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Thoughts on Improving Your French With Songs

Camille Chevalier-Karfis By Camille Chevalier-Karfis on March 27, 2020

Follow my precise tips to see how you can improve your French with French songs.

Do you enjoy listening to music? If so, why not use French songs to improve your French?

Many people have written to me to ask for my guidance to help them study French with French songs.

My answer will certainly differ from what you’ll find on most blogs… So please, read this more like an opinion piece.

1 – Expanding Your Vocabulary With French Songs

Music is catchy. Because they’re set to music, it may be easier to remember whole French sentences, expressions or at least some new French terms.

Yet, I have a word of caution there… Say you love French rap… why not! But do you want to sound like a French rapper when you speak French? Some terms may fly in the context of a song, but are they OK to use in everyday conversation? Songs don’t necessarily give you a lot of context…

You may be familiar with the hit Lady Marmelade song from “Moulin Rouge”… And the lyrics “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir”… OK, sounds innocent enough in the song… In French, this expression is quite explicit. It means: “would you like to have sex with me tonight”.

Songs lyrics can be misleading. So, before you study some French terms or expression you picked in a song, you need to find out:

  1. it’s actual meaning,
  2. whether it’s still being used nowadays – especially if you like to listen to “older” singers – like Edith Piaf, Aznavour, Brel…
  3. whether the terms are everyday French, slang, vulgar words or a type of vocabulary only used by a certain group or group age…

So it may not that easy to integrate French song vocabulary into your everyday vocabulary.

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2 – Improving Your French Pronunciation With French Songs

Because by nature songs come with audio they look like a great way to work on your pronunciation.

A great example is the song “Formidable” by Stromae. This word is typically difficult to pronounce for an English speaker because it looks exactly like an English word, and therefore your English brain is going to want to pronounce it the English way. Furthermore, endings in “able” can be a challenge.

So, yes to Stromae for teaching everybody the correct French pronunciation of “formidable”.

Yet, what the song doesn’t clearly explain is that “formidable” in French nowadays mostly means great, awesome… not  challenging, demanding, daunting as it does in English.

For exemple:
Tu as réussi ton examen de français ! C’est formidable !
You passed your French exam! How great!

So, you got the right French pronunciation, but you won’t get the right meaning if you don’t research it carefully.

Stromae is another great example because of his pronunciation. His R is very strong. Part of his success in France is due to the fact that he has been compared to Piaf and the song writers of the past who had great lyrics.

Yet, is it the right pronunciation for you to study? I can’t answer this question for you, but I can tell you that in today’s modern French, not everybody enunciates like Piaf or Stromae, or uses a very hard R.

3 – Improving your French Grammar With Songs

Let’s carry on with another example from dear Stromae…. Hum, maybe I should have called this article “improving your French with Stromae” – LOL!

Another hit song is “Papaoutai”. Very catchy, easy to remember. Yet featuring a very twisted modern French way to ask: “Papa, où es-tu”.

At least, Stromae is introducing you to some modern French glidings: when he repeats “où est ton papa ?” he glides it: “way ton papa”. I approve!!

Yet, if you are a classically trained student, and use literary-like constructions and enunciate everything very clearly, and were to drop suddenly a “papaoutai” in conversation… It would just clash.

4 – My Conclusion

Just like improving your French with movies, songs are fun, and you may even pick up some words of vocabulary, a few expressions, some nice glidings, or great examples of verb tenses…

I often use songs with students: they make for a fun interlude, a friendly example. I give links to songs on YouTube which illustrate tenses in my Upper Intermediate French learning method À Moi Paris L5. I’m all for encouraging students to listen to French songs.

Yet, do French songs make a great French studying tool? They do… if you do your part: research the new word or expression, make sure it’s a word you want to learn, make sure you truly understand what it means and whether it’s still being used nowadays, check the common pronunciation… A lot of work indeed compared to studying with a dialogue that would have been written especially for your level…

To sum up… Listen to French songs to relax, for fun. Be happy when you understand a few words. If you are curious, look the lyrics up, maybe just so you may understand the song. If you feel like memorising them because you enjoy singing along, or simply enjoy the sound of it… then great.

But in my humble opinion, all this has its place as an intelligent recreational activity. That doesn’t make it a reliable – or time efficient – study tool.

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