How many young children have you seen walking around with a dictionary or a grammar book to look up words or sentence structures in their native language?
How many people have told you they learned their native language with flashcards or vocabulary lists?
Here’s my guess: zero.
If you’re anything like me, you learned your first language as a child by absorbing it naturally. Without really thinking about it. Without studying for hours to get ready to finally speak. No, you absorbed some of the language, then you spoke (and made mistakes!), and so on.
“Ok, great, but I’m not a child anymore!”
Exactly. Meaning you’re even smarter, you make conscious decisions on your own, and you can learn faster. If a child can absorb a language without opening a book, how can you do the same thing?
- You can pay for an expensive plane ticket.
- You can pay for one-size-”fits”-all language classes.
- Or you can learn in the comfort of your home, use music, and have fun.
I’m going to show you how to make French grammar for beginners fun with French songs. No need to buy a fancy textbook, or a bottle of red wine with bread and cheese (I don’t think it’ll help you to learn French, but you can still have some while learning!).
Are you ready for French conjugation 101 with music? Let’s get started!
The Frozen Passé Composé
When you introduce yourself in French, you usually start by explaining where you are from, or how you learned French.
In order to do that, you need to use le passé composé. But I won’t tell you how to use it, or give you the different grammatical rules. Instead, I’m going to show you different examples of passé composé with several French songs.
Let’s start with Libérée, Délivrée, from the Disney movie Frozen:
This is the French version of the popular song Let It Go. Here are a few passé composés:
- J’ai lutté, en vain. – I fought, in vain.
- J’ai laissé mon enfance en été. – I left my childhood in summer.
Maybe you recognized the verbs lutter (to fight) and laisser (to let, to leave). Here lutté and laissé are the past participles of the verbs lutter and laisser, respectively. All verbs ending in -er have their past participle in -é.
But that’s not something you memorize or really think about. You absorb it naturally by committing the lyrics to memory or just singing along many times. That’s why I don’t want to give you grammar rules. Learning more grammar won’t do you any good if you don’t actively live and feel the language through music, videos, and real conversations.
This kind of approach might take longer than just reading the rule in a textbook, or reviewing your flashcards. But the learning experience is totally different, because you’re discovering the rule on your own. Sure, you might (and you will!) make mistakes. And that’s perfectly normal. The more songs you learn, the better you’ll get, and you’ll be able to correct yourself.
With this approach you’re also training your oral comprehension skills and your pronunciation while absorbing new vocabulary and grammar.
“But I don’t understand. If I want to learn le passé composé, how do I find it in the first place? How would I know that lutté and laissé are part of le passé composé?”
Great question. And the answer is simple: you don’t. You don’t chase grammar rule after grammar rule as if you had an endless grammar bucket list. You forget about grammar.
Here’s what you do instead: you learn the song. You learn that j’ai lutté is I’ve fought. And then you connect the dots and think: “Hmmm lutter and lutté…seems like there’s a pattern here.” Or not. Maybe you need more songs or more time to see the pattern. And it doesn’t really matter if you need more time. Because you’re still learning French and honing your communication skills in the meantime.
It may seem counterintuitive. When you’re learning grammar with a textbook, or new words with flashcards, it feels as if you’re learning while you’re studying. It’s a good feeling. However, when you’re learning songs, it doesn’t seem like you’re getting any further. But think again! For every song that you’re learning, you’re absorbing hundreds of words and dozens of grammar rules in context. Just one song can go a very long way!
Grammar is like a drug. One line of cocaine for breakfast will make you more productive during the next hour. But in the long run, will you be that much more efficient? Probably not. Learning one more rule of grammar may seem like you’re making progress. But are you really working on your communication skills? Probably not.
Here’s an exercise for you to practise: Can you find le passé composé of the verbs terminer (to finish), recouvrir (to cover, to wrap), grandir (to grow up), écrire (to write), venir (to come) and voir (to see) in À l’ombre du showbusiness (by Kery James)?
What about in Ainsi bas la vida (by Indila)?
Moana? Present Tense!
The second reason why I prefer to use songs to learn grammar and vocabulary is the audio. Textbooks usually don’t give you the contracted forms that native speakers use on a daily basis. They don’t give you slang or even the liaisons. But songs do.
Listen to the song Le bleu lumière (French version of How far I’ll go from the movie Moana/Vaiana):
Here are a few examples of le présent simple (the simplest form of present in French) from the song:
- Si je pars – If I leave
- Je ne comprends pas – I don’t understand
- La mer m’appelle – The sea is calling me
Le présent simple is simple (no pun intended). Let’s take the verb “to leave” as an example:
- je pars – I leave
- tu pars – you leave
- elle part – she leaves
And it’s even simpler than it seems. Because pars and part actually have the same pronunciation. That’s why you need some form of audio input. When you start learning a foreign language, you can’t guess this kind of thing from the written form alone.
Le Futur d’OrelSan
There’s a simple way to use the future tense in French without memorizing conjugation patterns.
Watch Notes pour plus tard (by French rapper OrelSan):
Here are two examples of the future tense from this song:
- tu vas beaucoup trop boire – you’re going to drink way too much
- j’vais devoir – I’m gonna have to (Note the very frequent contraction when you speak: j’ instead of je.)
You only need to know one verb (aller – to go) and how to conjugate it with le présent simple. Then you can use any verb you want with the future tense. Keep it simple! You can see it as the French equivalent of to be going + infinitive.
Here’s another example:
- ça va s’voir – it’s gonna show, people are gonna see (it)
You get to see another contraction here with s’voir. We usually write se voir, even if we contract it when speaking.
Modal Verbs 101 with OrelSan
Modal verbs are a super-weapon for language learners. They give you the ability to use any verbs you know without having to conjugate them. In English, they are can, must, should, need, etc. Here’s what they look like in French:
- tu peux courir à l’infini – you can run to infinity
- je veux profiter – I want to enjoy
- je veux prendre – I want to take
- on peut faire – we can do
These lines come from La terre est ronde, by OrelSan.
Again: pay attention to the audio! Even though pouvoir has different spellings when conjugated (peux, peut), the pronunciation is the same.
Alternatives for the Past and the Future Tenses with Indila
There are other ways to talk about a past situation or a future event. I’ve only given you the easiest options so far. Here are examples for the past from Ainsi bas la vida, by Indila:
- c’était un triste soir – It was a sad evening
- même s’il était tard – even if it was late
- qu’on m’attendait – that people were waiting for me
- je savais – I knew
- c’était lui – it was him
- quand je les entendais – when I was hearing them
And for the future, from Feuille d’automne by Indila:
- j’attendrai – I will wait
- tu viendras – you will come
Don’t focus on these too much. Just know that they exist. You will absorb the conjugation patterns little by little as you learn more songs.
Le Subjonctif d’Oxmo
The subjunctive is usually the pet peeve of language learners. In French, it’s rather simple though. Most verbs (those ending in -er) don’t change, whether subjunctive or not. The other ones are altered, but you won’t often meet the subjunctive in French anyways. The next lines come from the songs douce and Jamais quand il faut, by Oxmo Puccino:
- que tes cellules puissent lire – that your cells can read
- que sa douce Alice pense à lui – that his tender Alice thinks about him
Keep in mind that even the French are confused when it comes to the subjunctive, including yours truly. I often make mistakes and use the non-subjective forms instead, even though French is my native language!
While it’s easy to use the conditional in English (throw in a “would” or a “could” here and there), it’s a little bit more complicated in French. The French don’t use this kind of modal verb. Instead they conjugate the verbs.
But no worries, because the conjugation pattern of the conditional tense is fairly simple and repetitive. The songs Tourner dans le vide (by Indila) and Du disque dur au disque d’or (by Big Flo et Oli) each have an example of the conditional tense:
- j’aimerais – I would like
- t’aurais pas besoin – you wouldn’t need
Sing, Sing, Sing!
Instead of typical French grammar exercises (such as fill in the blank), why not learn a song or two?
Share with us your favourite French song in the comments and what you learned from it.