Wednesday, March 14, 2007

So you don't speak French, but you want to help your children to learn it? Part I: Music

I've been hearing more and more about parents who don't speak a certain second language but who are interested in having their children learn it--kids attend Montessori or internationally-oriented preschools and elementary schools where they learn languages that their parents don't know, Chinese is exploding in Chicago elementary schools, and here in Colorado, Anglo kids attend Spanish-English bilingual schools and leave 5th grade fluent in Spanish while their parents remain monolingual.

So it seems indeed possible that your children can learn a language that you don't speak (yet or ever), and in fact, you can help them without being fluent yourself! Now, some researchers and educators will protest that only native speakers should teach languages to children, that you're doing the kids a disservice if you don't expose them exclusively to the most authentic and natural and perfectly-accented speech. But frankly, if that were true, then nine-tenths of the foreign language teachers in this country would be out of a job and the US would have even fewer speakers of foreign languages. Look at me: I started learning French in high school, didn't have a native speaker as a teacher until I studied abroad as a junior in college (except for a couple of weeks at French camp through Concordia Language Villages), still speak with a noticeable American accent, but have managed to stay employed as a French teacher at a university for seven years now (and have even won teaching awards, if you don't mind my bragging). So while in a perfect world, everyone would have access to native speakers of every language they want to learn, the kids I tutor and the college students I teach will be just fine with me at the front of the classroom. (Besides, being a native speaker of a language does not imply that you know how to teach it, whereas someone who did have to learn it in a classroom--rather than acquiring it as a child--has a better idea of what works and what the students will struggle with.)

In other words, people who speak another language with an accent are still far better off than people who speak only one language.

Anyway, Corey, who is raising her children with English and German, is considering adding French into the mix, even though she and her husband aren't French speakers. (I don't know if they've studied some along the way or not.) She asked me for some suggestions for materials to help them. So here's what I can recommend so far, and I hope it will prove useful to other parents or caretakers or teachers, especially those who aren't fluent in French themselves:

Music, lots of music: I'd vote for a combination of French folk songs, comptines (nursery rhymes), and children's music along with songs specifically written for children learning French as a second/foreign language. The former are authentic with a wide variety of vocabulary and grammatical structures and cultural contexts; the latter will be easier to understand and often about everyday life (eg, greetings, what's in a kitchen, days of the week, body parts) and thus kids (and parents) will be able to sing along more quickly and then use the language in other situations. Moreover, these typically include English translations of the French lyrics.

Resources for music: For authentic songs, try (my favorite album so far is Mes chansons préférées, but Mes comptines is great too and perhaps easier to understand than some of the songs), Putumayo (I particularly like their French Playground), Michael Doucet's Le Hoogie Boogie: Louisiana French Music for Children, and Comptines à chanter and Les plus belles comptines des petits lascars (the latter includes directions for fingerplays to accompany the comptines).

As for original songs for learners, I like the gentle, lyrical, and occasionally silly Muriel's World, the catchy and often silly albums by Alain LeLait (, and Baby's First Steps in French, which has traditional French children's songs that have been modified to include all the possible different sound combinations in French, plus comptines and sections of "parentese" (or "baby talk," very simplified, repetitive statements and questions like what a parent would say to an infant).

I'm less impressed by--mostly because these songs didn't engage the four-year-old and six-year-old girls I tutor and because my one-year-old nephew's still too young to sing along and play games in French, and thus I haven't explored them extensively--French on the Move for Kids (designed for ages 3-8) and Hop, Skip, and Sing French for Kids (ages 2-7). On the plus side, these two are more than just songs; they include games activities that adults can do with the kids (like Simon Says), translations, and vocab lists from the songs.

Okay, this post is getting long. I'll close for now; click here for Part II about videos!


  1. Thank you for this! I am going to go through your recommendations in more detail today. To answer one question of yours, yes, R and I do know some French. I took it for 4 years in highschool and then spent some time in France during various visits in Europe. My accent is ok but not native and my vocabulary is lacking. R took it in school in Germany and can speak it and read it very well. But, of course, we are forgetting it the longer we go without using it!

    I agree that the experts have a point about not teaching a language if it isn't our native language but there is also something to be said for just giving something a try and adding another language into our lives. I would never imagine that that my children will grow up as French speakers but it sure is great when we sit at the bus stop and my boys say, "Mama, listen, that person over there is speaking French" (or Spanish, or whatever) because they have had an exposure to those languages. It is really mind-opening in many ways. Anyway, I am very excited to delve more into the ideas and resources you recommended! THANK YOU! And I am very much looking forward to your next installment in Multilingual Living Magazine. Very interesting stuff!

  2. Yes, "yadeeda," apparently! It doesn't mean anything in French, as far as I know; but he also does albums for kids in Spanish. Is this a real word in some language?

  3. Speaking of simplified French music for anglophone kids, the mom of the girls I tutor, who is just now learning French herself along with them, expressed a preference for songs whose lyrics she can generally understand when she reads and listens to them--which is not usually the case with the traditional French children's songs albums I know.

  4. Recently came across this website which promises advice to parents who want their kids to learn a language that they themselves don't speak:

    I haven't checked it out yet, but if it impresses me, I'll blog about it and add it to my links.

  5. Have you tried "100 Comptines"? We have listened to it for YEARS and learned a lot! I have a very very low threshold for cheesy, poorly produced children's media but I have probably listened to 100's of hours of this CD (driving to and from violin lessons!)

    1. Sounds like a good one--what company is it from? Is it one of these:

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