Book Article

Bonjour Les Enfants

The best kids foreign language tapes -- Five great lesson programs to teach your children to speak French or German

For months, our family has been listening to tapes that claim to teach foreign languages to children. We remain an English-speaking household. But there have been some changes.
*The 3-year-old's nonsense words have a distinct nasal tone. ''Jeanvigaut! Da-bout!'' (In honor of those of us who were once useless liberal-arts majors, we used French tapes.)
*The baby can roll her R's.
*The 3-year-old approaches strangers on the street, shouts ''Bonjour!'' and tries to kiss them on both cheeks.
*My French, dormant since college, has improved dramatically, although my vocabulary is limited to words a second-grader might use. I could write an entire Mister Rogers' Neighborhood script in French, but I couldn't ask for directions in Montmartre.
*We sing ''Alouette, gentille alouette'' all the time. We are sick of it. But we can't stop.

Here's a synopsis of what's available. None of these tapes will work magic on a youngster's vocabulary, but all will dress up his conversation and maybe, if properly applied over a long period, allow him to converse in a classier language than he uses now. More important, all of the tapes are great fun for parents and children to enjoy together.

TEACH ME FRENCH Judy Mahoney and Mary Cronan
The 19 songs include ''Frere Jacques'' and ''The More We Get Together.'' English and foreign stanzas alternate on these 30-minute tapes, which are accompanied by a lyric-filled coloring book. The story, which takes a French family through the day, from breakfast to ''Bonsoir, mes amis, bonsoir,'' exists only to link the songs.

Family members exist only to populate the story. They have all the personality of Playskool Flat Folks. But the songs are singable, with practice, in any language. A-

FRENCH FOR KIDS
When you tell people you are teaching your child a foreign language and they mumble something about pushy parents, this is the kind of tape they mean. Kids does not just promise to teach French; it calls itself a ''unique method to stimulate giftedness.'' It does not stop with (great) songs and 10 easy lessons but also provides theories on ''receptivity'' and ''educative feedback.'' It puts the pressure on.

Pressed for time, I did not create an ''OptimaLearning environment'' for my child. I just plugged in the two tapes and opened the accompanying lesson book. Maybe that is why, when I tried to review the first lesson, she screamed, ''Leave me alone!''

For the highly motivated parent, Kids will be a fulfilling educational experience. I have no idea what it will do for his kid. As for mine, she loves the music — it's her favorite lullaby tape. A-

BERLITZ JR. FRENCH
Berlitz takes a no-nonsense approach, telling a simple story in two languages and promising only that ''within minutes your child will be speaking his or her first French phrases.'' Note: Berlitz doesn't promise that he or she will understand these phrases.

The hardcover book dominates the tape here, and it's a fine, old-fashioned book. Colorful bear ''Teddy Berlitz'' takes us to school, the park, supper, and the circus, smoothly incorporating language lessons — days of the week, colors, numbers — along the way.

First time through, my tot listened and looked intently, holding my hand. Then she spoke: ''Will your fingernail bleed if I break it?'' A few Berlitz sessions later, though, she was yelling, ''Au revoir, Gigi!'' 20 times a day. A

STORYBRIDGES TO GERMAN FOR CHILDREN
Each of the tapes has two eight-minute stories, plus vocabulary review and word games. Stories include ''Gold-ilocks and the Three Bears,'' ''The Nightingale,'' and ''Peter and the Wolf.'' They are told in English, with foreign words thrown in here and there. The idea is that you learn by osmosis and context.

The foreign-language part of these stories is fine. It's the English that I couldn't tolerate. The Storybridges people have bowdlerized classic fairy tales, replacing violence with sickly sweetness. Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf, and the grandmother have a picnic together. Peter's wolf belches up the duck. How do you say ''wimp'' in German? (The word is Schwächling. And no, it's not on the tape.) B-

PHRASE-A-DAY FRENCH FOR YOUNG CHILDREN
These two half-hour tapes are broken into four 15-minute seasonal segments — spring, summer, etc. — in which a child goes through ordinary activities. Eating meals, going to school-all takes place under the watchful eye of parents. (Parents, generally AWOL from the books I read my kids, are everywhere in these language lessons; maybe they are still important in France.) Narration is in French, with French and English captions accompanying illustrations in the activity/coloring book.

Few songs, no color pictures: On the surface, the Phrase-a-Day presentation is the dullest. Of course, this may mean it works the best, the way a child will play longer with a simple toy that makes demands on his imagination and tire of fancier gizmos. My child and I didn't react as quickly to this cassette as we did to the others, but now that the first flush of our French lessons is over, we probably listen to it the most. It has staying power. A

Originally posted Apr 19, 1991 Published in issue #62 Apr 19, 1991 Order article reprints