Learning a language, the self-directed Eurovision way

I learnt French from Céline Dion. No, really.

To be fair, I had previously completed the equivalent of three years of secondary level French as a teenager. However, our teachers weren’t stellar: we learnt one tense (indicative) and another quasi-tense (the equivalent of “I’m gonna”, i.e. the near future). Not much vocabulary. As a result I was unable to talk about anything that happened in the past. And like most anglophones, we didn’t get much practice speaking: we very much read the language. After high school I had a few sojourns to francophone destinations in the early 1980s, which proved my French language skillz…weren’t mad skillz. In fact, they weren’t. Skillz. Or skills, even.

Then I moved to Canada, where even in Vancouver—which has more native speakers of Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog, or Punjabi than French—there was a surprising amount of French. Signage in airports, announcements in both languages on flights, and several French language television and radio stations. Canadian French sounded almost entirely unlike the metropolitain French I heard in Paris, but with the subtitles on…yup, that’s French!

And in francophone Canada of the 1980s and 1990s, there was never more than one degree of separation from the winner of the 33rd edition of the Eurovision, in all her brunette perm glory.


La p’tite Québécoise, the princess of Charlemagne, Céline Marie Claudette Dion is royalty in French Canada. She’s in magazines, on television, on radio, everywhere. In 1988 18 year-old Dion had already been a star since age 12. Her early, rather saccharine hits did well mostly because of her voice . When she was 13 her single D’Amour ou d’Amitié became the first gold record in France by a Canadian ever, but Dion remained a one hit wonder in Europe thereafter.

D’Amour ou d’amitié – Céline Dion (Source: YouTube/PopFranco8090)

Entering—and winning—the 1988 Eurovision was supposed to reboot her career in the francosphere. Alaso, Ne Partez pas sans moi, didn’t crack the top 10 of any singles chart in French-speaking Europe (or Canada). However, by the time Dion was in Lausanne for her winner’s reprise a year later, she had survived several months of bootcamp-style English lesson and had the ink drying on a global Sony Music contract, where she would be recording in English and French.  In 1990 she released Unison, and quickly became a global star singing in English.

Céline has continued recording in French. I would argue that her francophone recordings are often vastly superior most of her English catalogue. In French she sings across genres: pop, rock, jazz, dance. She works with the best songwriters and producers and often goes against type. She remains the highest selling francophone recording artist of all time.

Dion;s extensive francophone catalogue offered me a few songs that were excellent for language learning.

Un jour, un enfant – Céline Dion (Source: YouTube/babette3460)

La méthode

In an hour of musique française on Canadian TV or radio in the 1990s,  you were likely to hear at least one Céline Dion song. After Unison, Dion’s next album was Des mots qui sonnent: a collection of French bops, proper pop rock, a couple of killer ballads, even a dance track. My dusty 1992 CD rather helpfully came with lyrics. I still couldn’t understand them with my meagre understanding of the language, but they offered an opportunity to engage in some self-directed learning.

With an English/French dictionary. in hand, I started translating lyrics in a two column Word document: French in the left column and English translation in the right column. While this allowed me to get the gist of songs, I very quickly realised that I would need a more fundamental understanding of French syntax—particularly verbs—to genuinely understand the message of the music.


I kept translating with my dictionary, but also started working through a comprehensive, basic French grammar workbook. Over the next two years both French the Easy Way and French Made Simple worked really well for me. Each thematically covered vocabulary whilst expanding the verbs and verb tenses. I learnt the passé compose, learning that Je suis allé meant I went rather than I am gone. I started to integrate the syntax of the language. More sentences made sense. So did entire songs.

A few songs from Des mots qui sonnent rather helpfully repeated series of particular verb tense.  These included:

All these, combined with the workbooks, expanded my understanding of French verbs.

j’aurais voulù apprendre la langue (Source: YouTube/CelinedionHD)

As well, much of Dion’s catalogue en français features metaphor—sometimes grand, sweeping metaphors. In addition to understanding more words, I began to form a  bespoke francophone epistemiology. In other words, I began to experience aspects of the world differently through French.

I was in Lisbon in 2018 for the Eurovision, where having French proved to be very useful: lots of people, regardless of age, have studied French in Portugal. Most younger folks spoke some English, but more than once having French enabled what have would otherwise have been a difficult encounter or transaction.

Speaking of Lisbon…

Chamar a música

When the Sobrals romped to victor in Kyiv, I made a visit to Lisbon as a focus for 2018. Planning this trip–and the poetry that is Amar Pelos Dois–reawakened for me a long-simmering desire to learn Portuguese. I already had several Portuguese Eurosongs among my all-time favourites. I decided to adopt a similar tack in learning Portuguese to what worked for learning French.

By 2017 I was living in New Zealand, which is not a hotbed of lusophone culture. Bookstores here rarely had any Portuguese language learning materials; those that did featured Brazilian (rather than European) Portuguese. Which, in a numeric sense makes sense: Brazilians are around two-thirds of the world’s lusophones and Brazil is much closer to Auckland than is Portugal. But I was keen to learn the European variant.

Unlike in 1992, I have the internet (even in New Zealand!). Eventually I was able to order Practice Makes Perfect: Basic Portuguese. It uses the same approach as the Easy and Simple series that worked well for me previously with French. I completed 90% of the book prior to landing in Lisbon. I cannot argue that I mastered every element. But I was grounded enough in Portuguese that I wasn’t terrified of trying to speak the language.

Then I got out the canon of Portuguese Eurosongs and created a playlist of 10 songs I loved.

Here’s my playlist:

  • Deixa-me sonha – Rita Guerra (robbed!)
  • Amar – 2B (not robbed)
  • Todas as ruas do amor – Flor-de-Lis
  • Só sei ser feliz assim – MTM
  • Antes do adeus – Célia Lawson (null points!)
  • O meu coração não tem cor – Lúcia Moniz (robbed!)
  • Chamar a música – Sara Tavares

I then made a worksheet similar to the one I used with Céline’s music: Portuguese in the left column, English (to be written) in the right column. I printed up 10 copies of my worksheet and worked on translating each sing while listening to it, again and again, in the two months prior to my arrival in Lisbon.

Should’ve been top three (Source: YouTube/Archiwum Eurowizji TV)

As I repeated the process I tried to translate as much from memory, using English/Portuguese dictionary less and less. For adults, learning of the language is often in the combination of speaking, listening and writing the language. Repeatedly completing these lyric translations proved to be a fundamental self-regulated learning strategy for me.

While I was able to get a basic grounding in Portuguese in a few months , I didn’t have enough time to be as strategic with respect to verb tenses and the like. But I now understand enough to sing along fearlessly. And painfully out of tune (which is our protected right under the Eurokweenz™ collective agreement of 1958).

For me, learning French and (some) Portuguese was intensely personal. Sometimes language learning is intensely personal. Even when moving between countries with a shared majority language such as English.


New Zealand is my home today, but my roots go back to Ireland and I’ve lived most of my life in Canada or the US. These are all anglosphere countries, but that have something else in common too: colonisation and its impact on indigenous language and culture. In New Zealand the indigenous language is te reo Māori, in Ireland it’s Irish (Gaelige), and both Canada and the US–sometimes known collectively as Turtle Island–have hundreds of indigenous languages.

My current language learning adventures are what I’m calling a dual decolonisation . As former parts of the empire, Ireland and New Zealand share histories of the national language being oppressed. And there’s been work between the two countries to decolonise: re-assert the indigenous language as a national language. There being one indigenous language in each country (with several dialects) makes this a clearer process to support and focus upon.

Several months ago I began learning te rēo Māori and Irish, both formally and in a self-directed manner. I am enrolled in the “Papa Reo” te reo Māori course offered by Wānanga ō Aotearoa, New Zealand’s Māori tertiary educational institution. Their home based learning offers a semi-structured version of the sorts of self-directed learning techniques that have worked well for me in French and Portuguese. There is also a limited Māori language course on the online platform Memrise. I’m working my way through that too. Finally, there is the Māori Made Easy series of books–am having a crack at those as well. For me the mix of approaches is integral to building–ever so slowly–an intuitive sense of the language.

Irish (Gaelige) is harder. I’m relying on a mix of Duolingo, some self-directed workbooks, a MOOC and some social media collaborative learning via Twitter and Facebook. But there’s no local courses in which to enrol, even at a distance.

Ireland’s only Eurovision entry as gaelige: Ceol an ghrá (Source: YouTube/Schlagerparty)

I’m blogging about my decolonisation language study here.

Looking forward

In 2020 the Eurovision returns to the Netherlands for the first time in four decades–mostly likely in Rotterdam (Maastricht’s airport is too small). I won’t be making the journey, but Dutch is another language with which I’ve long been intrigued. Were I going, I would probably prioritise learning Dutch. And these are some of the songs I would use:

  • Ik hou van jou – Maribelle (robbed)
  • Hemel an aarde – Edsilia
  • De eerste keel – Maxine & Franklin Brown
  • Amsterdam – Maggie McNeal

Even if pretty much everyone in the Netherlands speaks English as well as I do.