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Reviews for a handful of some slightly idiosyncratic (even free!) products:

- Coffee Break French
- French in Action

To come: Please check back soon!
- Living Language
- Pimsleur
- Collins

Catch Phrase
"Anna, tu es prête?"

The Background
Run on a shoestring, with only two full-time employees, from a small office and studio in the west of Scotland, this is my favorite dark horse: a free podcast. For a modest subscription fee the podcast can be supplemented by written materials delivered to your mobile device or computer, but the lessons assume you are only listening.

The Approach
“Ooh-kay, noo Anna, hoow woood you conjugate the vairb aller in the pair-fect tense?”

What did he just say? The only word I was sure of was the French one! Okay, so I’m exaggerating a bit. What I’m listening to is the podcast called Coffee Break French. The concept behind it is as obvious as it is original: The twenty-minute (coffee-break-length) lessons feature an instructor, Mark, who is teaching introductory French to Anna, a university student, while we go along for the ride — and the lesson. What makes this work is that Mark is the French teacher you always wanted: patient, good-humored, but never condescending, although (and I suspect Mark knows this) the real star of the show is Anna. Playing both the hero and the foil of sorts, Anna has a sweet, shy voice and an endearing, girlish giggle that suggests she’s rather embarrassed about this whole podcast business and wonders how she let herself get talked into it. On the rare occasions when she has to deliver scripted lines in English, the words come out clipped and a little rushed, and you can tell from her intonation that her mouth is stretched into a mortified grin at having to read these canned lines. As for her French, when asked to say something, her voice invariably rises into a question at the end, as if to preface every response with an unspoken, “Um, this is probably wrong, but might the answer be….”, which expresses exactly how we all feel when first speaking French. Of course, being a good student (but, fortunately for the rest of us, not too good) she is usually — but not always — right, but when I hear Anna in the midst of giving a wrong answer, thinking to myself, “No, no, Anna, that’s the plural!” and Mark says, “Naught qui-ette, Anna.” I feel great! This is a somewhat brilliant aspect of the course, even though on any given day Anna makes fewer errors than I do. I’m also extremely envious of her French accent, which has been good from the start. She sounds like she was born with a French R gurgling from her throat, but being Scottish, she's had a head start.

Limited by 20-minutes podcasts, but well-chosen, and targeted for the prospective tourist. On a recent trip to France, it was Mark, not any of the expensive computer software I've been using, that allowed me to order dessert grandly (Pour ma femme, le sorbet, and moi, je prends le gâteau.)

The Skinny

  • Pros
    1. Free podcast course (80 lessons)
    2. Entertaining and original. Mark and Anna are great company
    3. Ultra-portable. Take it for a walk and plug in.
  • Cons
    1. Other than "repeat after me:" no speech component, but after all, it's a podcast
    2. Loses some steam in Season Three, when Anna is replaced by a troupe of characters
  • Languages: French, Spanish
  • Cost: Free for podcasts, £57 ($92) per season (40 lessons) for supplemental audio and written material
  • Verdict: You probably don't want to rely on this alone, but it's a great supplement to any of the CD/online products. And you've nothing to lose by trying it out. It's the best podcast available, hands-down.

French in Action
Catch Phrase
"These people speak French. In this course, everybody speaks French"

The Background
A 52-episode PBS series than ran beginning in 1987, French In Action -- and especially its star, the fetching Valérie Allain, still has a cult following to this day. As one blogger wrote on his French in Action fan page, "Allain as Mireille has done more to promote the French language among young male English speakers than anyone since William the Conqueror." But the sex appeal shouldn't overshadow the quality of this television course, developed by Professor Pierre Capretz of Yale University.

The Approach Each episode consists of an introductory classroom session — in French, for this is an immersion course — by Pierre Capretz, a Yale University French professor, followed by a vignette featuring a romantic comedy plot involving Mireille, who is a student at the Sorbonne, and a somewhat hapless American student with the hots for her. Capretz is energetic, enthusiastic, expressive and engaging, and it is all done with good humor, from the fun story filmed on location in Paris to perfectly-timed clips of old movies, a mime, and brief Guignol-like puppet shows to make language points. The only time he speaks English is in the first episode, and that is only to explain why he is not going to be speaking any more English. “In this course we don’t translate,” Capretz says, “because French is not a translation of English, it is not English that has been coded into French. No, French is French…So you cannot just replace a French word with an English word…When French people say something in French it is not that they really mean something in English…when they say something in French they mean something French. So to understand what a French word means you have to understand the circumstances in which it is used.”

Take the simple word bonjour, for example. Now, virtually every French course in the world will tell you that bonjour means “hello” and leave it at that, but Capretz, showing a quick montage of Mireille and others saying bonjour in a number of contexts, convincingly demonstrates how this seemingly simple French word is in fact untranslatable. It is not quite “hello,” “hi,” “good morning,” “good day,” nor “ahem, I’m here,” although it can be any of those things. So what it is? “Bonjour is something French people say when they meet someone,” Capretz explains. “That is the meaning of the word…in this course we do not translate words, but we show them used in a number of situations so that students can figure out what they mean through observation and deduction.”

He makes a convincing argument.

Extensive, for a TV show

The Skinny

  • Pros
    1. Free course (52 lessons)
    2. Entertaining, but men may need to keep their eye on the ball and off Mareille.
  • Cons
    1. Is passive by nature. Was great in 1987, but current technology allows for more flexible and possibly (but possibly not) effective instruction today.
    2. The free web version makes it too easy to forgo the study guides and textbook
  • Languages: French
  • Cost: Online episodes free from Annenburg, the original corporate sponsor. DVDs range from $64 (Amazon) to $450 (from the offical Annenburg site)
  • Verdict: Can you learn French from watching TV? Probably not, but there's definitely a place for this as part of the bigger package. Capretz is brilliant.
Other Reviews

And a few others...


  1. I've just stumpled upon your site and am glad I did. Very informative, and done in good humour. A pleasure to read even though I don't always agree with your judgements.

    One minor criticism though - as I see it, it doesn's make much sense to rate the French in Action course based on the video series alone. There to textbooks (600 pages), two workbooks (800 pages), two study guides (500 pages) and 52 audiocassettes (60-70 h of playtime) accompanying the video.

    So this review is in fact, shall we say, tiny bit incomplete.

  2. I've been using French in Action 4 months. I tried just to watch the videos but around Leçon 13 they become a bit too fast without additional help. So I bought the study guide, workbook, text book and audio files. Yes, it was a bit pricey at $280, but the videos are still free. Once you get the complete package, you might watch the video once or twice. The video is just a introduction to the lesson and gives the learner some visual clues. The learning system, and it is a system, works like this:

    1. Watch the video. Don't try to "learn" the dialog, just watch and listen and follow along with the story. Even if you don't understand a single word, you will get 90% of what's happening.

    2. Refer to the Study Guide for the lesson. It gives direction and insight on what you need to give the most attention. For each lesson the next step is to listen to Prof Capretz as he replays the dialog and has you repeat the phrases and hard to pronounce words. This is how you get used to speaking French. Understanding comes later. At first it's at a comfortable pace but the goal is to get you up to speed. Personally I've been trying to "slow talk" French for 2 years (I started my quest at 59) and this course has made me cry oncle! Also during this step another (female) speaker starts popping in with questions relating to what the professor has just said. Don't worry if you don't understand the question, they are listed in the chapter in the text book, in French of course. After all this is an immersion course.

    3. Once you've learned how to pronounce the dialog the study guide will refer you to the workbook with a series of 30-40 exercises. Most of the exercises are supported with audio files, but there are also written exercises. What you don't get from the video the are the extensive exercises in grammar and reading found in the work and text books. At some point you will be referred back to the text to reread the entire dialog. The last phase are reading exercises which range from Marie-Laure's Diary to poems by Verlaine. Yes, the workbook will have questions.

    Of all the materials, only the study guide is in English, it would be cruel not to explain somethings in English. I find this system to be the one that will get me to fluency. I use it everyday along with Babbel, News In Slow French and articles on iTalki.

    I also have a weekly discussion with my online French teacher I found at iTalki. She's from Montréal, but for now is keeping me in standard French. Every week I have some questions or comments about what I've studied in French In Action and she confirms and/or explains what I bring up.

    This program is going to take at least 52 weeks for me. I find I need at least a week to work through a lesson, but then I'm now 61 and like William points out in his book, the aged brain is not the same sponge it was when it was voraciously soaking in English.

    Every week my teacher will get an amazed look on her face when I spontaneously blurt out something I've never said before. Of course my grammar is terrible (it is in English) and my verb may not be the correct conjugation/tense/mood, but when I make those mistakes they just need a slight correction most of the time and that is very reinforcing for me.

    There is no one tool to learn French and everyone has their preferred way to learn. French in Action has proven to be the best for me and I've tried them all. Personne n'ai dit que ce serait facile. ;-)


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