Resources for learning French: Coffee Break French

Once you’re past the beginner stage, it’s tough to find French instructional materials. Here’s one good option.

faites la pause cafe 09b72d2e690b76d08c88136435f97787
“Take a coffee break every day.” Picture source:

When I was in grad school, I did research on a language spoken by about 30,000 people in a town in what is now South Sudan.  Getting to that town was impossible–too many civil wars in the area.  I worked with a guy who was a political refugee in the US.  Every week, we met for two hours, and I would collect data.

At the time, there were maybe 40 people in the US who spoke the language.  The guy with whom I worked was the only one in our part of the country.  So: I had no examples of natural use of the language at all, other than the occasional phone message or email–just the data that came from our weekly meetings.

One fine day my consultant told me that there was going to be a conference in town, and a couple guys from his town would be coming.  My first chance to get actual conversational data!  His friends very kindly consented to be recorded, and one warm summer day the three of them got into the linguistics department’s sound-proof booth, I stuck a tape in the recorder (this was a while ago), and they started talking.

To picture the scene, you have to realize that the people in this town tend to be more educated than other folks in the area, and the people in the US who speak the language are often quite educated–two of these three guys were college professors.  So: three dignified, educated guys in suits in a stuffy little sound-proof booth in the middle of the summer, humoring some grad student by speaking their native language, sweating their butts off until I ran out of tape.  Humans can be very nice to each other sometimes.

Today, the Web has made getting data simple.  You want to hear formal speeches in Bari (480,000 speakers in South Sudan and Uganda)?  Go to YouTube.  You want to hear comedy routines in Dinka (1.4 million speakers in South Sudan)?  Go to YouTube.  You want to hear a bilingual song in Kukú and Ma’di (314,000 speakers in South Sudan and Uganda)?  Go to YouTube.  Kukú ko Ma’di, yi’ geleng–“Kukú and Ma’di, we are one.”  (Here’s the video.)

That’s the situation for those languages that you never hear about–thanks to the internet, I can sit in my pajamas and listen to more hours of the language on my laptop than I heard in three years of research.  For popular languages like French, there are far more instructional materials than any one person could possibly use in a lifetime.

That’s the situation for beginning students, at any rate.  Past a certain level, it gets hard to find structured material for learning a language, even one of the big ones–there are countless books, web sites, YouTube videos, etc. that will teach you the basics, but it’s much tougher to find instructional materials once you pass that point.

One of the best resources that I’ve found in this respect is the Coffee Break French podcast series.  The basic idea behind Coffee Break French is the 15-minute lesson: just long enough for a coffee break, so to speak.  It’s entirely audio.  There are four seasons of the series.  They take you from complete beginner in the first series to totally idiomatic French as it’s actually spoken in the fourth season.  I’ve only listened to the fourth series, which is targeted towards the more advanced speakers for whom there isn’t that much else available.  The basic format of the fourth season is this: you hear a text–an email, read out loud, from one of the characters in a season-long story to another of the characters.  The gist of the text is recounted in English.  Then, you’re given discussions of 3-4 expressions or grammatical constructions from the text.  Finally, you hear the text again.

One of the things that I like about Coffee Break French is that the expressions that they go over are not just idiomatic, but so colloquial that native speakers are surprised to hear them come out of the mouth of a non-native speaker.  The result of this is that I can often make girls laugh by using them.  Making girls laugh is pretty much my favorite thing to do in the entire world, and if you can do it in a foreign language: extra points.  And, they’re by no means obscure–pretty much everything that I’ve learnt from Coffee Break French is stuff that I hear native speakers say all the time.  Some of my favorites from Season 4:

  • un de ces quatre–“one of these days.”  Literally, it’s “one of these four.”  As they explain on the podcast, the original form is tous les quatre matins–literally “every four mornings,” but meaning “often.”  Related to that is un de ces quatres matins, “one of these days,” and that can get shortened to un de ces quatre. 
  • parler français comme une vache espagnole–“to speak broken French.”  Literally, it’s “to speak French like a Spanish cow”–I get so much mileage out of this one that I wrote an entire blog post about it.

There are also lots of discussions of the sorts of grammatical things that can be difficult for native speakers of English–when to use the future versus the present, when to use the subjunctive, agreement phenomena, irregular verb forms, etc.

The other thing that I like about Coffee Break French: it’s fun to listen to.  The two guys who do it clearly love what they’re doing, and delight in the language and its twists and quirks.  Hoho, that’s a nice subjunctive, Marc!  Who wouldn’t want to hang out with guys who admire a good subjunctive?  Plus, when they speak English, they both have these amazing Scottish accents–it’s a scream.  I worked my way through all 40 episodes of Season 4, which is longer than I’ve hung in there with any similar resource.  And, the fact that it’s a podcast, rather than a YouTube video, means that I can listen to it while in the car, or walking to work, or whatever–I’m not chained to a computer.

The 15-minute podcasts are totally free.  As is the case with many such similar resources, you can subscribe and get additional content for a price–longer audio lessons, and transcripts.

Are those French girls giggling at my clever use of the language, or because I sound like an idiot?  I don’t know how to design the experiment that would answer that question.  I do know that Coffee Break French improved both my comprehension and my speaking considerably–check it out.  For other posts about instructional materials for advanced students of French, see the following.  Scroll down past this list for some notes on English words and expressions in this post.

English notes:

  • to be a scream: to be very funny.
  • to recount: to relate in detail; to narrate (Merriam-Webster).  This can also mean “to count again.”  With the meaning of “to relate in detail, to narrate,” the word first shows up in the 1400s–the tail end of the Middle English period–when it was borrowed from the Anglo-French recunter. 
  • to shill: to say nice things about something because you’re being paid to do so.

12 thoughts on “Resources for learning French: Coffee Break French”

  1. I’m not exactly with you about “un de ces quatre” . It is never used to mean “often”, when someone says “à un de ces quatre” it means “one of these days, don’t know when” . And it doesn’t come from “un de ces 4 jours”, but “ces 4 matins” . “Tous les 4 matins” means relatively often, and in rather unpleasant circumstances . ” Il arrivait sans prévenir tous les 4 matins, on en avait assez !”

    The number 4 is present in a mass of colloquial expressions :
    Tiré à 4 épingles = very well dressed .
    Couper les cheveux en 4 = splitting hairs
    Se mettre en 4 pour quelqu’un = doing everything imaginable for someone .
    Lui dire ses 4 vérités = for once clearly telling someone the unpleasant truths about his behaviour, something other people think but didn’t say yet . .
    Se saigner aux 4 veines = making all financial sacrifices for a goal ( like sending one’s kids to College ) .
    Ne pas y aller par 4 chemins = getting straight to the point .
    En quatrième vitesse = as fast as possible

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A little more :
      Aux 4 coins du monde = all over the world ( yes the world has four corners, only French astronomists know this ) .
      Faire les 4 volontés de quelqu’un = doing absolutely everything the other person wants .
      Etre plié en quatre = choking with laughter .

      There are more of course .

      Liked by 1 person

  2. There is also a breed of expressions based on 36 (that is a multiple of 4 BTW) . Or you could open with the Celtic “Gaulois” root of French soul, like we can see in the survival of base 20 counting from above 69 (interesting number too man …)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah I read your post about numerals, but it’s different, a whole lot of technical origins in your “expressions” there .
      And above the 4 corners of the world I must apologize : only French astronomists AND Native Americans know about them .

      Liked by 1 person

  3. De la part de toute l’équipe de Coffee Break French, je vous remercie bien ! And yes, we do enjoy a good subjunctive 😉 Bonne continuation!

    Mark, Pierre-Benoît et l’équipe de Coffee Break French

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Coffee Break French has helped me SO much with my French the past 6 months. I zipped through the first couple of seasons and then started to try to transcribe the free version of Season 3 and check my transcriptions on Google translate. I became weary and wary of how well I was actually doing so I bought the Season 3 and 4 bundle. I just finished Season 3. I’m doing really well with the dictations at the end of the season, probably because I’ve been transcribing all along. However, translating the sentences in English to French is still challenging: I rarely do one perfectly. While my listening and reading have come along so nicely since I resumed learning French last summer (after a 45 year break!) I think it’s still really difficult to speak and write in French. Do you–does anyone have any good suggestions for improving the speaking and writing pieces?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Curative Power of Medical Data

JCDL 2020 Workshop on Biomedical Natural Language Processing


Criminal Curiosities


Biomedical natural language processing

Mostly Mammoths

but other things that fascinate me, too


Adventures in natural history collections

Our French Oasis


ACL 2017

PC Chairs Blog

Abby Mullen

A site about history and life

EFL Notes

Random commentary on teaching English as a foreign language

Natural Language Processing

Université Paris-Centrale, Spring 2017

Speak Out in Spanish!

living and loving language




Exploring and venting about quantitative issues

%d bloggers like this: