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Singing and language

Why singing with young children is important, with help from Plastic Bertrand, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and The Wiggles (and a random Frenchman with a ukulele!)

Date posted: Monday 3rd April 2017

40 years ago, many people in Britain were not very aware about Europe. They were particularly unaware of all things cultural ‘on the Continent’. For example, the average Brit would have been hard pressed to name four famous Belgians. If he were an intellectual, then he might start with the great chanteur Jacques Brel. But then there would be a lot of head scratching until finally he would come up with Hercule Poirot, the bloke who wrote TinTin and then, with a burst of pride… ‘Of course, why didn’t I think of it? The guy who made it possible for you to hire a car at the airport: Hertz van Rental!’

This appalling lack of interest in our continental cousins was to change dramatically in 1977. In that year it seemed that all anyone could talk about was Belgium, and one man in particular: Plastic Bertrand. Plastic put Belgium on the musical map and changed the face of popular music forever. For at least two weeks, everyone seemed to be singing his massive monster smash hit song Ca Plane Pour Moi. I say ‘singing’ it, but really nobody had any idea what the words meant. I say ‘words’, but for most of the UK population the song was really just a string of sounds. And even if you could speak French, the words had absolutely no meaning. I say ‘meaning’ but how can a piece of art like this be ‘understood’ or ‘explained’?

It’s no exaggeration to say that most of us thought that Plastic Bertrand was going to take Bob Dylan’s place as the spokesperson for a generation.  Academics and university students had been puzzling over Dylan’s work for over a decade.

‘Intellectuals’ placed Dylan in the same bracket as Auden, Proust, Beckett, Shakespeare and Rimbaud. These men of wisdom (and they were always men) usually had beards and straggly long hair and smoked pipes or large cigarettes containing nasty smelling herbs. They would urge anyone listening to stop trying to ‘understand’ the ‘meaning’ as this would only ‘serve to denigrate the text.’ After all, who of us would dare try and extract meaning from Subterranean Homesick Blues?

A writer in the NME even went so far as to suggest that one day Dylan would get the Nobel Prize for literature….

Subterranean Homesick Blues

But storm clouds had been seen gathering on the horizon. Dylan had recently produced two great albums; Blood on the Tracks and Desire, but at the back of everyone’s minds were the monumental turkeys that were Nashville Skyline, New Morning, Self Portrait and Planet Waves. So when the mighty Bertrand crashed onto the scene, you can understand the excitement. Forty years ago the men with greasy hair, Fair Isle jumpers and open-toed sandals (even in winter) were willing to embrace the great Belgian man of letters and usher him into the hallowed halls of literature. (I say ‘halls’ but really it was the cupboard under the stairs where the coats and hats got hung and where you stashed your used carrier bags. It was a place reserved for writers who didn’t believe in stooping so low as to try and ‘make sense’.)

To see what all the fuss was about, here’s the mighty Plastic Bertrand in all his original glory

(Warning: this clip contains strobe lighting and sheer brilliance)

To understand what the song MIGHT mean in English, watch this clip.  (But be aware that these Australians are mocking the great Belgian icon, which, quite frankly, is a disgrace)

In English, but try not to get ‘the meaning’ from the deep and meaningful lyrics!

To fully understand the influence this master continues to have on popular culture, you can see him as he is now; and witness some of the many interpretations of his great work. Click here to see Maeder; Marco Z; The Busters; The Busters  (live in Venezuela); Boss Hoss (A German country band); and some random Frenchman with a ukulele.

What has all this got to do with children’s language?

Parents often ask me, ‘What’s the most important thing I can do to help my baby’s communication?’ To which I reply ‘Sing. Sing with your baby. Sing him to sleep. Sing to him when he wakes up. Sing to make him laugh. Sing to soothe him when he’s fretful.  Singing is the number one way to help a baby understand all sorts of things about communication. It’s a loving thing. But it also helps baby tune into the sounds of your language.’

Children of all ages love to sing and to be sung with. And they particularly enjoy funny songs. The Wiggles realised this, and it’s no surprise that they chose the classic American silly song Old Dan Tucker to include on their monster smash DVD, You Make Me Feel Like Dancing.

The Wiggles Old Dan Tucker

Apparently Bruce Springsteen wanted to appear on the DVD, but The Wiggles chose Leo Sayer instead. Bruce was understandably miffed, but as a tribute recorded his own version

The Boss



Take care out there


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