The Drama of Learning French

The Drama of Learning French

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While taking courses is vital to improving one’s French, for those of us who enjoy independent instruction there are several other ‘real life’ methods of language learning. One of these is French theatre.

You might like to give theatre a try, once your French is at a stage where you can carry out a basic conversation, and can read sufficiently well to understand magazines or newspapers. This reading ability is necessary because in order to understand as much of the play as possible it is best to read it beforehand.

I tried this for the first time with Camus’ Les Justes (in English: The Just Assassins) which was playing in Paris in mid 2007. The text was challenging; I had to look up several new words on each page; of which there are many in a play of five acts! I considered reading it in English first but persevered with the French text, a decision that paid off at the performance where I found I understood about 75% of the dialogue in some sections if I maintained concentration. I believe I would have hardly understood 50%, had I not first read the play in French.

My second attempt was May again in mid 2007, which is a translation of Hanif Kureishi’s The Mother, originally in English. Because I couldn’t find a French version at the time, I read it in English. While my advance knowledge of the plot greatly enhanced my comprehension when I saw the play, I believe I would have understood more had I first been able to read it in French.

Since then I have repeated this pattern of reading-then-viewing plays several times, with Le Guardien, Le Diner de Cons, Mon Pere avait Raison and, at the moment, L’Autre. I’ve discovered that my comprehension can plunge to almost zero when ‘mushy-mouthed’ actors don’t enunciate clearly; slang or unfamiliar accents don’t help either! Nevertheless, on every occasion it’s been an enjoyable experience, often in a gorgeous building, with several hours of total immersion in French language and culture.

Choosing which plays to see, based on language level and on whether the text is easily available, takes a little planning.  Here’s what I do: scan Pariscope or L’Officiel des Spectacles (I find the latter easier to comprehend, and with more intuitively-arranged contents) to see what plays are on, and are likely to continue for the next few weeks, and then read the descriptions to try and gain a sense of subject matter and level of difficulty.

Next I visit the website of L’Avant-scene Theatre, a company that specializes in producing the texts for a selection of the more popular plays around town, to see what current plays’ texts they have in stock. Texts can be ordered individually from their website or one can subscribe for six or twelve months and automatically be sent twenty texts of plays that are being staged in and around Paris during the current year.

If I’m interested in a particular play but am not sure whether the language level will be simple enough for me, I go to one of the theatre bookshops to look at the book first. The two best bookshops I have found for this are the Coup de Theatre, at 19  Blvd Raspail in the 7th, or The Bookshop at the Lucernaire Theatre, at 53 rue Notre Dame des Champs in the 6th. These bookshops stock texts by L’Avant-Scene Theatre, as well as other editions of plays. With the play text chosen and bought, I then book the seats, sufficiently far ahead to allow me enough time to read the book first.

Finally, settled into my seat and waiting for the curtain to rise, I feel an excitement like no other. I’m still far from understanding even 75% of a whole play, but when I recognize known words and phrases, even whole sentences, it feels like greeting old friends. And afterwards, simple exchanges in a bar or at the market, and even during everyday conversations, feel like a breeze.

Carolyne Lee teaches Media and Communications at the University of Melbourne, Australia; her latest book is Power Prose: Writing Skills for the Media Age.

Many thanks to Marc Cogan for assistance with the research for this article.

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