Expand Your Church’s Bilingual Music Repertoire

Maybe there are people in your church or neighborhood whose first language is different than yours. Singing simple songs in their language is a fantastic way to welcome them in worship.

Introducing bilingual music is “like introducing a new vegetable to toddlers. Some kids love it, but usually it takes time. It’s a new flavor,” Maria Eugenia Cornou said at the 2015 Day of Learning. The event was hosted by the Vital Worship Grants program of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The time you spend helping your congregation sing in two or more languages is totally worth it because, as Cornou explained, “Bilingual worship is a mission opportunity. It helps the church bring communities together—first and second generations, families who are culturally mixed, and new residents in changing neighborhoods—and serve the growing bilingual population.” Cornou is the Worship Institute’s resource development specialist for international programming and Spanish language resources.

Her co-presenter, Robert J. Batastini, offered his parish as a case study. He joined St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Holland, Michigan, after retiring as vice president and senior editor of GIA Publications in Chicago. “Our parish is 55 percent Hispanic, all Mexican; 43 percent Anglo; and two percent Vietnamese. We’re a Catholic parish that sings like a bunch of Methodists,” he said.

Batastini gave examples of how to take what he called “baby steps” in developing a shared music repertoire in worship. All his examples were from Oramos Cantando/We Pray in Song, a Spanish/English hymnal published while he was at GIA. But Batastini’s principles can be applied in many bilingual and multilingual settings.

Alternate verses in languages

At the workshop he did with Maria Cornou, Batastini invited participants to listen and sing along with the following songs. They’d alternate phrases in different languages or sing even numbered verses in one language, odd verses in the other. Each song gives the whole text in English and Spanish, so people can see the meaning of each in their own language, even if they’re singing in a language they don’t speak.

Choosing a song with a beautiful melody, such as "Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world/Cordero de Dios, que quitas el pecado del mundo," helps worshipers adjust to new language “flavors” in music.

Communion takes a long time at St. Francis de Sales, so there’s time to sing all ten stanzas of "El Dios de paz, el Verbo eterno/Peace-giving God and Word Eternal." They alternate languages with each verse and always double the refrain, singing it in both Spanish and English after each verse. “Our rubric says communion songs should be about bread or wine or a season, so we do this hymn during communion in Advent. This is actually a Hebrew melody that comes to us through the Hispanic community,” Batastini said.

During Lent, the congregation often sings "Si Fui Motivo de Dolor/If I Have Been the Source of Pain." “This is a lovely Lenten hymn by my good friend Pablo Sosa [from Argentina]. Because this is such a short song, we always sing all four stanzas, two in each language,” Batastini said.

You can find hymns and songs in multiple languages at Proskuneo Ministries and in newer hymnals such as Glory to God, Lift Up Your Hearts and Psalms for All Seasons (PFAS). Or search “languages other than English” on Hymnary.org.

Use short refrains and responses

St. Frances de Sales has English masses and Spanish masses each week. As in many liturgical churches, there’s a weekly sung psalm, often with a soloist or cantor doing the verses and the congregation joining in on the refrain.  St. Francis de Sales often does a Psalm 104 setting, "Envía tu Espíritu, Señor/Lord, Send Out Your Spirit," during Pentecost. “At the Spanish mass, the verses would be sung in Spanish. At the English mass, the verses would be sung in English. But both groups would sing the refrain in both languages after each verse,” Batastini said.

A Psalm 23 response they use is "El Señor es mi pastor/The Lord is my shepherd." Batastini said his church most often does this refrain half in Spanish, half in English: “El Señor es mi pastor, nada me falta. The Lord is my shepherd, nothing shall I fear.” These self-translating refrains make it easy for worshipers to understand what they’re singing.

No matter what musical setting they use, worshipers at both masses sing certain parts of the mass in both languages, such as "The Gloria" or "The Sanctus" (Holy, holy, holy/Santo, santo, santo).

Even if your church doesn’t sing a weekly psalm or celebrate weekly communion, your congregation can draw on treasures of Christian tradition as expressed in more than one language. You could all sing this haunting Arabic setting of the Lord’s Prayer, "Abana alathi fi ssama/Abana in Heaven."

Or sing short refrains based on simple words that sound similar in many languages, such as amen or alleluia. You’ll find great examples in newer hymnals or in music from the Taize Community in France or Wild Goose Publishing, part of Iona Community in Scotland.

Offer pronunciation workshops

Batastini acknowledged the cliché “Catholics can’t sing.” However, he says that whether worshipers at St. Francis de Sales are singing hymns or responses, whether in English or Spanish, “the sound comes across the church like a tsunami.”

One key is that his church offers frequent workshops so that people who speak mainly or only one language can become comfortable in pronouncing and singing upcoming congregational music. He recommends doing brief workshops at least every year and maybe even every season.

“Singing in both languages succeeds in reminding people at both masses that we’re part of a bilingual parish. We do a lot with simple refrains. The charism in the room is overwhelming,” he said.

All languages at once

Ever since hearing worshipers sing in many languages all at once at the Taize Community, Batastini has dreamed of doing the same in his parish. “I seemed to be the only person singing in English, surrounded by people singing in German. Maybe because I don’t speak German, I experienced their voices like instruments [not distractions]. People have to be given permission to feel comfortable enough to sing in their own language simultaneously,” he said.

Batastini says this works well when people sing a familiar hymn, such as "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You/Jubilosos Te Adoramos," or a simple song, such as "Jesus, Remember Me/Jesús, recuérdame/Jezu, w królestwie Twym." Oramos Cantando presents the latter in English, Spanish and Polish.

Imagine doing "All People That on Earth Do Dwell," based on Psalm 100, as a gathering song. You could have people singing many languages at once if you use PFAS 100A, which includes all four verses in English, Dutch, German, French, Hungarian, Indonesian, Spanish, Swahili, Chinese, Japanese and Korean. This song would also work well on Palm Sunday or Thanksgiving or in a set of praise songs.

Listen to Spanish and English Together: Learning and Worshiping Interculturally. Maria Eugenia Cornou and Robert Batastini presented this one-hour workshop at the 2015 Day of Learning at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In the first half, Cornou details reasons for and against bilingual worship and explains how to do it successfully.

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