“If I Were a Boy”: What Happens if French, Spanish and German Girls Share an Idea

Today I have a guest post for you here on Fluent, hopefully giving you insights into language learning through musics in a wholly new way. What if you didn't just watch "Let it Go from Frozen in 25 Languages" on YouTube. How about learning about how different languages use grammar to all express a common theme?

My guest Paul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service. You can find some of their resources at languagetrainers.com and also email him at paul@languagetrainers.com.

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It’s a question we’ve all thought about at least once -- if you woke up one morning and discovered that you were suddenly of the opposite sex, what would you do? Incidentally, this rhetorical situation has so thoroughly plagued pop singers around the world that they’ve been prompted to write songs about it! Indeed, there are popular songs titled “If I Were A Boy” in at least four languages -- English, Spanish, French, and German.

Unsurprisingly, the hypothetical male versions of the women who sing these catchy pop songs have different goals -- where Beyoncé is focused on doing right by her woman (“I’d stand up for her”), French songstress Diane Tell is more concerned with material goods (“Je t'offrirais de beaux bijoux” / I’d offer her beautiful jewels). And German group Fräulein Wunder has a slightly less glamorous set of goals, such as peeing with no hands (“Und nur zum Spaß freihändig pissen” / And piss with no hands for fun).

But regardless of whether their fantasies involve romance, riches, or going to the bathroom, these ladies all share one thing in common: their music gives us a great reason to practice the subjunctive. Yes, that’s right: an unintended side effect of these gender-bending tunes is that they give us learners a perfect chance to see the second conditional in action. So without further ado, let’s deconstruct the rich grammar lessons underlying the Spanish, French, and German versions of “If I Were a Boy”.

Spanish: Si Yo Fuera un Chico by Beyoncé

Beyoncé’s original English-language song “If I Were A Boy” was so popular that she translated and re-recorded a version en español for her Spanish-speaking fans. Since then, it’s been a hit in Latin America and Spain, as well as among students trying to learn the second conditional in Spanish. Let’s take a look at what Beyoncé would do if she were a boy.

Si yo fuera un chico / If I were a boy

Sé que podría saber / I know that I would be able to know

Comprender mucho mejor / How to better understand

Lo que es amar a una mujer / What it means to love a woman

Poignant, Beyoncé! But even more than being a sweet sentiment, these lyrics give us a great chance to learn the subjunctive in Spanish. Note that she uses the past subjunctive of “ser” (to be) -- fuera -- to indicate that the situation is hypothetical, or at least very unlikely. And later, she uses the conditional form of “poder” (to be able to) -- podría -- to indicate something that she would do if circumstances were different.

Who knew that Beyoncé was not only a queen of American pop music, but also a professor of Spanish? To find out what else Beyoncé would do if she were a boy, as well as to hear some more examples of second conditionals in Spanish, listen on here.

French: Si J’étais Un Homme 

Diane Tell is a French-Canadian singer who is arguably the one who started it all: in 1981, she became well-known throughout Canada and Europe when she released “Si j'étais un homme”, a solid three decades before Beyoncé’s version. Though Diane is a little more keen on material goods than Beyoncé (she goes on to write about expensive jewels, perfumes, and flowers), the message is the same: she would be very romantic if she were a man. In fact, at the end of the song, she proclaims:

Ah ! si j'etais un homme / Oh! If I were a boy

Je serais romantique… / I would be romantic…

And thus we encounter another great chance to brush up on our second conditionals. In French, like English, the second conditional is used to describe impossible or improbable situations. Here, it’s formed by taking the imperfect first-person tense of “être” (to be) -- ètais -- to express that the situation is not real. Then, like in Spanish, the conditional form of “être” -- serais -- indicates the same sentiment that “would” expresses in English.

To hear the rest of Mlle. Tell’s imaginative ideas, hear the full song here.

German: Wenn ich ein Junge wär

The spunky ladies of German band Fräulein Wunder do away with the sweet, romantic notions in the Spanish and French versions of the song, and instead zero in on the really important topics: Playboy, beer, and Kampfsport machen (combat sports). But despite the fact that their version of “If I Were Boy” is decidedly more vulgar than the others (making it a great song for learning German swear words), a G-rated grammar lesson can still be found within the profanity.

Wenn ich ein Junge wär / If I were a boy

Ich würd mit meinen Kumpels raufen / I would scuffle with my buddies

Ich würd mein’ nackten Hintern zeigen / I would show my bare butt

Amongst the fighting and flashing, some grammatical rules emerge: the subjunctive II is formed by adding an umlaut to the imperfect form of the verb -- so “war” becomes wär. This indicates that the situation described isn’t real. Then, the conditional: like English, German uses an entire word -- würd -- to express the sentiment of “would”; likewise, the verb that follows is in infinitive (uninflected) form, as we see with raufen and zeigen.

Some of Fräulein Wunder’s lyrics were too explicit for me to write about here, so prepare yourself, and listen to their entire song by clicking on this link (warning: parental advisory!).

Learning Grammar Through Music

As these ladies’ songs have shown us, music is a great way to enjoy yourself while picking up important grammar points. Given that songs are often written in common, colloquial language, they’re also great for learning phrases and sayings that you wouldn’t learn in class. For more foreign-language music ideas for language learners, check out these extensive suggestions. And don’t forget to sing along -- that way, you’ll be getting in some speaking practice as well! (Though, please -- be mindful of your surroundings when singing along to “Wenn ich ein Junge wär”.) Happy listening!

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