Learn French With Music: Exploring Édith Piaf

When you think of France, what first comes to mind? For me personally, it’s baguettes, berets, the Eiffel Tower and the classic song ‘La Vie En Rose’. This song is well known all around the world and was Édith Piaf’s signature song.

Éditd Piaf is in fact still a massive part of France’s cultural identity. In more ways than one, she is the nation’s pride and joy. If you are learning French, you will undoubtedly come across some of her songs, and you can actually use her music to improve your French skills!

Listening to French music is one of the best ways to learn some new French words as well as familiarizing yourself with aspects of French culture. France has an extremely diverse music industry, so you are bound to find an artist that you enjoy listening to. If you are new to the French music scene, no worries- we’ve got you covered.

Lingopie has a playlist of popular French singers and songs for you to listen to. There are a variety of genres available and the lyrics will accompany whatever song you are listening to. If you don’t know the meaning of a word, all you have to do is click on it and its meaning will pop up, as well as its grammar. Fab!

For today, we are going to focus on perhaps France’s biggest music icon ever- the legendary Édith Piaf. We are going to discover a bit about her story, what kind of songs she sang and what they meant, as well as analyzing some of her lyrics, so that you can learn a language with lyrics! Let’s go!

Who was Edith Piaf?

Édith Piaf was a French singer from Paris (1915- 1963). Her life was certainly not easy- it was full of tragedy and sorrow.

She was the daughter of street performers and was abandoned by her mother at a very young age. At the age of 17 she had a daughter, only to lose her to meningitis two years later. She then lost her lover in a plane crash. This was the beginning of her downfall as she became very sick, up until her dying day.

If you want to learn more about her life, there is a brilliant biographical movie called ‘La vie en rose’ where actress Marion Cotillard plays the role of Piaf. I highly recommend you watch this movie if you haven’t already. The acting is impeccable.

So how did Édith become so famous? She became a street singer at the age of 15 and was then discovered by a cabaret owner, who gave her a job in a nightclub. It was only upwards from here. Piaf began singing in the largest music halls of Paris, and then toured the United States. People fell in love with her expressive, dramatic performances and soulful voice.

Piaf was given the nickname of ‘the little sparrow’. This was because of her incredibly petite frame (both in height and weight) and her black dress became her trademark. People often said that she had a ‘voice too big for her body’. Some people have described her as ‘Paris itself’ and what a huge statement that is!

Why should I learn French with Édith Piaf’s songs?

Édith Piaf’s songs (ballads) are played and recognized all over the world, no matter the generation. The majority of her songs are about hard times, heartbreak, love, loss and sorrow- perhaps an accurate representation of her very own tragic life. Learning French with the lyrics of one of France’s biggest icons should definitely excite you!

Her most popular song ‘La vie en rose’ is full of love imagery. It was inspired by her own love story with a young French singer, Yves Montand. It has a gorgeous, catchy melody that sticks in your mind. Many artists have made their own covers of this song.

Another of her best songs is ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ (which translates to ‘No, I don’t have any regrets’). As the title suggests, the song is about living without regrets and forgetting about the troubles of the past. The lyrics show Piaf to have been a woman of strength.

One of the best things about Piaf is her vulnerability and authenticity in her songs. She truly gave herself entirely in all her performances. Once she even collapsed on stage, as she was so sick but wanted to continue singing anyway! Piaf’s voice is very strong and distinctive, her performances were dramatic. She certainly knew how to steal the show.

Can I learn French with Édith Piaf’s songs?

You can absolutely learn French with Édith Piaf’s songs. Luckily for you, her enunciation is absolutely flawless in all her music. She sings with clarity and is able to convey deep emotions in her songs. In some of them, it almost seems as though she is storytelling.

Also, the majority of Piaf’s ballads are quite slow paced, making it even easier to pick up the different words and sounds being sung. The themes of her songs are mainly about love, life and pain, so you can learn some useful vocabulary around these topics.

How to Learn French with music

Before we begin to look at some of Édith Piaf’s lyrics, it’s important to know how to actually use music to learn French. As you can probably guess, the first thing to do is to listen to the song. You may want to do this two or three times so that you start to get used to the sounds and words being sung. If you can’t grasp much yet, no worries.

Now you can look up the lyrics to the song. Have a read through them as many times as needed. You can underline any words you are unfamiliar with and look them up later. The next step is to listen to the song whilst reading the lyrics. You might be able to understand more of what you are hearing now.

If there are words you are still unfamiliar with, it’s time to look them up. Once you have done this, you can begin practicing by singing along to the song. Try to pronounce the words just as the singer does, so that you are learning to speak accurately. By singing, your brain is more likely to remember new words as it is a fun way of learning!

Lyrics with Édith Piaf

Let’s have a look at some of Édith Piaf’s lyrics

Here is part of her song ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’:

‘Non, rien de rien

Non, je ne regrette rien

Ni le bien qu'on m'a fait

Ni le mal

Tout ça m'est bien égal

Non, rien de rien

Non, je ne regrette rien

C'est payé, balayé, oublié

Je me fous du passé’

No, nothing at all,

No, I regret nothing

Not the good things they did to me

Nor the bad -- may as well be the same to me!

No, nothing at all,

No, I regret nothing.

It's bought and paid for, wiped away, forgotten,

I don't give a damn about the past’

*note: I want to point this out because it’s important. If you listen to this song you will notice that Édith Piaf really rolls her “R’s” (almost like you would hear in the Spanish language). You will not really hear this in France anymore. Édith simply did this to give a dramatic effect to the song.

Imagine how wonderful it would have sounded in those big halls in Paris at the time! Don’t feel pressured to roll your R’s perfectly like hers - do what you know how to do.

Back to the song: as you can see there are a lot of negative forms in this song. This can be one of the trickier parts of French for learners! But they’re extremely important to learn as you will use them often in French. Here are a few worth picking up from this song:

‘Ni …. Ni’/  ‘Neither …. Nor

‘Rien de rien’ / ‘nothing at all’

‘Je ne regrette rien’ / ‘I regret nothing

Another of Édith Piaf’s best songs is ‘Hymne à l’amour’. This song was written for her lover, a French boxer named Marcel Cerdan who died in a plane crash. The song is about love and how Piaf would do absolutely anything for love, even dying for her lover.

J'irais jusqu'au bout du monde

Je me ferais teindre en blonde

Si tu me le demandais

J'irais décrocher la Lune

J'irais voler la fortune

Si tu me le demandais

Je renierais ma patrie

Je renierais mes amis

Si tu me le demandais

On peut bien rire de moi

Je ferais n'importe quoi

Si tu me le demandais

I will go to the end of the world

I will dye my hair blond

If you ask me to

I will go take down the moon

I will steal fortune

if you ask me to.

I will renounce my country

I will renounce my friends

if you ask me to.

One could really laugh at me

I will do anything

if you ask me to.

Édith Piaf uses a lot of the French conditional tense in this song. Here are a few examples:

J’irais / I would go

Je ferais/ I would do

Je renierais/ I would deny

This is a great chance for you to practice using the conditional tense. Can you come up with some examples of your own.

Here are some examples of vocabulary you may also want to learn:

La lune/ the moon

(le) monde/ world

voler/ to steal

rire / to laugh

To sum up

Édith Piaf is a huge French icon and a wonderful opportunity for you to explore French music with her songs. You can look up some more of her songs online and practice singing along to some of them. See if you can identify new words and tenses. Her enunciation of words makes it much easier for French learners to understand what is being sung.

Head over to Lingopie music to explore other artists and songs so that you can begin practicing your French speaking at your own pace. There is a wide variety of different genres so you will undoubtedly find a singer you like. With Lingopie you also have the option of learning French with movies and series. Why not binge watch your way to fluency?

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