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Bilingual Parenting: Using Songs to Foster Bilingualism

Author: Christine Thuau

I joked (sort of) last time about how we might be implementing the One Parent One Language approach at the eleventh hour with our kids, pursuant to a potential job offer in Montreal. I think we need to keep at it for a few more weeks before I’ll be able to say anything significant about how that is or is not working. In the mean time, some reflections on what we have been doing all this time…

Part 1: the musical

I mentioned before that we used to sing our kids to sleep at night in French. We were so consistent with this, actually, that I occasionally experience moments of nauseating vertigo when I realize that they don’t even know some of the really ubiquitous children’s songs I grew up with! How did that happen?? Digging into the farthest reaches of my brain (actually, I have to dig into iTunes and a well-loved book of French songs), I recall that we sang Au claire de la lune to them just about every night—once I got over the fact that it had been used as the theme song for the movie Sade a few years before. (Yikes!) We were very big fans of “go to sleep now, everybody’s doing it!” songs, obviously, so Fais dodo Colas mon petit frère and Dodo l’enfant do made nightly appearances, as well. Beyond that, I’d say we also had about twenty-five “second-tier” songs which we performed regularly, if not every day, including such classics as Frère Jacques, Vent frais, Une souris verte, Savez-vous planter les choux, Une poule sur un mur, Pomme de reinette, and Un éléphant qui se balançait.

In English there was… well… Hush little baby, don’t say a word… and… well, Elmo’s Song figured prominently in weaning our first child and getting her to sleep in her own bed! (I wasn’t singing it, though—the CD player was). We also sang The Eensy Weensy Spider, The Ants Came Marching, Five Green and Speckled Frogs, She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain, Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah, Rocky Road (and a bunch of other PP&M songs, I’m sure). Apples and Bananas (a.k.a. Ooples and Banoonoos), and—frequently—the chorus of No! by They Might Be Giants. In the car, It’s the End of the World as We Know It became my theme song when confronted with our daughter’s numerous, varied and strident complaints about anything and everything imaginable. With CD accompaniment. (Do you think I might come to regret that someday?)

So we probably sang more to them in French than in English, overall, and we were also more consistent in our approach; we covered the standard corpus of French children’s songs much more thoroughly than we did American children’s songs, largely thanks to that song book! We stopped singing to them at night… sometime. I don’t know when, exactly, but it had something to do with a trip to Europe and jetlag. And possibly also with a growing itchiness to reclaim larger and larger swaths of the evening for ourselves. And maybe also because they like to read to themselves before lights-out, now, too. But we left that book out the other day after tallying up our list of Big French Hits, and the kids threw themselves upon it with great rejoicing. They didn’t remember the tunes, necessarily (and one of our children is tone deaf, although I won’t say which one), but they remembered… singing. And the words seemed familiar, so they spent an hour picking their way through the lyrics, and then accosted their father with the book when he came home. They all curled up in bed together at bedtime that night and sang songs instead of reading stories, falling right back into our behavioral and linguistic patterns of yore.

To the extent that our goal has generally been to provide cognitive and cultural materials with which the kids could eventually, one day, construct their own bilingualism, I’d say that our efforts with music have paid off as expected. They have an ingrained fondness for these songs, and enough remembrance that they can (successfully!) delve back into them when fancy strikes. Impending moves aside, now feels like a nice time to revisit singing in French: both kids are demonstrating a somewhat higher-than-usual level of curiosity about French these days, anyway, and I think they’re both at a place where they can start to match their aural memories with words on paper and learn some interesting things about French spelling and grammar. (Not to mention that it’s high time they began to embrace that slightly black humor which pervades so many French children’s songs!) I have a feeling, too, that now might be the last good chance we have to wring some learning out of all of those lullabies: at six and eight, the days of their really being interested in singing some of those “baby” songs with us might be numbered!

Next time… Planting Seeds of Bilingualism: the movie. (A guided tour—with statistics!—of our DVD collection.)

About the Author: Christine Thuau is mom to two kids (8 and 6) who might, with a little bit of luck, be bilingual someday! She is currently working as a freelance translator and editor, and has a doctorate in medieval French literature (yes, really). She enjoys reading, walking, gardening, photography, painting, writing, baking and the internet—among other things.

Find Hundreds of Songs for Children in French:

French Songs for Children

Additional Posts Written By Christine Thuau:

Bilingual Parenting: It’s About More Than Just Bilingualism

Bilingual Parenting: A Laissez Faire Approach to Raising Bilingual Children

Categories: bilingual parenting
  1. March 5, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    That’s really interesting about the French songs thing… I probably know two or three french songs if that.. having learned French in highschool and college and then working. I probably know more chinese songs… and I do use them to foster my son’s Chinese… I just bought a set of 5 books (illustrated with one song per spread) and cds, 40 songs per book, and put them on. I did realise that like you, I was missing out on the English songs from my childhood, as it seems every waking hour is a french dvd, a chinese cd, or CBC Radio One!

    So I bought a Sweetpea MP3 Player for toddlers and preschoolers and loaded it up trilingually with songs and stories. (of course any mp3 player would be fine for older kids) He gets to pick a track (there are three… slow songs, fast songs, stories) at bedtime and listens to it til he falls asleep. I am now rewarded with him walking around the house belting out songs from my childhood, singing along with chinese songs in the books and reciting stories out loud (when we have storybooks that I uploaded the cd to his mp3 player)! It has worked wonderfully! A plus… he is quieter in bed at night!

    Thanks for a great post.

    • Christine
      March 17, 2010 at 12:24 pm

      We have a family iPod loaded up with all kinds of songs in French and English, which we love (and take in the car periodically). It’s such a thrill to hear the kids singing in French, and they definitely sing more in French when they can sing along with the iPod. We got our daughter her own shuffle when she turned 8. I was kind of afraid she would spend too much time plugged into it, but it turns out that she really prefers the social aspect of listening to music as a family–which is fine, but I had kind of hoped she would use it to immerse herself in some of the French music she likes…!

  2. multilingualmania
    March 8, 2010 at 8:40 am

    The MP3 player is a great idea!!

    Songs are so wonderful for teaching a second language!

  3. April 13, 2010 at 4:25 am

    I agree that this is really effective…
    Creativity is all it takes to successfully raise bilingual children…to share you can speak to a child in two languages , meaning giving the same instruction in different language.

  1. March 23, 2010 at 11:08 pm

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