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As the Spirit Gave Them Speech – Singing in Many Languages

Have you ever had to organise a Multicultural Mass, and had to scramble to find readings and prayers and songs in languages other than English? As a universal, multicultural Church, world music and music in different languages can and should be a regular part of our worship repertoire, including indigenous languages. One of the goals of post-Vatican II liturgy is effective inculturation, which in musical terms involves opening the gifts of the many cultures which are part of our assembly, our music, instruments, languages, styles and dance, so long as these are fitting to the dignity of the liturgy.


Truly welcoming

The opportunity to sing in their own language brings so much joy to people, and singing the music of their own people and history can be like coming home. I remember being involved in a Mass for Refugee and Migrant Sunday when the assembly was invited to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ first in unison and then in their own language. The joy that filled the church was so amazing we had to sing it all over again. If we want to take up the challenge to welcome different cultures and languages as a gesture of hospitality, working with children is a great way to do it.


Singing in Other Languages

When children lead the rest of the assembly in singing in the languages of other cultures, they reflect the universal nature of the Church, ‘spread throughout the whole world’, praising God ‘as the Spirit gives us speech’. They have the requisite mental and neurological flexibility, and more opportunity to practise and learn the words of songs in other languages.


It doesn’t have to mean learning songs in five different languages for every Mass; it does mean looking for ways to broaden our language base to include languages other than English. If we’re asking the children to sing an entire song in another language, it’s essential to make sure that they know the meaning of the words. We should also provide a translation for the assembly. Consider asking a native speaker to coach the correct pronunciation and stress.


There are lots of manageable options:

Bilingual Songs

  • We can sing one of the many bilingual songs that are available: these often alternate phrases in English and another language. Often part of the song is sung first in one language and then repeated in the second language, so that the rest of the assembly can participate and everyone understands the meaning of what they are singing.
  • We can sing a whole verse in another language and then repeat it in English, or the other way around. If we’re lucky, we could have a soloist or small group of native speakers sing the verse in language. If you’re thinking of translating an English text into language, remember there may be copyright issues with translating or publishing translations of contemporary music, so check first and obtain permission if necessary.


Multiple Languages

  • We can sing a song in multiple languages. We’ve had individual children singing just  ‘Thankyou’ or ‘Hello’ in their family language as part of a song, with the rest of the assembly joining in the refrain in English. So many people know at least one other language that it’s not hard to find young people to volunteer.
  • Choose a song that has verses in different languages and a common refrain in English that everyone can sing. Children can sing the verses, or invite other members of their families to sing the verses with them in their family language.
  • It’s also possible for everyone in the assembly to sing a song or a verse of a song in their own language at the same time. You may have been present at Masses where everyone in the assembly is invited to pray the Our Father in their own language, as a sign of inclusiveness. A powerful song in the public domain is ideal for this.


World Music

Even if it’s not possible to sing in other languages, simply choosing music that originated in a different part of the world opens out the assembly’s experience and gives children and young people a taste of other cultures. Rhythms and musical styles can be so distinctive that they evoke a sense of a culture with great immediacy. Why restrict our musical diet to a single style, when so much of the world is available to us? If growing awareness of other cultures and their gifts is one of our goals, then music is such an easy way to begin.


Speaking to the Heart

The joy that it gives people to be able to sing in their own language cannot be overestimated. Anyone who has travelled overseas and attended Mass in a different language understands the difference it makes to participating and feeling at one with the assembly if you can speak and sing in the local language. For minority or oppressed cultures it is even more important to be recognised in the Body of Christ as a group whose words and identity are given voice. We need to remember that God doesn’t speak English, God speaks directly to the heart, just as music does.


Songs in Other Languages: Siyahamba, Thuma Mina, O Lord Jesus Marrkapmirr, On Holy Ground, Shalom Chaverim, Santo, Come All You People, Enviatu Espiritu; Dona Nobis Pacem


Songs in English with music from different cultures: Halle Halle HalleIf We All Could Live in Peace, If You Believe and I Believe, Bless the Lord; Many and Great O God, are Your Works, O How Good is Christ the Lord.



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