Listening to songs in the language you’re learning is an effective and enjoyable way to practise your language skills. It can help improve your listening comprehension and your pronunciation and, on top of this, music is catchy! This means that the new words, phrases and structures that you hear within a song may be easier to remember and reuse in your own speaking or writing.
Earlier this year we published a blog article titled ‘Language learning using your favourite songs’, in which we gave you our top tips for using a song to practise your language skills. But there are thousands and thousands of songs which exist throughout the French-speaking world – where do you start with finding ones to listen to which will help you practise your French? In this article, we’ve done the hard work for you! Read on to discover our 5 recommended songs in French.
1. À la claire fontaine – traditional French song
We’ll start with a song which may be the first that many French children ever heard. À la claire fontaine is a very well-known traditional French song. It is thought that this comptine (nursery rhyme) dates back to the early 17th Century, when it was sung both in France and in what was later to become Quebec, as French settlers were arriving in Canada.
After listening to the song a few times without looking at the lyrics, we recommend following the stages described in our blog article on language learning through songs (see link above). À la claire fontaine is very useful for French learners, as it contains many different verb tenses, including the passé composé, the imperfect, the future and even the imperfect subjunctive – “fût” in the final verse is the third person singular form of être in the imperfect subjunctive. We’d recommend trying to spot all the tenses you know while reading the lyrics and to help you with any comprehension problems, take a look at an English translation of the text.
2. La mer – Charles Trenet, 1946
We’re sure that many of you will be familiar with this very famous song, which was originally recorded by Roland Gerbeau in 1945 but was made famous by the great Charles Trenet in 1946. Trenet was a very popular French singer-songwriter whose career lasted from the 1930s to the 1990s. Following his recording of La mer, it was translated into many different languages, including, as many of you will know, English (titled Beyond the Sea).
Listen to the song without reading the lyrics first, then we recommend looking at the lyrics and studying them like you would if they were any other reading text: look up new words you don’t know and try to spot specific language points you have been studying. La mer is especially useful for practising adjectives. Take a moment to consider which adjectives precede the noun and which come after it, and note how the adjectives change depending on whether the noun it’s describing is masculine or feminine and singular or plural. For example, compare “ces grands roseaux mouillés” and “ces maisons rouillées”. If you’d like to recap adjective agreement and positioning, join Mark and Anna in Coffee Break French Season 2 Episode 9.
3. Tous les garçons et les filles – Françoise Hardy, 1962
It is generally thought that Françoise Hardy stood out from the crowd amongst the 1960s French yé-yé pop singers due to the fact that she wrote her own songs and went on to influence the likes of Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan. She rose straight to the top of the charts at the age of 18 with her first record Tous les garçons et les filles, which describes a young person watching with envy the couples around her when she has never known love herself. Hardy later recorded the song in Italian (Quelli della mia età) and in English (Find Me a Boy).
And, luckily for us, the vocabulary used in the lyrics isn’t too tricky, so have a listen and see how much you can understand. As always, listen out for examples of the language points you have been learning about. For example, if you are familiar with the word personne, used to mean ‘no one’, listen out for the repeated phrase “personne ne m’aime”, meaning “no one loves me”.
4. Je reviendrai à Montréal – Robert Charlebois, 1976
Je reviendrai à Montréal is one of the most famous songs of musician, composer, author and actor, Robert Charlebois. Originally from Montreal, Quebec, he is thought to have been hugely influential in the development of music both in Quebec and throughout the francophone world, and in 1999 he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.
The lyrics of some of his songs include many specifically québécois words, which makes them very interesting, but if you try listening to them don’t worry if you struggle to understand what he is singing about! The lyrics of Je reviendrai à Montréal, however, are in a much more standard, universal French. Look out for the example of the future tense in the title and repeated throughout the song, “je reviendrai”, meaning “I will come back”. There are also several uses of avoir besoin de + infinitive/noun, for example, “j’ai besoin de sentir le froid” (“I need to feel the cold”) and “j’ai besoin de cette lumière” (“I need that light”) and an example of the subjunctive trigger sans que + subjunctive. To learn more about the subjunctive and other subjunctive triggers, listen to Coffee Break French Season 3 Episode 16.
5. Papaoutai – Stromae, 2013
We’re sure that many of you will already know Stromae, Belgian rapper and singer-songwriter whose songs have been a huge success across much of Europe. Paul Van Haver originally chose Opsmaestro as his stage name, but then changed it to Stromae. This name comes from the word maestro and is an example of verlan, a type of French slang which involves swapping round the syllables of a word (mae-stro → stro-mae). His song Papaoutai, Belgium’s best selling single of 2013, refers to the absence of Stromae’s father, Pierre Rutare, during his childhood, before Rutare was killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The title comes from “Papa où t’es ?” (“Dad, where are you?”).
The lyrics contain many examples of different verb tenses, use of the pronouns y and en and many more language points you can look out for. Also note how the repeated question in the chorus “où t’es ?” combines tu and es to make “t’es”, which is very common in informal, spoken French.
We hope this article has given you a useful introduction to just a tiny proportion of the huge variety of French music which is out there, across the whole francophone world. Two of the songs we have chosen, La mer and Papaoutai, are already included in our Tune for Tuesday playlist. This is a feature that we introduced earlier this year. Every Tuesday we add another song to it, with the aim of building up a playlist of songs from all over the world and in many different languages to help you develop your language skills and introduce you to some new styles of music. We are going to add these five songs to our new playlist, Tune for Tuesday – French, which will contain only songs in French. You can find this playlist on YouTube and on Spotify by clicking on the links below. And remember to keep up to date with Tune for Tuesday by searching for Coffee Break Languages and Coffee Break French on Facebook.
What songs in French do you already know and love? Feel free to share some of your favourites with us in the comments to help other French learners discover them!