I have been bathed in foreign languages for the last two weeks. As I go to sleep, I hear the low sounds of German that sound like you’re trying to get something out of your throat. I hear the front of the mouth sounds of Greek which sounds like cats with lots of “ft” sounds and “tz”s. It’s pretty hilarious to be idly listening to a conversation and hear random meanings of “Morning” and “there” with no sense what content is in between them at all. I know that this is typical for second language learners, especially when you’re older like I am. I have to study language intentionally. According to my husband, I have a “cute” Greek accent, which is a nice way of saying he can barely understand me. I am also very humbled at how well so many people here in Europe know English. They study it as a school subject from first grade on. And, most children in schools know a third language as well. Language study is serious work here- communication is seen as a requirement to good relationships and good business.
While attending a recent international conference in Austria that connected key aspects of my Fulbright research in Greece, I recall this quote from a tour guide- “Austrian is German spoke with a better melody”. Pretty sure she was not making a joke. Certainly captures the Austrian value of music.
Which is why I had an amazingly powerful experience last week. As part of the European Council on High Ability conference, we had some sessions on a boat that cruised up the Danube to the University of Krems and then back down. The morning was full of lectures inside the ship. While they were interesting, the view from the deck was more interesting, and I found my way up to the very top. Along with about 12 others, who were willing to put on our coats and to gawk that we were on THE DANUBE!- which is not blue, by the way, but muddy and brown.
Up there in the wind and the cold and the crisp sunshine were people from the United States, Scotland, Slovenia, Trinidad, India, Netherlands, and of course, Austria. English may have been the language in common, but most people were talking with their compatriots in low, quiet familiar home languages. Until…
Frank from Trinidad, Margaret from Scotland and Jane from Ohio started singing “Do- a deer, a female deer. Re- a drop of golden sun….” And just like that, all twelve people from across the globe, turned together and started singing with one voice, loudly- up there in the cold and wind and crisp sunshine atop the boat. We morphed right into “Whiskers on Kittens” and proceeded to sing most of the canon of “Sound of Music”. Frank and Margaret bobbed up and down singing the different parts of the “Lonely Goatherd” and we all clapped at our yodel-ay-aiii’s. I may have had tears in my eyes as we sang “Edelweiss” and watched the pre-spring landscape of Austria slide by with the low slopes of the Vienna Woods in the background.
We spent a good hour up there- singing songs from “Wizard of Oz” to “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat” to “Mary Poppins”. I never imagined that it would be Broadway tunes that brought people from around the world together.
(with apologies to Julie Andrews)
The river was alive with the sound of music
With songs they have sung on Broadway
The river filled my heart with the sound of music
My heart wants to sing every song it plays
The power of music to bring together so many different peoples is well known. The organization Playing for Change takes this literally, filming musicians from around the world playing the same song. It’s powerful. It’s what education should be- different notes, different singers, different instruments, and yet melody. I got to have my own little version of it on a cold, sunshiny day on the Danube.