Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Review: Daily French Pod

Posted by Neal on November 2, 2007

Every now and then, I feel like brushing up on the French I had in high school and college. About ten years ago, I subscribed to the French version of Reader’s Digest for a year. Years later, I got a copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in French and I have now read almost to the end of chapter one in it. Ah, who am I kidding, using the present perfect tense that way? Let’s be honest: I read almost to the end of chapter one. Oh, and the table of contents, where I was interested to find out that the French word for magic wand is baguette. My trouble when I read things in French is that I keep vacillating between what I want to accomplish. Do I want to read just for the meaning, getting the gist and passing over the words I can’t get from the context? Or do I want to improve my vocabulary, paying special attention to precisely those words? Only for the shortest texts can you try to accomplish both goals, and I don’t have a nice, convenient set of short French texts.

That wasn’t a hint for a Christmas present. I don’t want a nice, convenient set of short French texts, because for the past couple of months I’ve been listening to archived episodes of Daily French, “your daily dose of French language as it’s spoken by native speakers.” This daily dose of French is not intended for someone just starting to learn the language; for that, you might try the recently inaugurated Coffee Break French from the same people who brought you Coffee Break Spanish. But if you’ve had some French that you want to refresh and build on, these five-to-ten-minute podcasts remove the need to choose between reading (or rather, listening) for comprehension and focusing on the vocabulary. Most of them start off with host Louis reading a three-to-four-sentence news item; topics include science, business, politics, and human interest. After this first reading, Louis goes through the sentences phrase by phrase, explaining the vocabulary, parsing some of the verbs, and sometimes giving other expressions that use a given word. Most of his explanations are in French, but sometimes he will give an English translation of a word in addition to or instead of the French explanation. Finally, Louis reads the text a second time, so that you can listen for comprehension, having already been primed with the vocabulary. Also, not all the vocabulary you learn is from the reading; some is just from Louis’s commentary; for instance, I learned that à peu près means “just about” when he would say, “C’est à peu près tout for aujourd’hui” (That’s about all for today).

The brevity of the items makes it feasible to try to learn all the new vocabulary in each one, especially since you don’t have to look it up yourself. The variety of topics keeps the podcasts interesting, as well as providing a variety of vocabulary that could come up in ordinary, intelligent conversation. Their titles make me want to listen just to find out what they’re about, regardless of the language. For example: “He ate his socks,” “He wrote a novel on his cell phone,” “Galapagos shark endangered,” “Cecilia and her credit card,” “Cannibalism,” “Marijuana consumption.” In fact, if it weren’t a mixed metaphor, I’d say I listen to them like candy.

Not all of the podcasts are in this format. Some shorter ones consist of grammar lessons (for example, a review of irregular future tenses). Others are “video vocabulary.” These podcasts come with a still picture, for example, a breakfast buffet, a bicycle, a car interior, or a sports stadium. A pointer moves over the relevant parts of the picture as Louis gives the French terms. Even if you’re listening to the podcast in the car instead of watching it, the explanations usually make it clear what Louis is talking about.

Aside from the grammar lessons and video vocabulary, there are also somewhat longer episodes of “Real Life French” and dictations, which I don’t enjoy so much. The Real Life French consists of a dialogue that’s not actually taken from real French speakers having real interactions, though they appear to be pretty realistic, and are definitely spoken a lot more rapidly than Louis’s carefully enunciated news briefs. Louis plays each dialogue several times, each time asking the listener to answer several comprehension questions as they listen. The dictation is a dictation. I find both these types of podcasts boring, and recently deleted them all from my DFP podcasts in iTunes.

In addition to all the podcasts, there are also other learning aids and a forum available on the DFP website, but you have to pay to subscribe to those, and so far, the archived podcasts have been sufficiently useful to me that I haven’t looked into subscribing.

Beyond the fact that you can listen to them while you’re doing something else (which you can’t do with a French text and a dictionary), another benefit to the audio format is that you can hear how Louis pronounces the words, which is reassuring even if you’re pretty sure you know how to do it. For example, remembering my “CRFL” rule, I would have pronounced tabac ‘tobacco’ as [tabac], and not even bothered to look it up; now I know that the final c is, in fact, silent: [taba]. For another example, even though I can figure out that fonctionnions (second person plural imperfect of “to function”) should be pronounced [fɔ̃ksjɔ̃njɔ̃], the two [jɔ̃] in rapid succession just sound so funny that I’d wonder if I’d made a mistake were it not for Louis saying it that way himself. I’m also learning that I really have little idea where liaison does and does not apply. I’d certainly pronounce les arbres ‘the trees’ as [lezaʁbʁə], in connected speech, pronouncing the s at the end of les, but I’d always thought that if you were uttering the words separately in slow speech, as Louis does when explaining the text, you would say [le], and then [aʁbʁə], omitting the s as is typical for final consonants in French. Nope. When Louis does it, he says [le], and then [zaʁbʁə]. But for other words, Louis doesn’t perform the liaison. Hearing this prompted me to educate myself some more on this process, which I wouldn’t have been spurred to do when reading French to myself, aloud or silently.

And for the really phonetically minded, you can try to figure out exactly when Louis puts a final voiceless fricative on the end of a word. When he says a mid or high tense front vowel, he sometimes ends with a voiceless palatal fricative: Louis might be [luwiç]; tu might be [tyç]; mais might be [meç]. For high tense back vowels, but not (as far as I’ve heard) mid back vowels, the same thing happens, but with a voiceless velar fricative instead of a palatal: tout might be [tux]. He doesn’t do it all the time; it tends to happen when he says the words in isolation, or at the end of a sentence, but not always even then. This was an aspect of French pronunciation that none of my teachers ever told me about, and one that I never noticed them doing. Is this just Louis’s idiosyncrasy, or is there a dialect of French that does this? If you know, I’m waiting to hear from you.

5 Responses to “Review: Daily French Pod”

  1. In fact, if it weren’t a mixed metaphor, I’d say I listen to them like candy.

    The only metaphor I see there is candy–the listening is quite literal. So what’s it mixed with?

  2. Ran said

    The fricative thing for certain tense vowels is quite common; all French people I’ve known have done it, especially for high ones (I’d always thought of it as a de-voicing or [h], actually, but now that I think about it I guess the tongue is in position for a palatal or velar fricative depending).

    You can find a painfully detailed analysis of French phonology at, if you’ve time and interest; it addresses the de-voicing in section, which is in the middle of page 6.

  3. Neal said

    I guess you’re right; it’s only one metaphor, which I’ve used (or would have used if it didn’t sound so weird, I should say) badly, implying that the way one enjoys candy is to listen to it. If this were a dead metaphor, there’d be no problem (other than, you know, using the kind of cliche known as a dead metaphor). So I am would be treating it as if it were dead, perhaps hastening its demise; perhaps I should call this killing a metaphor. Come to think of it, though, eating something like candy isn’t a metaphor, but a simile, so I guess listening to them like candy would be a case of killing a simile. There. All fixed.

    Thank you for this very useful input. I’ll be sure to check out the website. I like your interpretation of the process as one of devoicing: The speaker stops voicing the vowel but leaves the tongue in its high position, resulting in the voiceless fricative at the appropriate place of articulation.

  4. LP said

    Wow — I, too, use the Harry Potter method of foreign language acquisition! Here’s my technique: portuguese version of HP & the Sorceror’s Stone in left hand, american english version in right. I struggle bravely on with the portuguese until I’m lost, and then refer back to the english text to get back on track. I focus entirely on ‘getting the gist’ rather than on vocabulary and grammar, on the grounds that that’s how I learned english, and it was pretty successful. I’m proud to say I’m now partway through chapter 3.

  5. Ramon Dawkins said

    This is a wonderful tool to assist language learners as they acquire a new language. The phrases are usable in daily life experiences and as an individual immersed in the language in a foreign I use it daily. It is truly a priceless tool to keep in one’s pocket, literally. Merci beacoup!

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