As many of you know, I decided
to learn the French language
after seeing almost 80 French films. I rely on self-compiled and
self-generated materials, taking full advantage of my tech
apparatuses, programming skills & prior research in linguistics. As part
of the benefits of being my own teacher, I get to choose my own
homework assignments! No boring readings or essays writing for me! A friend
suggested listening to French songs as a way to learn, and as you will see,
it's an excellent idea. If you have related experiences to
share, please contact me. I'm actually gathering materials for a multi-year
My exposure to French music up until
For years, two of my favorite French songs are:
Les feuilles mortes (Autumn Leaves), and
L'oiseau et l'enfant
(The Bird and
The Child) by French singer Marie Myriam. The former needs no
introduction. The latter was the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest winner.
It was a wild hit in Hong Kong, where I was residing at that time.
For my American readers: Eurovision is big in European pop culture, and
has influence on the music scenes of the world. That's how
ABBA and Celine
Dion originally launched their careers. It started
exactly 50 years ago, in 1956, long before I was even born. Incidentally, the
event's system and format has just been licensed to some American
entertainment conglomerate earlier this year. They're going to start an
American version here soon.
I also like a few songs by Jane Birkin
(and Serge Gainsbourg), such as their famous hit song
Je t'aime moi non plus. And, of course
there is La Marseillaise. In fact, I have
quite a collection of it, including marching band, symphonic orchestra,
operatic solo, and chorus versions, plus various instrumental renditions. I have
always liked marches in general, and national anthems in particular,
ever since my high school days. I also have a small collection of Paul
Mauriat albums and CDs.
Years ago, Winnie, my former, former
"sister-in-law-to-be" from Hong Kong, who married a Frenchman and had been
living in Paris, introduced us to a bunch of French chansons and the cafe
music. Some of them were very nice, but at the time, with my other
pre-occupations, I never did get around to remember the names of the pieces,
and the groups.
Finally, in the "classical" arena, Claude Debussy, Frédéric
François Chopin had been among my favorites. Other French
composers I like include: Hector Berlioz and Maurice Ravel. I did minor in
music, back in my under-grad college days, and these were all well-studied.
My new discovery
As I explored the French music scene, I found the style of
Françoise Hardy very appealing. So is Jacno, in his mellowed incarnations. Then, by chance, I came across a sound
clip of what appears to be a live interview (hear
) on French TV of a musician. Her
name is Keren Ann...
At the request of the host, she gave an impromptu performance of a
passage from a well-known chanson Ballade Irlandaise, by Bourvil,
a French actor and singer. I've never heard of it before. I found the melodic
characteristics, as well as the familiar structure of simple stanzas and
refrain particularly striking, as they resemble the style of the few songs
that I have written between 24 and 30 years ago. The refreshing voice of Keren Ann with her simple acoustic guitar accompaniment are remarkably
well-suited for the piece, and I was instantly mesmerized. In fact, I was
impressed enough that I looked into her biography and musical works. Within
2 days, I ordered her 2000 debut CD entitled La
Biographie de Luka Philipsen. I'm now planning to get her 2002
follow-on CD: La disparition.
Music as language study tool
It appears that there is a small but fairly significant
group of Americans who enjoy French songs, without actually
understanding a word of what it says. I now recall a similar phenomenon back
when I was in Hong Kong. Only it's the Hong Kong people who are fond of
British, Australian and American songs, without always fully understanding the
lyrics. I was one of them until around age 14, when I started actually
paying attention to the words.
When one doesn't understand the lyrics, the relationship formed with the
song is very different, from that of a native speaker audience. Essentially,
the unintelligible vocal sound is perceived as yet another instrument, with distinct tonal
signature and feel, but no explicit set meanings. When one
finally understands it, by way of interpretation, or learning the language,
the imagery is altered. In most (but not all) cases, the enjoyment and
connection are enhanced. The universalness of music communicates
directly to the core of the soul, and transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries. It
enables us to judge music on a purely subjective and emotional basis,
independent of the tangible factors.
Having said that, I must point out that the curiosity and
motivation are clearly present, to
understand the lyrics in the
foreign-language songs we have grown to love. As such, music presents itself
as a great vehicle in which to learn the language. Another major advantage:
the musical framework serves as a memory aid, for recalling proper
pronunciations and grammatical details.
Fact: Melodically rendered sentences
get imprinted in the mind quicker and deeper.
that's a good thing for learning!
Lyrics Translation Exercise
My next "assignment" was to attempt a formal translation of
the entire CD. That turns out to be quite a challenge, as one can imagine,
especially for me―a complete beginner in French.
Naturally, I miss out on
all the subtle things that I have yet to learn. I
did find it relatively easy to look up words and translate phrases to get the
rough general meanings. However, being bilingual (English & Chinese), I already fully
realized and appreciated the fact that things simply don't translate, due to
the lack of 1-to-1 mapping across languages and cultures.
There's also the constant dilemma of doing a literal translation,
vs. an adapted version to better preserve/emulate the original style
and feel, and account for the cultural and perspective differences. With poetic lyrics that are heavy in symbolism
and aloof in
nature, there's the added challenge of trying to guess the song writer's
state-of-mind and allusion. Despite my painstaking efforts, some of her
clever symmetry and elegance is lost because of the differences in
idiosyncrasy between English and French. The same can also be said about the
melodic character and prosody. So far, I have only completed 9 out of
Here is my lyrics translation of:
Biography of Luka Philipsen