Oh, là là, c’est Pierre Capretz! This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of “French in Action,” the series of language textbooks and videos created by Capretz. The story follows the blossoming romance between Mireille (Valérie Allain), a Parisienne, and Robert (Charles Mayer), an American student studying in Paris who falls for Mireille at the first sight of her frumpy “jupe rouge.” Since its introduction, “French in Action” has gained a cultlike following, spawning websites and online forums where fans debate the merits of each character and argue over whether Allain really appeared in adult films after her “French in Action” days. For Capretz, this surprising success is the result of fifty years of work.
Q: How did you get the idea for “French in Action”?
A: When I was a young man in France, I was enthusiastic and wanted to teach French in the wild Americas. I arrived here in 1949, and I landed in Gainesville, Fla., after a long ride on one of those big army boats, since it was right after the war. I arrived on a Sunday evening, and the head of the department told me, “OK, nice that you made it, because tomorrow you start teaching Latin at 7:30 in the morning.” I told him that I couldn’t teach Latin, and he said, “Well, you’ve studied it, haven’t you?” I said, “Well, yes, I have. But that doesn’t mean I can teach it!” I know the way they pronounce Latin here is different from the way they pronounce it in France, so I made great efforts to spend the first hour of the class without saying one word.
And the next thing I taught was a French course, and that was bad because they were using a textbook — it was the classic textbook at the time — that was totally uninteresting for the students. I thought we had to change the way we were doing it, and that a better way to teach French would be to put the students in front of what I call real French — that is, French that is used in real contexts. So that’s where the idea came from.
Q: Once you had this idea, how did you go about creating “French in Action”?
A: In ’49 there was practically no recording technology. You could use audio, but it wasn’t sophisticated. And there wasn’t much you could do with visuals. I once tried to buy a camera at the Army surplus store, but I didn’t get very far. So, after spending a few years in Florida, I came to Yale and tried to build something out of my idea. At the beginning, it was recordings and visual aspects. The visuals were mostly drawings. I contacted professional cartoonists in France to do drawings, and I spent all my vacations in France taking pictures. I probably accumulated 10,000 photos in all. I used them to create some kind of context in which I could immerse students, something that would have covered the meaning of words and also the grammar.
Q: How did “French in Action” expand beyond Yale?
A: It was intended for our courses at Yale, but it expanded because there were a few institutions that heard about the course and wanted to use it. We sent them recordings and hundreds of slides. Later, one of my former students called me and said that the method was really good, and that it was a shame more people weren’t using it. I told him, “That would be nice, but to make the recordings available widely we would have to put it on video, and we can’t afford to do that. And I don’t see myself picking up the phone and calling institutions to ask for funding.” He said he would make the calls for me. Little by little, we got enough money. We received a lot of money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. At first, our proposal to them was rejected, and we were annoyed. We actually flew to Washington to ask what was wrong with the funding proposal. They said, “You didn’t ask for enough money! You can’t do this with the amount you asked for.” So they gave us double what we requested. And that’s how “French in Action” came about. It was a long evolution — I arrived at Yale in ’56, and the films were done in 1987.
Q: What do you expect students to get out of “French in Action”?
A: I hope they will learn French! And apparently, they do. Not long ago, I received a very moving little letter from a student who had taken “French in Action” at Yale some twenty years ago. He wrote a very nice letter saying, “I was just thinking about that class I took with you twenty years ago, and it was great. At the end of the year I went to France and bicycled across the country. I met a French girl, and we married and we are settled in Paris now.” I looked him up online, and I found that the student was the lawyer who had done the merger between KLM and Air France. So that’s what we’re trying to do — to get people sufficiently interested so that they will learn. They’ll learn more if they’re interested than if they’re put in front of an uninteresting textbook. And it seems to work.
Q: I’m wondering about how you chose the vocabulary for the lessons. Why do we learn the words for “cross-eyed” and “protesters” before things like “I want to go to the store”?
A: We tried to build the stories about main themes, such as family, transportation, food and entertainment. We wanted to send characters through scenes in those frames, so that the vocabulary is centered on a general topic. We put in phrases like “the students are protesting in the square” because that’s a very common sight in France! The more unusual words, though, are not essential. You could live in France for a while without needing to know how to say cross-eyed, but that word made one character a little strange. It was just something fancy to make the lesson more fun.
Q: When you created “French in Action”, did you know it would become such a cult favorite? Why do you think it did become so popular?
A: Not at all. I worked on “French in Action” for years, just because I thought it was interesting and I wanted to do it, but I had no idea of what would come out of it.
When I started writing these stories, I knew I wasn’t a great writer. So I tried to write them tongue-in-cheek and not take it seriously. I think that’s what appeals to most of the students. It’s a story, but they can laugh at it. They don’t have to take it seriously either.
Q: If I study abroad in Paris, should I expect to fall in love with a nice art history student at the Sorbonne, too?
A: Well, we really tried to talk about common themes. And look at the lawyer I mentioned, who met a French girl and now lives in France. I remember a student coming back from Paris and telling me, “Ah, Monsieur Capretz, it was exactly how you described it in ‘French in Action’! I was staying in a room, and there was an old lady there, and she even had a cat. Every detail was exactly the same!” Except for the cross-eyed guy, of course.