Pierre Capretz, a former French professor at Yale and a world-renowned leader in French language teaching, died in Aix-en-Provence, France on Tuesday. He was 89.

Best known as the creator of “French in Action,” a language-learning program composed of textbooks and a widely-broadcast television series, Capretz taught at Yale for nearly half a century. During his time at the University, Capretz emphasized improving pedagogy in the French Department through immersing students in everyday French conversations, according to his colleagues.

“If you look at what he created, it still ranks among the best [teaching materials] in terms of learning languages,” French professor Ruth Koizim said.

Born in 1925, Capretz grew up in France and attended the University of Paris. Four years after the end of the Second World War, Capretz arrived in Gainesville, Fla. on an army boat. The next morning, he began teaching Latin at the University of Florida, Capretz told the News in 2010.

When Capretz moved on to teaching French, he said he found that the subject was taught using dull textbooks. Creating “French in Action” was an attempt to rectify that problem, he said.

“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 reach French — that is, French that is used in real contexts,” Capretz said. “So that’s where the idea came from.”

Capretz moved to Yale in 1956, where he began developing “French in Action” with recordings and visual aids for his students. Attempting to immerse students in the language, Capretz took some 10,000 photographs around France.

In his early years at the University, Capretz’s colleagues said he played a major role in refocusing the French Department on teaching.

“He did an enormous job at trying to make the French department a language-teaching department,” said French emeritus professor Chuck Porter GRD ’58. “In general it was the one that would have gotten the least help from the older members of the department, who were all literature people.”

Capretz was catapulted to national attention in 1987 with the airing of the “French in Action” television series on PBS. Produced by the Boston-based PBS station WGBH, Yale and Wellesley College, the 52-episode series follows a young couple as they fall in love while travelling around France.

The romantic comedy series aimed to introduce viewers around the country to the French language in an accessible and lighthearted way, Capretz told the News in 2010. Each episode is punctuated by grammar lessons taught by Capretz.

Brigid Sullivan, the vice president at WGBH who oversaw the “French in Action” series, said the project was initially very risky because nothing like it had ever been done before. During the production of the series, she said, she “had [her] heart in her throat.”

The series was a hit, quickly gaining a cult following.

“His technique was brilliant, and translating that technique to television was a very risky venture. It was very exciting, and was pretty scary and was fabulously successful,” Sullivan said. “It became one of the most popular telecourses of all time.”

Barry Lydgate, a French professor at Wellesley College who worked with Capretz, described “French in Action” as being “like a giant internet course, except it came out before the Internet.”

Agnes Bolton, an administrative coordinator in the French Department, said that after the series, Capretz quickly became a recognizable figure in New Haven and elsewhere.

“Everyone would recognize him,” Bolton said. “People thought he was a conductor or famous chef.”

University President Peter Salovey called Capretz “a great Yale figure” on Thursday.

Capretz’s colleagues and students described him as having a complex personality, at once formal, professional and friendly.

“He was very funny, very warm, a little ceremonious but with a very great sense of humor,” Bolton said.

Alec Baum ’14, whose L1 and L2 French classes used “French in Action,” said Capretz’s dynamic personality shone through in episodes of the series.

Lydgate described his rapport with Capretz as “the most important professional relationship in my life.”

Over time, “French in Action” evolved into an increasingly extensive series of textbooks, workbooks and video supplements, which are still used by French Departments at Yale and elsewhere. French in Action is one of the top 10 highest royalty revenue-generating licenses at Yale.

“[Capretz] made a great contribution to the study of French in America,” said Emmanuel Odjo, a French instructor at Phillips Academy Andover familiar with French in Action. “There’s probably no French teacher with over a decade of experience who did not come across French in Action.”

Zach Edelman ’16, whose French classes also used “French in Action,” described it as “the best method I’ve used to learn a language.”

“I had my doubts about the immersion approach because you were immediately speaking French and I come from a more old-fashioned school of thought that you should be learning conjugations from Day 1,” Baum said. “[But] somehow the method works.”

Capretz continued teaching at Yale until 2003, after which he moved back to France. However, he continued working on a third edition of “French in Action” as well as other projects. In 2012, he attended a 25-year reunion for those involved in the PBS series.

He is survived by his children and companion, Sylvie Mathe.

  • C.H.

    Thank you, Pierre, for teaching me believe that out there for every Yalie Robert awaited a Parisian Mireille sipping mineral water by the Seine. Also for introducing me to tête de veau.

  • John P. Sullivan

    This man should have received France’s highest distinction for a cultural ambassador. No one has done more to popularize French language and culture in America. No other language course ever developed a cult following and transformed lives on the scale of French in Action.

  • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

    Au revoir, M. Capretz! Oh how I enjoyed your teaching. I always loved your response to those Yalias enraged by FIA’s “sexism.” When asked, “Why must you make Mirielle so provocative” (or equivalent), you responded “So the boys will pay attention!” “But what about the girls?” “They will pay attention anyway!” (or equivalent). Bon voyage.

  • Joe Fusco

    Professor Lydgate who “described ‘French in Action’ as being ‘like a giant internet course, except it came out before the Internet”, said it best. It was enormously popular throughout North America. I assiduously taped each episode and ordered the companion materials as did so many others.

  • Tim Shea

    As an employee at Yale University Press, I worked with Pierre for many years. He was a gentleman and a visionary, and it was an honor to work with him. He showed me that if you are going to do something and put your name on it, you must be unrelenting in your quest for perfection.

  • Isabel Jaén Portillo

    Pierre not only was a visionary of language education and an wonderful colleague but also inspired us and helped us conceive our own method, Épocas y avances. We are truly grateful for his leadership and remember him affectionately.

  • HenryCT

    The licensing of French in Action was managed for Yale by the Office of Cooperative Research. In the late 1990’s the project was turned over to me. I worked with Pierre to maintain and develop FiA’s use internationally. Beyond that effort, Pierre wanted to create an interactive version to take advantage of computer technology that didn’t exist when FiA was originally made. We spent many hours, including long lunches over a bottle of wine, discussing FiA’s history and philosophy while developing a strategy to raise the substantial funds that would be required for what was a massive undertaking for any commercial program in humanities. Out of these discussions, probing our possibilities and continual cajoling came funding, primarily from the pot of royalty income for FiA, for the Language Development Studio. Not enough for French in Interaction. But enough so that, based on his persistence and fertile creativity, for Pierre to produce one fully formed interactive language learning program – Jules et Jim Interactif. Although we tried, Pierre’s vision and ambition to make the most effective materials to help anyone learn a new language – not just French – available to large audiences were not matched by the realities of the marketplace. French in Action had found imitators, which Pierre candidly characterized as poor copies. It’s unlikely that the interactive Jules et Jim will, unless support for humanities projects grows a whole lot more. Pierre was as strong willed, firmly directed, optimistic, opinionated and exacting as he was charming, generous and open to new ideas. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to work closely with him, hear his stories and share his enthusiasm.

  • Food_Stuff

    I was a big fan of FIA from the beginning. It has been an immense and enjoyable help in learning French. Pierre’s warmth and humor are one of its highlights. Thank you, Pierrre! A bientot!

  • Bako

    RIP

  • MJ

    I would not speak a word of French if not for this magnificent teacher. French in Action still stands as one of the greatest achievements in language teaching ever. Ever!
    Bravo professor – et merci beaucoup!

    • Cynthia Crumlish

      Right you are!

  • http://ᴡᴡᴡ.sexy23.pw manueljairvazquez

    Thanks to Mr.Capretz I am now able to speak french fluently. I remember watching his videos and doing the exercises, it was so pleasant learning the language with his method that it didn’t really feel like learning something but having fun! The FIA episodes had something that made me addicted to them. Mireille’s charima, along with Robert’s serious personality spiced up every single episode in the series, making it so enjoyable to watch.Thank you for creating French in Action Mr. Capretz, rest in peace.

  • Courtney

    Recently, I decided to learn French using the Duolingo app and then one morning before work, I happened upon FiA on a random PBS station as I was walking out the door. Needless to say I love it. Mr. Capretz’s methods have been more helpful than anything for me and I love seeing how happy he seems when teaching others this beautiful language. Thank you sir and RIP.

  • Cynthia Crumlish

    I used French in Action starting with my fifth graders through eighth grade. Would not have considered using anything else. Teachers who say they “do not like it” need to have their heads examined! Monsieur Capretz, je vous estime à jamais.

  • http://www.TheWriterMoIbrahim.com/ Mo Ibrahim

    FRENCH IN ACTION coupled with Duolingo is like Kobe and Shaq…

  • Alexander Tovar

    What a pity!!I started studying my French lessons with that method a long time ago!….I’m very sad hearing about his death!!My thoughts to his family!
    Alexander Tovar
    Brazil.