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.
- The Learn French with Pascal video series on YouTube
- The One thing in a French day podcast and email list
- The 7 jours sur la planète app
- The Lawless French web site (my post here, the web site here)
- The blog post where I explain that I don’t get paid to shill for any of these guys
- 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.