4 beginners mistakes using films to improve your spoken French
Early this year a Facebook friend shared a link to a blog post about 10 films to help beginners improve their spoken French. I clicked through because it’s a topic close to our hearts.
For three years before we moved to France we ran a monthly French conversation group that gave a dozen or so English people a regular chance to speak French between visits to France. It was a way to practice grammar and vocabulary but we knew we weren’t hearing “real” spoken French.
To give the group a chance to hear something closer to real French spoken at normal speed we shared our collection of French-language films. I think everyone would agree that the selection was interesting and broadly speaking they enjoyed the films we suggested.
When I clicked through Facebook to the recommended post my heart sank. The feature image was a still from the 2010 film “Potiche”. High on the “top 10” list was 1990 historical costume drama “La Gloire de Mon Père”, based like its better-known cousin “Jean de Florette” on a Marcel Pagnol story about life in Provence in the early 1900s.
Obviously when you make a list like that you can only recommend what you know, and you can only know about what’s available. Even in the age of Netflix the choice of French-language films available on the English-speaking market is surprisingly limited.
List-maker’s empathy to aside, though, the selection highlighted four problems choosing film to help beginners improve spoken French.
1. Don’t trust the Usual Suspects
“Potiche” and films based on Pagnol stories are – to coin a film-buff friendly phrase – the usual suspects. They’re well-known, they’ve been released into the English-speaking film market, so they’re easy to find.
But it’s a big mistake to assume that they’re the best films for beginners.
Only a limited number of French films find their way into the English-language market. The choice still seems to be in the hands of someone whose idea of their audience hasn’t changed since the 1980s. They mainly seem to want to supply academics and critics with award-winning art-films, or vehicles for established stars.
What filters through can be beautifully costumed, decorated and filmed but it’s often something only an insomniac wouldn’t sleep through.
“Potiche” was released and heavily promoted outside France because of its dream cast of big-name French actors. It’s a stylised period comedy of gender politics. Sadly the plot is impenetrable, the dialogue and performances unnatural, and it’s not funny.
For a film to be useful to beginners learning a language it needs to be simple and interesting. The French film industry makes a lot of popcorn movies. You just have to do a bit more work to dig them out.
2. We don’t still speak the language of Shakespeare
It might surprise you to learn that I’ve never seen the classic French film export “Jean de Florette” or its sequel “Manon des Sources”.
Luckily for this post and my spoken French, so far this hasn’t been a problem. I think the main reason is that I’ve never had to present myself as a time traveller from turn-of-the-20th-century Provence.
“Jean de Florette” and“Manon des Sources” – and“La Gloire de Mon Père” – are stories based on Marcel Pagnol’s childhood in Provence a hundred years ago. Provence, and its neighbour Herault – our part of France – have a strong local accent that’s sometimes difficult to understand. We had a problem telling “vin” (wine) from “vent” (wind). The accent also carries cultural baggage.
It’s a mistake to think you can improve your modern spoken French listening to dialogue from another age or with a regional accent. Hopefully you wouldn’t suggest Shakespeare, or an episode of “Mrs Brown’s Boys”, to help a beginner improve their spoken English.
Popular French comedies and dramas may not be high art but they reflect contemporary life and speak the same language as the audience, which is the language you want to practice.
3. Spoiler alert
French-language tracks are often an option on UK/US DVD films and TV box-sets. They’re readily available because almost all major American films and TV shows are shown in France dubbed in French.
If you own the box-set of “X-Files”, for instance, you have access to over a hundred hours of modern French dialogue, absolutely free.
It’s still a mistake to think, because I’ve seen this and I know what happens, when I watch it in French I’ll understand so much more!
Unless you’re a super-fan who’s committed every line of dialogue to memory, a familiar film or TV show only gives you the same advantage as the second time you watch anything. All it really means is that you don’t have to worry about the plot.
And there’s another problem with dubbed content.
4. A great film … for radio
French viewers prefer their foreign-language films and TV shows to be dubbed. It makes them easier to watch, without the constant distraction of on-screen subtitles.
The problem with dubbing, as seen in almost every comedy sketch about Chinese kung-fu films, is that there’s no lip-synch. There’s no connection between mouth-shapes and words.
You may have heard the theory that when we talk the words do less work than our non-verbal communication.
We definitely find speaking French on the phone is much harder than talking to someone in person. If you can’t see the mouth, the face, or what their hands and arms are doing, you lose a lot of important clues to meaning.
This is why I think it’s a mistake to point beginners learning French at dubbed TV shows and films. This applies even more to animated films, where even in the original language perfect lip-synch may not have been a priority.
Dubbed films don’t offer many advantages over pure audio. The story and dialogue in a children’s cartoon may be clearer because it’s slower paced.
If you just want to listen to everyday spoken French, you can listen to almost all national French radio online. They have a lot of spoken word shows, and you can replay most of them at your own convenience either by streaming or podcasts.
So what do I do?
You can argue that there’s some benefit to watching anything in French, whether it’s dubbed Japanese animation – which I’d still call listening – or a sumptuously dressed comedy of eighteenth century manners. It’s all exposure to spoken French, and you may come to love the world of Marcel Pagnol as much as so many others obviously do.
If you’re a beginner who wants to hear “real” spoken French to help improve your own, I think your best option is modern, contemporary, popular films.
If you want some help with what to pick, I’ll have another post in the not too distant future.