French Through Songs and Singing: Language and Culture Through Music Online

by Aaron Prevots, Southwestern University

For the past several years, I have been thinking a great deal about how to incorporate music more in my French language, literature and culture classrooms and how to share the pedagogical benefits of this experience. This essay will first describe my experiences creating French through Songs and Singing, a multimedia educational Web site featuring music-related articles, streaming MP3’s of primarily public domain material and annotated, downloadable lyrics. It will then address its use in the classroom and its progress in moving toward a collaborative model. In addition to relating various unusual facets of the project, my overall aims will be to show: 1) How my ideas for technology implementation were built on existing well-received pedagogical practices and 2) How the site gradually amplified and expanded potential for broad success in the foreign language classroom through music.

Humble Beginnings
Since about 1996 (as a graduate Teaching Fellow at Brown University) I had been bringing my guitar to beginning French classes, and on occasion to more advanced literature and culture courses. I frequently received feedback such as the following: “The singing was one of my favorite parts, as were the skits we performed. I think both serve to improve spoken French and oral comprehension more than any other single activity.” “I particularly enjoyed the use of French songs integrated throughout the course, as this aspect served to support the language that was taught to the class.” “I particularly enjoyed the musical bits. I didn’t expect to like French music so well, and I enjoyed singing songs with the guitar. I also enjoy the interactive format of the class.”

The sing-along continues to be a successful pedagogical tool in my current French courses at Southwestern University. In addition to the obvious linguistic benefits of using varied materials, students seem to take naturally to singing (and sometimes even request more for end-of-year parties). After attending a Learning Objects workshop in June 2005, I found a plan taking shape. In the summer of 2006 I received support from ACS and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to pursue it. At the time, I intended to record a handful of songs I had been using to teach French and make them available to others. I wanted to “virtually” facilitate the sing-alongs that had been so popular in my courses. I selected and recorded an initial set of fifty songs to post.

Twenty of the songs to date are offered in two versions–one regular, one slow, with the slower version appearing in a second Flash Player. This corresponds to classroom experience: Students love singing but still need to learn at their own pace. This pedagogical aspect is flagged at the home page, in the project goals:

1. To promote French and Francophone cultures
2. To encourage sing-alongs in the classroom
3. To offer fast and slow versions of some songs
4. To remain faithful to traditions and also innovate
5. To provide a resource bank that can grow over time

One enjoyable first step was writing my own songs. I had written one or two before, but the idea of making a contribution to the profession through a free resource open to all motivated me to do more. These songs include a variety of musical styles and pedagogical lessons. “Je ne veux pas,” “Qu’est-ce que tu aimes, Madeleine,” and “Une vieille bonne femme,” are based on “London Bridge is Falling Down,” “Jenny Jenkins” and “I Know an Old Lady” respectively. “Le blues d’être,” meant to help students internalize irregular verb patterns, introduces more of a rock element, while “Je t’aimerais mieux, mon mari” contains traditional lyrics adapted to a Cajun style. “Les menteries” takes the lyrical tomfoolery of some traditional Franco-Canadian strains and makes it accessible to students still in their early years of French study.

Another key step was expanding site material so that cultural and academic variety were foregrounded. To me, the environment created by this grouping of individual learning objects represents a form of permanent cultural diversity outreach, in that it includes a fair number of French-Canadian traditional songs–for example, “Ah! si mon moine voulait danser,” “L’arbre est dans ses feuilles” and “Le festin de campagne“–that the typical French student in the USA might never discover otherwise. This is in addition to the usual French favorites, such as “Ah! vous dirai-je maman,” “Au clair de la lune” and “Chevaliers de la table ronde.”

In the Classroom
Surely not all of us want to suddenly burst out in song–as in the French films Les parapluies de Cherbourg, On connaît la chanson, or Pas sur la bouche, or the recent Canadian hit C.R.A.Z.Y. For putting one at ease beforehand, multimedia shines. First, students can listen to a song before class. When I bring my guitar with me, I usually present vocabulary, then one verse and chorus by myself as a further model, before we all start together. I also start into songs slowly. With the French through Songs and Singing Flash Player, this same modeling can in most cases be done just as easily without an instrument. For the “Comment dit-on blues,” I let the MP3 provide the ‘call’ lines that students respond to, and I don’t have to sing at all.

A primary strategy of mine in recent years has been to match at least one song to each chapter of our textbook and thus enhance grammatical progressions. In French I, for example, “Bonjour! Comment ça va?,” and “Les ABC,” work well as course openers; “L’arbre est dans ses feuilles” presents the expression “il y a”; “Le petit train” emphasizes the verb “avoir”; and “Une vieille bonne femme” highlights the past tense. In a third-year upper intermediate course on culture, we sang songs as they related to topics, including “J’aurai le vin” regarding sociability and “Au clair de la lune” for added insights on mores.

Similarly, it is worth mentioning that the very subject of some songs can put students in touch with course material in new ways. I envision using “Savez-vous planter les choux” as a tie-in to Agnès Varda’s film Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, and “Le petit mari,” which relates to the specific song tradition of songs by poorly married women, for a course on gender and identity. One could also examine more troubling or comical aspects of everyday life through the undertones of “Il était une bergère” or “C’est la mère Michel.” Furthermore, singing the actual texts adds linguistic variation to courses that otherwise focus on analysis. I often find that students engaged in this way are more apt to participate. Parallels to poetry can be especially interesting, in terms of how folk traditions were embedded in daily routines, with stories and wordplay an inherent part of existence socially and individually. Assuming easy access to materials and the right pedagogical touch, singing in the foreign language classroom adds variety, concretizes learning and invites a stretch beyond what students perceive to be their level.

A Dynamic and Collaborative Model
It is very much my hope that French through Songs and Singing can suit a broad public. My analysis of current resources suggests that it fills a niche. The first collaborative aspect that has fallen nicely into place is soliciting contributions from recording artists. Although time-consuming, it has reaped strong rewards. Since a plurality of voices will always enhance a songs and culture project, it was a real pleasure to incorporate the following works by current recording artists: “Le p’tit cordonnier” by Les Chauffeurs à pieds; “I.C.U.” and “J’essaye d’arrêter” by Damien; “Aux Natchitoches” by Feufollet; “San Cristobal” by Sandra Le Couteur; “Les clefs de la prison” by Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys; and “Gérard Depardieu” and “L’invitation au voyage” by Jacques Yvart. In this way, students and teachers can learn more about such areas as rap, reggae, traditional music, and ties to poetry (see “L’invitation au voyage,” based on a famous poem by Charles Baudelaire).

French through Songs and Singing has also continued its growth as a collaborative educational space by inviting scholarly contributions. Through listserves and an occasional direct email (a method not without its pitfalls), the site is moving toward including material by specialists in the areas of music, culture and pedagogy. One valuable recent addition is the “Learn About Quebec Project” by Dr. Matthew Shaftel of Florida State University and Pascale Shaftel of Maclay School, Tallahassee. Information on politically-oriented songs from Quebec–la chanson engagée–is on its way. I have arranged with one language lab director to exchange online materials along with pedagogical prefaces. An ongoing call for papers appears at the home page, and I am building further networks such as those in the Academic Commons by presenting my work at conferences.

Another collaborative aspect I am implementing in spring 2007 is posting student critical analyses of CDs by contemporary Francophone artists, once class members have selected a CD of their choice from among those purchased recently for our library. Because the online audience is international, students will have a greater motivation to craft strong arguments and to fine-tune their prose in the target language. Response to this assignment in the early weeks of class has been positive, particularly where students are enthused to have a distinct personal voice in the elaboration of course materials (they will also be choosing a novel to read independently). As always, however, a key teaching ingredient appears to be allowing adequate preparation and workshopping time by beginning the task early and having students complete it in several phases.

I would welcome similar CD or DVD critique submissions from fellow professors, with the assumption that we as faculty will function as peer reviewers to ensure the quality of material that appears.

Besides adding user offerings and new batches of songs each year (as MP3s of tunes from a variety of traditions and styles), I plan to write further articles of my own to post at the site. In such ways, this curricular tool should remain dynamic. I will continue to solicit recording artist contributions, and would very much consider student contributions provided recordings are of a quality that allow for easy comprehension. Because French through Songs and Singing was designed in WordPress (a free online web publishing platform), the creation of an extensible teaching environment that efficiently integrates these various site additions was a fairly straightforward process. A true pleasure of expanding the site is seeing the online environment amplify the kinds of group participation and engagement that already exist in the traditional classroom, whether through significant shareable resources or through the continued reflection they facilitate, a quality inherent to the best classroom teaching.

The References section has grown considerably and should provide strong support to scholars. I include ISBN’s to facilitate ordering–as well as borrowing through Interlibrary Loan. One general resource of particular value to those in all languages is Murphey, Tim, Music and Song, Oxford Resource Books for Teachers series, New York: Oxford UP, 1992, ISBN 0194370550. My own article “Pedagogical Approaches: Selected Ideas for Using Songs” provides a brief overview regarding music in the foreign-language classroom.

Beyond the Higher-Ed Classroom
This educational Web site can also be used for community outreach. I have already presented three songs to a middle-school audience that visited Southwestern University as part of our Operation Achievement program, with great success. I fully intend for the site to model good practices and provide classroom-oriented materials for any and all to use, and colleagues have encouraged its use in teacher-training courses as well as in outreach by undergraduates to area secondary schools. I will be happy to post any results to the Commons in the future, and I welcome feedback regarding successful use of the site. I do know through listserve feedback that I am already helping instructors in, for example, Spain, Ireland, Amsterdam and Rome.

This grouping of articles, links and multimedia materials has numerous features gauged toward improving teaching and learning in a higher education context. It addresses teaching goals by providing authentic materials, ideas for implementation and broad cultural connections. It is unusual in that few such multimedia sites offer material that is both sung and accompanied by a pedagogical and scholarly apparatus, at no charge and in a relatively straightforward format. I have seen other collaborative scholarly sites evolve, and feel that with time this can become an invaluable resource that celebrates as much French and Francophone cultures as lyric traditions and the human voice. On a technical level, it emphasizes the value of judiciously aggregating learning objects within a large-scale environment based on sound pedagogical practices, not only to encourage students and teachers to reuse them but to inspire us to want to do so.