Shakira: How Walt Whitman Changed the Trajectory of the Singer’s Life

Upon her arrival in the United States, Shakira didn’t know one word of English. She had to learn the native language and fast. As much as she was surrounded by other Spanish speakers, she knew she wanted to branch out musically to American audiences.

Shakira | Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

Find out how the Colombian-Lebanese singer got the hang of English quickly.

The singer teaches her sons several languages

When the performer had her first son, Milan, now six years old, she immediately began teaching him various languages. The 42-year-old doesn’t play around when it comes to her children (she also has four-year-old Dante now, as well) and education. She got them started early, even before they officially started school. reported in 2014 that the singer tweeted to a fan, “Any child can learn languages before they’re three – we expose Milan to Spanish, Catalan, English, French, German, Russian and Chinese.”

“Babies have an innate thirst for knowledge and enjoy learning. Kids are able to comprehend more than we think – it’s never too early to start teaching and exposing them to books even as newborns.”

Shakira in America

When Shakira arrived in the United States, two people who immediately took her under her wing were Gloria and Emilio Estefan, the Jay-Z and Beyonce of Latin-American music.

Gloria told Oprah Winfrey in 2013 how she fought for Shakira when she arrived from Colombia to begin her crossover to American pop/rock music markets.

Gloria and Emilio Estefan

“[The record executives] wanted her just to throw a couple of songs in English on a Latin record, and I fought hard. I said, ‘Listen. This is her shot. You can’t do it halfway, you know?’” Gloria told Winfrey.

“An American audience is not gonna get a record that’s mostly Spanish because there’s a couple of English cuts on it. They’re gonna want to hear the whole thing. This is gonna work. I fought hard for her. Fought hard. And she sold like 13 million of that album [Laundry Service].”

How Shakira learned English like it was her job

Shakira took learning her new language seriously. It wasn’t enough for her to simply have her lyrics to the songs on her debut English-language album translated from Spanish to English and then for her to sing phonetically. She wanted to take complete ownership of the album.

“When Shakira began to work with us she did not know English,” Estefan said in a recent interview. “So I had to translate the songs from the album ‘Laundry Service’ for her and convince her that she could do a triumphant job.”

“To me it was very important to understand the nature of the language and how it works in literature,” Shakira said to VH1 in an interview. “I wanted to know how English grammar works…I had to read Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in English just to understand the language a little more. It was too important to me to write my own material like I always did.” 

In her interview, Estefan said that “the first time [Shakira] had to give a concert in English she was so nervous I had to go into the dressing room to calm her down and say ‘Relax you’ll do great and you’ll be fine.'”

Shakira did more than fine; she’ll be co-headlining the Super Bowl LIV halftime show with Jennifer Lopez next month. All that from learning English!

Read more: Shakira’s Surprisingly Doable Super Bowl 2020 Diet and Workout