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How French children learn English through folk singing

If you had been in the right school in the right class at the right time this spring in Grenoble, France, you could have learned some of your English lessons from two American folk singers.

Three years ago, two teachers of English in Grenoble, who were in the United States combining business with vacation while looking for good folk music records, attended an outdoor children's folk music concert in New Hampshire put on by Colburn (David) and Stuart (Deborah).

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They definitely liked what they heard, and approached the singers. They explained that they liked to facilitate vocabulary and conversation in their English classes with folk music from the US, and would Colburn and Stuart come over and perform for their students.

They would and they did. Working with a Grenoble organization called Babel, Colburn and Stuart visited Paris; Lyon, France; Geneva; and some smaller towns, as well as Grenoble, giving concerts and teaching workshops and meeting with children.

I asked the two musicians (they play guitar, banjo, mountain dulcimer, autoharp, harmonica, limberjack, kazoo, and even a nose flute) how they choose material for their programs, particularly when working with students learning English as a second language.

''The most important factor in our choice of songs,'' Deborah Stuart explained, ''is that they must be musically excellent.

''This is important in any situation, but in singing for innovative speakers, it is critical.''

She explains why: ''It is hard work to follow lyrics in a language not your own. . . . If the songs we sing are musically exciting and appealing, the next step, to engage the listener in the message of each song, follows quite easily.''

They often take a theme, lecture on it, combine old and new folk music, and both sing to their pupils and include them in the singing.

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For example, Deborah explains, ''We have sung the old ballad of 'Lord Franklin' and then 'Bob Dylan's Dream,' using these two songs to talk about the strong influence traditional tunes had on Dylan's early music.''

They also sing early blues music -- both slow and up-tempo. And they do American spirituals -- both black and white -- talking about their relationship with contemporary jazz and rock.

Deborah continues, ''Songs relating to specific areas of US history are often used. Train songs are definitely an American phenomenon. We might sing 'John Henry' and talk about the building of the railroad and their impact on the westward movement.''

This musical pair maintain that French students can follow what they do, and that even though Deborah and David can speak French, they do not. After all, these musicians are part of the English-language program for the French schoolchildren.

''We lecture slowly and distinctly,'' Deborah asserts, sometimes using footnoted song sheets, mixing some materials that the pupils have already studied in class.

And finally Colburn and Stuart explain, ''We vary what we sing by tempo, mood , and dynamics, as carefully as we would at the largest concert.

''We have a large and diverse repertoire and can adapt to varying interests and situations, and this keeps the program spontaneous and fresh.

''In other words, we don't sing the same program for all classes.''

When not off teaching or giving concerts, Colburn and Stuart are to be found in the Vintage Fret Shop, their store in Ashland, N.H.

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