Another Lesson From the Grandkids

I have learned several lessons from my grandchildren, all of whom could have been born in Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average.” But one lesson at a time.

Those of us who went to different schools together know the song, “Frere Jacques”. Back when public elementary schools had song books and singing was part of the curriculum, this was one of the songs in them. I don’t remember whether I was in the fourth or fifth grade when we sang it, but I remember the words:

Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, Dormez vous? Dormez vous? Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines! Ding, Dang, Dong. Ding, Dang, Dong…  Are You Sleeping? Are You Sleeping? Brother John, Brother John. Morning Bells Are Ringing! Morning Bells Are Ringing! Ding, Dang, Dong. Ding, Dang, Dong.

We sang it in French and then in English, which helped us learn French. We were .00000001% proficient, which qualified us at the time as being above average.

The version I learned (above), as did many of you with whom I went to different schools together, is now called “The Traditional English Lyrics”. And it’s amazing to me how Ding, Dang, Dong still translates into almost any language! It’s just one of those universal expressions, non? But what’s more amazing is that the above translation got it wrong. Pourquoi?

Parce que none of the kids in my class spoke French, nor did our teacher. We thought, and logically so, that this was a song about some kid telling his brother to get out of bed. Time to go to school. The bells are ringing. You’re late. Grab a piece of French toast and run! A timeless song for every school kid.

Mais non! This frère is a friar. Oui, one of those Brothers! And the morning bells are not ringing, they’re silent. Pourquoi? Because Frere Jacques, who is supposed to be ringing them, has overslept. Detectives through the ages, including Hercule Poirot and Inspector Clouseau, have tried to find out why he overslept. But Frere Jacquez never cracked under interrogation, and the actual reason for his slumber went with him to his grave. I, for one, think the reason is simple. He not only rang the morning bells, but he was THE bell ringer. He had to ring the bells throughout the day, morning until night. So, why was he sleeping? Mon Dieu, the poor man was exhausted!

I think the song should be taught in the following manner. At least kids would learn that matins has to do with morning.

Frere Jacques, Frere Jacques, Dormez vous? Dormez vous? Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines! Ding, Dang, Dong. Ding, Dang, Dong…      Brother Jacques, Brother Jacquez, Do you snooze? Do you snooze? Ring the bells for matins. Ring the bells for matins. Ding, Dang, Dong. Dong, Dang, Ding. (Note the variety at the end!)

I have sung “Frere Jacquez” wrong all my life. At least until recently. The whole matter has been handled abysmally. So, let me tell you a story that illustrates how it should have been handled.

My English-speaking daughter, son-in-law, and almost-three-year old grandson presently live in Belgium, most of whose citizens know what the original words to “Frere Jacquez” mean. This grandson was born in Belgium and has attended crèche, nursery school there. The first few days he crawled around the room looking for English speaking kids, but finding none, decided to speak French instead of Flemish. When he turned two-and-one-half, he started montranel, pre-kindergarten, where he has picked up a sense of humor and often asks his teachers to “excuse my French.”

Whenever my wife and I have skyped this past year, our daughter and son-in-law would say something like, “MayDay (which is the grandson’s alias), can you sing a song you learned at school for grandmom and granddad?”And unless there is cake or a toy that catches his eye, most of the time he will sing. We have heard little French songs about les chats, les chiens, les crocodiles, and le gateau (cats, dogs, crocodiles, and cake, in that order). French speaking people have songs about everything, even priests who sleep through bell ringing. They also have nuns who sing. Remember that song on the radio?

So, the other day, a Saturday, our daughter’s family had been out shopping, and MayDay came home with a bathtub-appropriate plastic boat (bateau). While skyping, his mom said, “MayDay, do you have a song about a boat to sing to granddad and grandmom?”

With great enthusiasm, he picked up the boat from the floor and started singing, “Bateau! Bateau! Bateau!…” while moving the boat like it was going over one wave after another on the ocean. Then he gets to that point in a song where French speakers launch into a jumble of words sung so fast that we English speakers couldn’t understand them even if all the words were cognates in English. MayDay starts off on such a jumble but stops. Totally stops.

He looks into the skype camera with a most confused look on his face and says, “MayDay doesn’t know these words,” meaning he’s never learned a song about a boat at his school. It was just enthusiasm for his new boat. After making this confession, he then continued singing, this time with even more gusto, “Bateau! Bateau! Bateau!…”

What MaySay did, in effect, was announce to the skype audience that if “Bateau! Bateau! Bateau!” ever becomes a popular song in America, he has no idea what he saying about his boat. It’s a nonsense song. And if he can do that, why, then, didn’t some French-speaking adult long ago tell us kids that in our version of “Frere Jacques”, the relationship between Frere Jacquez and the bells was also nonsense?

Charles de Gaulle, back when he was President of France, could have said on one of his visits to America, “You know, I love it that you Americans sing one of our songs, ‘Frere Jacquez’, but you are translating it wrong. It goes like this…”

Of course, most Americans would have said, “Where does the President of France get off telling us how to sing?” and continued to singing it nonsensically. Still, it would have been an attempt to state the truth.

By the way, one of my favorite French songs is, Les Champs Elysees  French/English .  I’d tell you that my grandson taught it to me, but he won’t learn it until he’s four.

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