Fine Tune Your Skills With French Songs
Who said learning a language has to be all work and no play? Listening to French songs is a fantastic way to relax and have fun while practicing your language skills.
While French music has a long tradition in classical and instrumental composition, special focus has been placed on music with French lyrics. This article offers insight on how to maximize your language learning by listening to French songs, while also suggesting a few genres for your listening pleasure.
Maximize Your Learning With French Songs
Bettering your French requires more than putting a playlist on as background noise. When playing an album for the first time, take a moment to practice active listening. Give the song your full attention and see how many words and phrases you can catch on your first listen. Then, play the song again and see if you can catch a few more.
Have your own Sing-Along
Knowing every word to a song in your maternal language is already difficult, so catching every word in a foreign language is sure to pose a challenge. Don’t torture yourself! Find the lyrics and create your own sing-along. This will accelerate your comprehension and help you connect better with the music. Better yet, add the lyrics as a lesson on LingQ and translate the words and phrases as you go. You can then learn them through exposure in future lessons and with the vocabulary activities.
Take it slow
Many songs have rapid rhythms and complicated slang that can be quite difficult to understand. Choose French songs that have slow tempos with lyrics articulated clearly. Traditional classics are great for this. Save the quick tunes with lots of slang for days when you’re up for a challenge.
Get in the groove
With increased access to music from all over the globe, the world is your oyster. Indulge in exploring something new that grabs your attention, or pick a timeless classic that you were always curious about. Remember to choose music that you enjoy, and it will certainly feel more like a party than a study session!
Genres that Offer Great Language Practice:
There is a wealth of diversity in music with French lyrics, so you’re sure to find something that strikes the right note. Listed below are a few genres that provide a particularly great starting point for language practice. Performers who demonstrate clear pronunciation are suggested in each musical category.
Cabaret and Nouvelle Chanson
A cultural hallmark of the French music scene, cabaret began to flourish towards the end of the 19th century. Café collaborations between local performers throughout artistic Parisian neighbourhoods, such as Montmartre and Pigalle, strengthened the development of this genre, which is rooted in dynamic artistry, striking performances, and live entertainment. Often racy in nature, the cabaret genre carries a reputation of being seductive, passionate, and unapologetic.
Sharing similar themes and performance styles with cabaret, the nouvelle chanson genre, or ‘new song’ genre, includes classic French songs and is considered the precursor to pop. Characteristic of both cabaret and nouvelle chanson is a heightened focus on lyrics and rhythm, resulting in strong poetic qualities.
Edith Piaf is one of the most well-known and beloved artists following in the cabaret and nouvelle chanson traditions. She enjoyed great success throughout her career, which spanned the first part of the 20th century. The lyrics of her songs feature powerful emotion and sincerity.
Try these cabaret-style songs by Edith Piaf:
“Non, je ne regrette rien”
Released in 1959, this song has structured rhythm, prominent rhyme, slowly articulated lyrics, and basic vocabulary—ideal for beginners looking to strengthen their French listening skills! Often interpreted as a reflection on life experience, the title translates as “No, I don’t regret anything.” See how the use of ‘ni’ is used in this verse:
Non, rien de rien, non, je ne regrette rien – No, nothing of nothing, no, I don’t regret anything
Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait, ni le mal – Neither the good that has been done to me, nor the bad
Tout ça m’est bien égal – It doesn’t matter to me
“La Vie en Rose”
Covered by dozens of artists since its original release in 1947, this is considered Piaf’s most celebrated piece. This song is a great reminder that sometimes a literal translation falls short of communicating meaning. For example, Piaf sings about how her lover makes life itself wonderful. A literal translation of the title would be “The Pink Life” or “The Rosy Life.” However, a better translation would reflect the sentiment that is expressed in English as seeing life through rose-tinted glasses.
A friend and colleague of Piaf’s, Charles Aznavour, is also considered one of the greatest singer/songwriters in the nouvelle chanson tradition. Aznavour has over 80 years of performance and composing experience.
Try this well-known nouvelle chanson by Charles Aznavour:
Sung with a more fleeting rhythm, this song embodies “The Bohemian” lifestyle, as the title suggests, by creating vivid imagery of artists in Montmartre during the neighbourhood’s height. Notice how the concrete description creates emotional significance:
Avec le ventre creux – With a hollow stomach
Nous ne cessions d’y croire – We never stopped believing
Et quand quelque bistro – And when some bistro
Contre un bon repas chaud – In exchange for a good hot meal
Nous prenait une toile – Took a canvas (painting) from us
Often, classic French songs share similarities with French poetry in terms of the number of syllables per line and structured rhythm. You’ll notice this in many of Piaf’s and Aznavour’s songs—certain words are pronounced differently than in standard spoken French. In Aznavour’s song, for example, the usually silent ‘e’ at the end of the word “bohème” is pronounced, creating an extra syllable. This allows the song to achieve a structured rhythm, similar to poetic meter.
While a lot of hip hop and house features fast lyrics and heavy slang, some artists within the genre integrate elements of spoken word into their songs, which can be easier to follow when you’re learning the language. These French songs are excellent for picking up common expressions and accepted slang.
Songs by Belgian artist Stromae often feature catchy beats and clearly spoken verses, making them superb for language exploration. The stage name ‘Stro-mae’ is constructed by swapping the syllables in the word ‘mae-stro.’ This follows the common rules of French slang known as verlan, in which syllables are swapped. (‘Verlan’ itself comes from swapping the syllables in ‘à l’envers,’ meaning ‘inverse.’)
Try this house song by Stromae:
“Alors on danse”
A memorable song that reached the top of the charts in several countries, “Alors on danse,” translated as “So we dance,” features verses that build on themselves, gradually expanding in vocabulary and complexity. Take a look at these first lines:
Qui dit étude, dit travail – When we say studies, that means work
Qui dit taf*, te dit les thunes* – When we say work, that means money (*argot/slang)
Qui dit argent, dit dépenses – When we say money, that means expenses
Qui dit credit, dit créance – When we say credit, that means debt
Qui dit dette, te dit huissier – When we say debt, that means the bailiff
Lui dit, assis dans la merde – He says you’re in deep shit (sitting in shit)
The verses may get more complicated, but you’ll certainly come away from this tune remembering the repetitive refrain…”Alors on danse!”
Looking for a listening challenge? Try zouk! Stemming from carnival traditions in the French Antilles, zouk features upbeat dance rhythms and smooth vocals. While refrains are sometimes in standard French, this genre is heavy in French Creole, making it a great choice for an advanced language challenge!
What are you waiting for? Put on a playlist, and fine tune your French!
Aimee Willems has a Bachelor’s Degree in French and Francophone Studies and has spent a significant amount of time in France, French Guiana, and Senegal.
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