The Return of Eurovision : Love Those Languages!

If the glitz and razzamatazz hadn’t already caught your eye this week, we’re approaching a very special Saturday for lovers of language and music. Saturday sees the 65th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest reach its conclusion after a two-year wait!

The contest, like so much of everyday life, came to abrupt halt in 2020 due to the Covid-19 crisis, making its return even more welcome than ever, And Dutch broadcaster AVROTROS has pulled out all the stops to make it a more joyous occasion than ever.

In recent years, the contest has admittedly been a much more watered-down offering for language learners and teachers. The reintroduction of the free language rule in 1999 has, in effect, turned the show into a largely anglophone affair. That said, France, Italy and Spain in particular continue to ensure that their native languages are represented. And it’s getting exciting: this year, two of those countries find themselves the position of hot favourites for the title.

Italy or France for the Win?

With mere days to go until the big showdown, Italy finds itself at the top of the list. There are huge expectations, but since its return in 2011 after a long hiatus, the country has landed solidly in the top ten all but twice. At the last contest in 2019, Italy came within a whisker of victory with the internationally successful Soldi by Mahmood. This year there is more of the edgy, contemporary cool that we have come to expect from broadcaster RAI, which regularly selects its representative via the acclaimed San Remo festival. 2021 winners, rock outfit Måneskin (actually Danish for “Moonlight”), ask us to “Zitti e buoni” (‘shut up and behave’) in a performance that will certainly have viewers sit up and take notice:

French learners and teachers also have something to be very excited about on Saturday. France’s Barbara Pravi presents the Piaf-esque “Voilà”, finding herself in the top three favourites to win. Could it be Paris 2022? If so, it would be the first French win after a very dry period, the last victory being the 1977 gold medal for evergreen “L’oiseau et l’enfant” by Marie Myriam.

But it doesn’t stop there for francophone fans. In the top ten favourites, we also find Switzerland, spoilt for national language choice, electing to sing in French this year. Gjon’s Tears is highly fancied with the achingly beautiful song “Tout l’univers”. A Swiss win would be the first since Céline Dion’s 1988 smash “Ne partez pas sans moi”.

Spain’s Blas Cantó, while not amongst the favourites, presents a beautiful ballad. Spain has waited even longer than France for another win, after back-to-back victories in 1968 and 1969. Although an outsider, Eurovision fans have learnt to live by the adage ‘never say never’, and if the juries and televoters are in the mood for a big ballad, Blas ticks all the boxes:

Absent, Returning and New Friends!

German teachers, sorry again: Germany and Austria both send English songs again, so we’ll have to wait for another year to see if Deutsch makes a comeback. Elsewhere, though, we have a smattering of other languages. Russia sends a gloriously bombastic, in-your-face number featuring a heady mix of Russian and English. Ukraine sends hypnotic, turbo-folk in its native tongue. Albania treats us to the wonderful sound of its home language once again. And there’s a welcome return of Danish to the contest for the first time since 1997! Apart from those more vigorous nods to a polyglot Europe, there are a smattering of phrases here and there in other songs. Cyprus sings (in English) about el diablo, while Malta retorts Je me casse! in an otherwise anglophone lyric.

However, there is also a language first in 2021: the appearance of Sranan Tongo in the lyrics of the home entry from the Netherlands. Sranan Tongo is a creole language from Suriname, taking its core vocabulary from English and Dutch, so you might very well be able to take a guess at the meaning of those very special words included in Jeangu Macrooy’s entry “Birth of a New Age”.

Using the Contest in Class

The most obvious way to work the contest into lessons is, of course, simply sharing this wonderful music with your students. Lyrics gapfills are always fun – check out the official participant pages here for the full song texts.

But another angle to take is language awareness, especially with languages less well-known amongst students. Take this year’s non-English songs: Italian, French, Spanish, Danish, Russian, Ukrainian, Albanian. Play students a short clip, and ask them to guess which is which. It can throw up some surprising results and provide a really nice jump point to discuss how languages are related to one another.

However you choose to celebrate the Eurovision Song Contest with your students (or otherwise) this year, enjoy the moment: we’ve waited a long time for it!