Giving a New Tune to Grammar

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Hélène Bilis, French

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2004

The daunting challenge: to make advanced French grammar interesting to Berkeley undergrads. Most of my students were not majoring in French nor even in the Humanities and would politely struggle to hold back yawns during the weekly grammar explanations. The course in question, French 4, is designed to be the last grammar course students take before they can elect literature courses where they will be asked to write essays, analyze texts and participate in class discussions solely in French. Typically, many of the students are planning on studying abroad and want to perfect their French before they head off to meet the love of their life on a riverboat on the Seine or at a cafe terrace. Needless to say, with such dreams in mind, the finer points of grammar can appear esoteric and boring. To enliven the atmosphere in the class I needed to devise a way to help students retain and internalize a myriad of rules and at the same time make grammar relevant to their lives.

The solution came to me as I was riding home from class in my car and slipped a tape of my favorite French singer, Jean-Jacques Goldman into the tape deck. I was singing along when I realized that the song was full of subjunctive clauses! In fact, this incredibly touching love song about a man wishing for a happy future with the woman he loved was packed with key phrases for introducing the subjunctive, the same key phrases I had just taught the week before and which the students had had such difficulty grasping. I knew instinctively that they would not be able to remain apathetic to such beautiful lyrics, and I would be able to slip in the grammar explanation without the usual resistance.

I went home and proceeded to find the lyrics on the internet and then white-out all the instances where the subjunctive and the key phrases were used. The next day in class I announced that we would be listening to a French song, gave them some background on the singer and told them to listen carefully as the music played and to write in all the missing words. They listened intently, awake and focused on the task. Once the exercise was over, we discussed their findings. They were surprised to discover that expressions which had quite literally seemed foreign and empty of meaning during the regular grammar exercises took on new value. To understand the poignancy of the song, they had to understand what was being implied by the author’s choice of words. They heard how by using the subjunctive, he implied that his desires were uncertain of being fulfilled. Thus, in listening to a three minute song they grasped a concept that I had been trying for weeks to help them acquire.

I realized that what had happened with the subjunctive could be done with any grammar point. I have used the song method with the imperative and the future with great success. Another advantage of music is that when students memorize songs, every time they sing them they are reinforcing forms and vocabulary. The use of the forms becomes more natural, and students access them with greater ease in conversation. I was also excited about the non-grammatical benefits that ensued. The students readily gave their opinion on the song, compared it to American songs and wanted to know more about French music. Many of them were shocked to hear that, after the U.S., France is the world’s largest producer of Rap music. Most of the class still associated French music with an accordionist on a street corner wearing a lopsided beret. I made a point of choosing a variety of musical styles and topics. Although love songs seemed most popular, the class responded with excitement and interest in hearing that French people their age were listening also to songs of social protest.

I discovered that music was a way of drumming (so to speak) grammar into students while teaching them about the rich diversity of contemporary French culture and some of the concomitant issues usually completely absent from grammar books. But, most importantly, teaching grammar through contemporary music dramatically changed the atmosphere in the classroom. It was as if we had walked out of the dusty stacks of a grammarian’s library into the streets of Paris, Marseilles or Pointe-à-Pitre. I was energized to see a classroom full of singing and motivated students ready to karaoke their way through the mysteries of “la grammaire française.” Quiz grades improved and students began to bring in songs they found on the internet to add to our songbook, but more essentially, grammar became a means to better self-expression and not an end in itself.