The word diva, an Italian borrowing meaning “female deity”, entered the English language just before the 20th century. Originally, divas were celebrated opera singers of unmatched excellence and renown. However, the meaning of the term has since broadened to include any woman of outstanding talent in the world of theatre, cinema and popular music.
For decades, divas such as María Felix, Rocío Jurado, and Barbra Streisand have produced millions of fans all over the world, broken sales records with their films and music, and drawn people’s attention to different cultures and languages.
Learning languages through divas’ songs, movies and memoirs is an excellent idea because these are artists whose art and personalities are so magnetic, so naturally fascinating, that you will become easily addicted to them and you’ll find yourself wanting to know more, see more, learn more. And of course, more exposition to your favourite divas means more language practice and cultural awareness.
For all these reasons, today we are bringing you three incredible international artists that encompass everything we love in a diva: glamour, intelligence, character, and lots of drama.
Édith Piaf – France
Édith Piaf was, without a doubt, France’s most cherished chanteuse, as well as an accomplished songwriter and film actress. Her music, which has been recorded in dozens of languages by other artists, often delved into her difficult past and was known for its raw emotional honesty and soulful sound.
In “Non, je ne regrette nien“, one of her most powerful ballads, Piaf acknowledges both her triumphs and her losses and boldly admits that she doesn’t regret anything about her personal history, that she embraces the good and the bad, the love as well as the heartbreak.
This song is often used in schools to teach all about French negatives, as the lyrics are full of lines containing structures such as non (not), ne… rien (nothing), and ni… ni (neither… nor), among others. The title itself is an example of the French double negative structure, in which the main verb “regrette” is sandwiched between the negative forms ne and rien.
Piaf also has a fascinating memoir, Ma vie, which goes into gritty details of her difficult past as an orphaned girl who overcame blindness, poverty, heartbreak, and addictions to become a world-famous megastar and a defining part of France’s cultural identity. If you’re tired of boring graded readers, this rollercoaster of a book might be just what you’re looking for.
Marlene Dietrich – Germany
Marlene Dietrich was a German-American movie star and live-show performer whose career spanned from the 1910s to the 1980s. One of the few German actresses to achieve international success, Dietrich became one of the highest-paid women in Hollywood during the 1940s.
Although she was better known as an iconic actress, Dietrich also enjoyed a successful singing career, and many of her releases, such as “Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind” (Tell Me Where the Flowers Are), and “In den Kasernen” (In the Barracks) have now become German classics.
“In the Barracks”, probably her most touching song, is a brave anti-war statement that denounces the cruelty of sending young men to kill each other on the battlefield.
Kommt man sie holen, dann gehen sie.
(If they are called, so they must go)
Ob sie auch wollen, das fragt man nie.
(they’re never asked if they want to.)
So war es immer, das wissen sie.
(The same old story that never ends)
Auf Menschenbrüder, da schießen sie.
(At fellow men they aim and shoot,)
Und Menschenbrüder befehlen sie.
(ordered by other fellow men.)
In addition to the recognition for her humanitarian work during World War II, when she offered housing and financial help to German and French exiles, she is considered a major gay icon due to her public persona, which defiantly subverted sexual norms and favoured an androgynous look. Dietrich was also known for her bisexuality, at a time when movie stars were forced by studios to stay in the closet.
An undeniably fascinating artist and human being, Marlene Dietrich is a wonderful companion for language-lovers who want to learn German through meaningful art and entertainment.
Lola Flores – España
Nicknamed the Female Pharaoh by the Spanish press and her legion of fans, Lola Flores was a multifaceted singer, flamenco dancer and movie star.
Although Flores was not a virtuous vocalist, she had a magnetic stage presence that made it impossible to take your eyes off her. After attending one of her shows in New York, a reviewer wrote: “Lola Flores is an artist. She’s not a singer, she’s not even a good dancer. But she’s an artist. Don’t miss her.”
A very outspoken woman, Flores was one of the first women in post-Franco Spain to talk about things like violence against women, divorce, and sexual freedom.
To younger people, she is best-known for a few iconic moments that have become a big part of Spain’s pop culture and have been immortalized in memes, T-shirts, and countless drag numbers. For example, during a televised performance in 1977, Flores lost an earring while dancing flamenco and stopped the performance to search for the precious jewel, saying “Perdón pero se me ha caído un pendiente de oro” (Excuse me but I’ve lost a gold earring), “Ustedes me lo vais a devolver porque mi trabajito me costó” (I have to get it back because it cost me a lot of work).
Watch the moment here:
Then, at her daughter’s wedding in 1983, a huge crowd crashed the church where the ceremony was being held and made it impossible for the priest to proceed with the vows. Immediately, Flores grabbed a mic, faced the crowd and said: “Si me queréis, irse”. (If you love me, leave) which has since become a popular expression that people use in different contexts with amusing results.
So, there they are: Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, and Lola Flores. Three incomparable artists who have transcended their time and become part of our world culture. Three artists who showed us that divas are not just glamorous celebrities, but talented, courageous, unique human beings whose art can teach us a lot about their time, culture, and language.
If you feel inspired to learn French, German or Spanish after reading this article, reach out to us. We’ll go out of our way to ensure you get a language course designed to suit both your cultural interests and your current language skills.