International Idol

Every year in early March, during National Foreign Language Week, our language department (Latin, Spanish, and French) puts on a singing competition appropriately titled “International Idol.” Whole classes collaborate to memorize target language songs; they then choreograph singing and dancing, and friends and family come to see them in the auditorium. Here is a video of the winning class for 2013, French V.
The students love this event and start planning months in advance. Judges actually announce a winning class, who are regaled with a doughnut cake (it’s a RI thing) and enough pride to puff their feathers for a whole year. Students are often heard singing their songs for months after the event, their brains having been imprinted with the lyrics indelibly.
So, you may be asking, how does a Latin class fit into all of this? There are a plethora of modern French and Spanish songs out in the world from which to choose – but Latin? We have Gregorian chants. We have our mnemonic inflection songs. We have instrumental hypotheses of how music may have once sounded. But modern songs?
Yes. With some determination, inventiveness, and humor, we have the whole corpus of modern pop and rock at our fingertips. My classes have performed such classics as:



This activity is a great way to scaffold. For early levels of Latin, students can learn dictionary skills to find key words and synonyms for the lyrics. They can be asked to identify various grammatical concepts in the lyrics as well (e.g. Where are the subjects? Direct objects?)
For the more advanced levels, students are required to not only translate, but, more importantly, interpret the English lyrics as they work towards a comprehensible Latin version. Not only must workarounds be found for modern-day concepts (no Dereon jeans in ancient Rome!), but the metrical and lyrical feel of the song must be taken into consideration. The activity is great practice for composition and circumlocution, and gives the students an appreciation for the composers of old (“You mean Vergil not only had to have the right number of syllables but they also had to fit a meter!?” The mind boggles.)
For all levels, the students practice the tried-and-true skill of memorization. They are not relegated to the dusty tomes of a dead poet (though we teachers may disagree about just how dusty is a finely crafted line of Vergil.) Instead, the students interact with immediately relevant songs and end up remembering them for so much longer. I still have students singing snippets when they hear familiar words in class.
One caveat: This project will require a lot of time and perspicacity. Even the best of your students will struggle at times with the rephrasing and the metrical demands. You, as instructor, must be willing to think outside the box in terms of syntactical veracity. We aren’t emulating Cicero.
Also be willing to experiment with audio dubbing. We found instrumental versions of the songs we translated, then I sang the Latin over them and recorded it. Ideally you’d have students do this, but if you have shy students you may have to step in. One place to start is Audacity. If there is interest, I can follow up with a more technical post about how to accomplish this.
Best of luck to you and your students if you endeavor to try this!

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