaning and space that a song’s storytelling holds for her. 

In general, Li is more in tune with a track’s melodies and harmonies, while lyrics are still a second thought. “The way I receive information is more natural in Chinese so it’s less hard work to engage with lyrics firsthand,” Li adds. The music production for the student is so much more significant than the lyrics.  

In my case, French is my first language and I am now almost as comfortable communicating in English as in French. I see the lines blurring more and more. However, I tend to concentrate equally on a song’s lyrics and instruments when it is in French, whereas I will take a while to look beyond the music itself in a track in English. 

From engaging in music in Cantonese in her younger years to branching out to music from other corners of the world, Li reveals that what fundamentally matters to her is how good the music sounds and thus intuitively lets the lyrics blend within the production.


Concordia researchers study bilingualism and language development in toddlers

“The earlier you’re exposed to a language, there are some parts of the language that are going to be easier to learn,” said Krista Byers-Heinlein, Concordia professor and Research Chair in Bilingualism. 

A joint study by Concordia and Princeton universities aims at understanding how bilingual toddlers learn two languages in the context of language switching.

“Some bilingual people might switch back and forth between their languages more often, while others don’t tend to do that and we don’t have any information as of right now [whether] that is going to matter or not for development,” said Krista Byers-Heinlein, the Concordia professor working on this study.

Byers-Heinlein, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and the Concordia University Research Chair in Bilingualism, and Casey Lew-Williams, associate professor in Princeton’s Department of Psychology are in charge of the research.

Byers-Heinlein said the research is important because in Canadian cities like Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, about 25 per cent of kids grow up in bilingual homes.

The study will be unique in several ways. They will be “following the kids longitudinally for three years to look at their development over time,” said Byers-Heinlein.

The toddlers will be wearing small digital recorders which will catch their home language environment. Through this, researchers can measure their language outcome. It will also contribute to an eye-tracking experiment that will be done periodically in their labs, which will observe word comprehension and language processing.

“With carefully designed stimuli, we can look at the earliest responses to language – [for example] how they look into different types of language sounds in each of their languages,” said Byers-Heinlein.

Byers-Heinlein said evidence shows children can only learn language on a deep level through interaction. Children must be able to interact with people in order to learn a new language, rather than just watching YouTube videos.

“The earlier you’re exposed to a language, there are some parts of the language that are going to be easier to learn,” added Byers-Heinlein.

With the partnership between Concordia and Princeton, the researchers will be able to study two bilingual communities, which is rare in most bilingual studies.They will observe the French-English bilingualism in Montreal, and the English-Spanish bilingualism in New Jersey.

Byers-Heinlein explained this creates an interesting layer in their research because in the United States, Spanish is not an official language.

Unofficial languages are usually synonymous with heritage languages, which are spoken at home or by community members only. It’s been noted those languages are at a greater risk, like Spanish in the United States, since children are generally more inclined to gravitate toward the languages their friends are speaking, and the official language of the city. They become more reluctant toward their heritage tongue. However, Byers-Heinlein explained the same cannot be said about Montreal where English and French are commonly spoken in the city and taught at school.

“We’re interested to see how those differences, as well as cultural differences, impact what’s going on in the home, and ultimately how children grow up learning their languages,” said Byers-Heinlein.

Studying different communities will also give researchers an opportunity to explore the socio-economic aspect of bilingualism. In some areas like New Jersey, bilingualism is synonymous with immigration. Oftentimes, those families come from a lower socio-economic status, said Byers-Heinlein. In Montreal, bilingualism is more common, and is not segregated in immigrant communities.

“We know that kids from lower socio-economic backgrounds, their language development tends to be a little bit behind than other kids, probably just because they’re not having the same opportunities towards interaction with their parents that are often working multiple jobs,” said Byers-Heinlein.

The researchers are currently in the planning stages of the study. Over the next couple of months they will start looking for families who are interested in participating in the research. Those who are interested in the study can learn more about it here, or sign up on the website. The team plans to keep in touch with the families every two months, and will invite them to the lab every year.

“Children can learn certain languages at a certain rate,” said Byers-Heinelin. “If you’re dividing that learning between two languages, versus a kid who is concentrating on one language, you’re going to see some differences in [learning and development]. Sometimes we might observe differences between monolinguals and bilinguals and say ‘oh wow that bilingual kid is way behind.’ Well, she’s not behind, she’s learning twice as much.”


Feature graphic by Victoria Blair


The abortion debate: behind Canada’s bilingualism

The idea of having a Conservative government under Andrew Scheer reopening the debate on abortion comes as a shock, as most Quebecers believe it’s a vested right.

On Aug. 29, Tourism Minister Mélanie Joly tweeted a video of a pro-life organization leader, Scott Hayward, confirming that Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was on board with his cabinet ministers raising issues related to abortion. The claims of RightNow’s founder were received as mixed messages from the Tories, while a few party members were saying that such a debate was definitely closed.

The very same day as the video was shared online, Scheer expressed his position on the issue in a press conference, saying there is no contradiction in his discourse. Instead, he argued that “a Conservative government will not reopen this issue and I, as prime minister, will oppose measures that reopen this issue,

But as reported by CBC, RightNow, which is currently registered as a third party with Elections Canada for the upcoming election, has the intention of recruiting and training more than 50 volunteers to run as electoral candidates. This raised concerns among experts as to whether Scheer would have the authority over his caucus to truly shut down debate on abortion.

“In the past weeks, people have been comparing Scheer with Harper, saying Harper said the same thing that [he would not reopen the debate],” said Anne-Marie Rivard, a PhD student at Concordia, whose research mainly focuses on post-Morgentaler abortion rights in Canada, and political translation surrounding the issue. “The thing is that Harper had some control over his caucus, whereas Scheer being the new guy, I’m not sure he has the same type of stronghold over his caucus the same way Harper did. So when he says that he wouldn’t allow a private member to propose private bills, that remains to be seen.”

The anti-abortion group is tackling mostly English provinces such as British Columbia and Alberta, where such discourse seems to resonate the most. Indeed, the questions on abortion have always divided Canada’s francophones and anglophone provinces. According to a Léger survey, close to 90 per cent of Quebecers believe that abortion should be completely legal, whereas the percentage drops considerably in the rest of Canada.

Rivard argues that the disparity comes from Quebec’s Quiet Revolution in the ‘60s which provoked a great nationalist-separatist movement, but also a separation from the church. The wide religious dissolution also nourished feminism across Quebec, stronger than elsewhere in the country, said Rivard. Such an empowering movement arguably caused the approach to abortion in a more humane way and secured its access in Quebec. The province was even reimbursing and offering the procedure a few years before the 1988 Morgentaler’s decision to decriminalize abortion.

“Comparing the English and French vocabulary, I have found that words in English use baby instead of fetus or mother,” said Rivard. “Whereas when it’s translated into French or even just originally spoken, they will use femme instead. Even the term abortion, in French, you will often hear “interruption volontaire de grossesse” which, obviously, with the term volunteer, implies that it’s a choice.”

Talks about reopening the debate might then come as a surprise for most Quebecers. But what most people tend to ignore is that, while the Supreme Court decriminalized the procedure, it is still unprotected by law; nor is it a constitutional right. This is where anti-abortion groups such as RightNow could gain leverage if they were to be backed by a government, as there is no law governing its access.

Indeed, conversations regarding abortion are arduous to bring into a province where its citizens believe it’s a vested right. Such confusion also leads to the belief that its access is guaranteed because of its legality, which is unfortunately not the case in provinces such as New Brunswick, as shown in a 2016-2017 annual report by Health Canada.

Andrew Scheer, a known devotee of Catholicism, insisted on the fact that whatever his own beliefs are, his party will not reopen the debate. But will he be willing to actively support and even improve the system? The answer is yet to be determined.


Graphic by @sundaeghost

Student Life

Bilingualism on the rise

Organization Women on the Rise hosted a bazaar which aims to promote bilingualism in children

Women on the Rise held a Christmas bazaar to raise awareness and funds for their children’s programs that promote bilingualism at an early age on Nov. 26.

Women on the Rise was formed in the early 1990s and has since become an organization that empowers single mothers to return to school and the workforce while also preparing their children for early education, said executive director of Women on the Rise, Grace Campbell.

The organization offers several programs, including an early education program for children and a parenting program for mothers. “We see the community for what it is… and we also see the need. We realized we need more,” said Campbell. The money raised at the bazaar will go mainly to the early education program, which promotes bilingualism in children by teaching children to embrace their native language.

“We need the bazaar to really help our programs to improve and recognize that we’re doing more,” said Campbell. In the past, Women on the Rise has organized spaghetti suppers, pancake breakfasts and garage sales, but this was the first time they hosted a bazaar.

Many of the children who benefit from Women on the Rise’s early education program are from newly immigrated families, said Campbell. The children were born in Canada, but their parents are from other countries.

According to Campbell, Women on the Rise is looking to help new immigrant families with children between the ages of zero to five, otherwise known as the “sponge age.” During this time, children absorb a lot of information and the organization is looking to improve their language skills.

“The benefits of bilingualism are linked to children’s immediate personal lives but also linked to schooling, socioemotional development and globalization,” said Fred Genesee, a professor emeritus in McGill’s psychology department.

In Genesee’s article “At-risk Learners and Bilingualism: Is It a Good Idea?” he compares some of the advantages of raising and educating children bilingually. He found that “immigrant adolescents whose ethnic identities integrate and embrace both majority and minority cultures tend: to be more involved with both the majority and minority culture and to show higher levels of psychological and sociological adaptation.”

However, immigrant children who only speak the majority language and have little to no involvement with their ethnic group exhibit lower levels of adaption, according to the same article. This is similarly seen in those who isolate themselves from the majority culture by limiting their relationships to those within their ethnic peer groups.

“If community organizations like Women on the Rise get involved with having parents feel proud of who they are and proud of where they’re from, and have them transcend that to their child, then the child will feel and embrace the fact,” Campbell said. Their child education program is looking to not only teach language and culture, but also to teach children embrace and be proud of it.

These ideas have already been implemented into their programs. Mothers were asked to bring in books in their native language and read, not only to their sons and daughters, but all the children involved in the program. While some parents were surprised by the task, Women on the Rise wants to ensure that parents understand the importance of having pride in their culture and sharing that with their children.

These programs don’t stop with children—training will also be made available to teachers. Instead of prohibiting children from speaking in their own language, Women on the Rise hopes more teachers will ask the question, “What does that mean?”

“This will build a very good foundation for the child and by doing that it will give them confidence. Once they feel confident in who they are, it will help with their learnings,” said Campbell.

Women on the Rise was created at a time when many black women were having children at a young age and living on their own, said Campbell. “The social workers were out there, the nurses were out there but it seemed like [the mothers] were in isolation,” said Campbell.

Soon enough a small group was formed where women could socialize and learn more about each other. As it started to grow, it became an organization known as Black Women on the Rise. According to Campbell, although it was called “Black Women on the Rise,” it was not about race, but rather, on immigrant women living in isolation, and helping them become empowered and integrate into society.

In 2003, the organization dropped “Black” from their name to clarify they were seeking to give all women an opportunity to be a part of Women on the Rise, said Campbell. What began as a small program for young immigrant mothers has since developed into a non-profit offering physical, emotional and educational development programs and services.

For more information on Women on Rise and their fundraising events, visit their website.


Quebec’s struggle to embrace bilingualism

Graphic by Jennifer Kwan

Quebec, for many years, has been a melting pot of various cultures, languages and customs. There was even a time when Francophones were justifiably worried they would lose their language and culture as time went on.

However, Quebec has instead grown to accept herself as a true bilingual state. Although still aware of her need to protect the French culture, she accepts her English side as well.

And yet, there are still political parties set on making language an issue once again.

Apart from tuition fees and ensuing riots, recent news in Quebec revolves around the notorious “pastagate” and the effects Bill 14 will have on our society if the PQ government successfully passes it through the National Assembly.

Colin Standish is a third-year law student at Université de Laval. He is president and Editor-in-chief of the Revue Juridique des étudiants et étudiantes de l’Université de Laval. Last week, Standish was also on the popular Quebec television show Tout le monde en parle to speak out against this bill.

‘‘Bill 14 is an amendment to the Charter of the French Language. But the government is not actually protecting French, it’s taking away the rights of other groups,’’ said Standish to The Concordian.

For example, one of the proposed laws is to strip the bilingual status of those Quebec municipalities and boroughs that are composed of 50 per cent or less Anglophones.

The mayors of these municipalities decided they would not go down without a fight. Last week, Pierrefonds-Roxboro got the majority of the Union of Quebec Municipalities to help defend its bid to remain bilingual. Even Francophone mayors supported the decision.

Longueuil is considered a PQ stronghold but it too is backing Pierrefonds-Roxboro. It is also actively supporting its own borough, Greenfield Park, in its quest to remain bilingual.

Ironically enough, the bill also has legislation that would hinder Francophones.

The bill proposes to base the CEGEP application process on the language spoken by the students’ parents. Anglophone CEGEPS will have to accept all Anglophones applying before considering Francophone applications.

‘‘The application process will not be on academic merit anymore and so this will reduce the quality of education in Quebec,’’ said Standish.

According to him, another highly contentious aspect of the bill is the right it will give to the Office Québécois de la langue française to search and seize ‘‘anything from your business without warning’’ if they find it objectionable.

After “pastagate” blew up in the OQLF’s face, other businesses came forward to recount their run-ins with them. The general idea was that even ‘‘on/off’’ labels for light switches needed to be changed to French. Does that mean the proposed seizures would include anything remotely English?

Twitter erupted with both English and French speaking Quebecers mocking the OQLF over the pasta debacle.

This unity of voices alone shows that there is solidarity between Francophones and Anglophones in Quebec, despite what seems to be an effort by the PQ government to create new divisions between them.

The PQ is wrong in thinking that French will die off in the future if we don’t take strong action today and expand Bill 101. According to Statistics Canada, new immigrants seem to be eagerly adopting French as their main language in 2011. It is actually their use of English that is waning.

The PQ government is trying to reinforce their base of Francophones for the coming elections, but Bill 14 is not achieving its intended objective. Rather, it will only appeal to those few xenophobic cells that still persist in a largely accepting Quebec.

Francophones in general will not rally behind them as they once would. Instead, they’re rallying behind the Anglophones and fighting back.

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