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Whether you are embarking on self-study or a private tuition course in French, The French Experience 1 is worth considering. Writing and grammar are not over-emphasised, but if you wish to speak, understand and read texts, there is a wealth of material here. Each unit focuses on a particular topic such as health, travel, food and drink, professions, holidays and so on, providing useful vocabulary for tourists as well as residents. The CDs contain authentic dialogues and interviews recorded in France; within each unit the recordings concentrate initially on listening and recognising vocabulary, and then on the learner producing similar language through role-play.
Four 'étapes' or tests are interspersed throughout the book, allowing self-assessment of cultural knowledge as well as language acquisition.
There is a four-page introductory section entitled 'Bienvenue!' (Welcome) which covers greetings, the pronunciation of the letters of the French alphabet, asking for things in a very simple way, and numbers from one to twenty. I find the French alphabet is presented in a particularly useful way: rather than putting the letters in order, they are grouped according to similar sounds; thus B, C, D, G, P, T, V and W are in the same group (they all rhyme).
Unit 1 Introductions (Présentations)
You learn how to say what your name is, how old you are, what your job is, where you live, your nationality, place of birth, and ask people questions to find out about them. Numbers from twenty to seventy are given. Finally the question 'Ca va?' is introduced, along with several possible answers. Each unit has 'info langue' sections that give the breakdown of structures being taught, and 'mot à mot' boxes listing vocabulary (French to English). The units start with a dialogue that can be followed whilst listening to the CD. Some of the activities that follow also involve listening, whilst others ask you to say certain sentences in French. At the end of each unit is a pronunciation exercise focusing on particular sounds or intonation. 'Culturoscope' sections interspersed within the units as well as a double page between each two units give general information about France in English.
Unit 2 Family (Famille) concentrates on talking about marital status, children, relatives and family background. The difference between tu and vous, the two French words for you, is explained. Numbers up to one hundred are given, including some practice with telephone numbers, which have to be said in pairs. There is a note on making plurals which merely states 'most words add an -s' without giving examples of any irregularities, although there is a link to a brief section on plurals at the back of the book.
Unit 3 Professions focuses on talking about where you work, whether you like your job, what the time is, what hours you work, what you do on different days of the week, and how often you do things. Negatives feature in one of the 'info langue' boxes, but without any explanation of how they are formed. Towards the end of the unit is a magazine article where an air hostess talks about a typical day; it would be difficult for a beginner to understand structures such as 'les enfants vont chez leur père dont je suis séparée depuis deux ans.' (dont = from whom; in English we say 'I have been separated for...' whereas in French we literally say 'I am separated since...')
Unit 4 Town and Countryside (Ville et Campagne) focuses on saying how much you like or dislike things, particularly in relation to where you live. A two-page section on Paris and its arrondissements introduces the ordinal numbers 1st, 2nd 3rd, etc. The first Culturoscope in French appears here, using language learned in this unit.
Unité étape 1 follows Unit 4. The first page has general knowledge questions in French relating to information that has been given in the preceding units. There is then a crossword based on language acquired so far. On the following page, the Controle Langue has exercises such as matching questions and answers, filling in gaps, or putting words in the correct order to form a sentence. The section ends with two exercises that necessitate listening to the CD and answering questions. These 'etape' units are certainly useful for checking your progress, and you can keep your score for each exercise.
Unit 5 Shopping (Les Courses) teaches you how to ask for things in shops and find out how much they cost. You also learn how to tell someone what you have bought; in other words, the perfect tense (passé composé) is introduced, but only very briefly considering how essential it is. There is again a link to a section in the language summary at the end of the book which gives more information, but one of my main criticisms of this book is the fact that very little explanation and practice of this tense is included. The unit continues with exercises on understanding recipes and their ingredients, which I do feel is a little advanced at this stage and perhaps not relevant for many learners. The last two pages of this unit are devoted to comparing different ways of shopping: prices are better, the fruit isn't so good, etc.
Unit 6 All Directions (Toutes Directions) centres on giving and asking for directions to certain places, introducing the imperative (command form) and vocabulary of shops and buildings as well as road signs. This content would be useful to most learners.
Unit 7 Full Speed Ahead (A Toute Vitesse) is mainly about travelling by train, which may not interest those who would be taking their car on their travels. You can of course skip any unit that is unlikely to be useful to you, but check to see what grammar you are missing: in this unit, for example, the irregular but very common verbs pouvoir (can), devoir (have to) and vouloir (want to) are introduced and need to be learned.
Unit 8 Hotels and Camping (Hotels et campings) is of course about holiday accommodation. In one of the 'info langue' boxes there is a reference to the future tense, again extremely brief, with the usual link to a small section in the language summary.
Unité étape 2 follows a pattern very similar to that of étape 1.
Unit 9 Interiors (Intérieurs) concerns describing homes and talking about where you used to live in other words using the imperfect tense, but little practice is given. There is one exercise that centres on figures and percentages.
Unit 10 - Leisure time (Loisirs) covers sports, singing, going to cultural events and so on. Structures include saying what you like (or don't like) doing, how well you do things, and asking someone to do something. The final part of the unit gives information about leisure trends in France. By this point you should be more capable of understanding a reading passage such as the one on page 123.
Unit 11 Bon appetit! Structures again include saying how much you like, in this case, particular types of food, as well as understanding and making yourself understood in a restaurant. You'll learn how to make a complaint and ask for advice. (I did once teach a family that did not intend to eat in restaurants at all and were not interested in this unit.)
Unit 12 Fitness and Health (Forme et Santé) should be a useful unit for everyone, concentrating as it does on communicating with a doctor, dentist or chemist. Examples of medicine labels and leaflets are given along with a vocabulary list.
Unité étape 3 follows the usual pattern, with a wordsearch rather than a crossword.
Unit 13 - At work (Au travail) brings up the future tenses again, with both 'going to' and 'will'. Reflexive verbs are also mentioned; I would think that this is too much grammar concentrated in one unit. The future and reflexive verbs each need plenty of explanation and practice rather than being lumped together. You are also asked to learn how to make comparisons, and the imperfect tense is revised. Too much all at once! There are some very useful phrases here for using in telephone conversations.
Unit 14 To please and seduce (Plaire et séduire) is actually about buying presents and shopping for clothes. You will also learn how to describe someone's appearance and character.
Unit 15 In all weathers (Par tout les temps) obviously focuses on tallking about the weather - this doesn't only happen in England - and understanding weather forecasts. The imperfect tense is revised again in the section on sports.
Unit 16 Journeys (Voyages) is essentially about holidays and explains the difference between the perfect and imperfect tenses not an easy distinction for many people, especially as there has been little practice with the perfect tense so far. Two pages on coping with a car breakdown will be invaluable to any driver. This is the last unit that has 'info langue' boxes, so there is no new grammar beyond this point.
Unité étape 4 follows a pattern very similar to that of the previous étape.
Unit 17 Languages and work (Langues et travail) begins with a reading passage about summer jobs for young people. It is all in the present tense, but there is a fair bit of vocabulary to digest. The unit ends with a passage on working from home followed by an exercise in which you imagine that you work from home and describe your situation to a friend.
Unit 18 Holidays (Vacances) differs from Unit 16 in that it discusses green tourism, with reading passages on gîtes as well as quiet island locations. In each case you have to choose the best accommodation or island for several people according to their specifications, e.g., they want to visit a nature reserve, or they love boats. Some of the vocabulary is a little obscure, such as 'un cotre groisillon', a Groix cutter, and la nidification, nesting period.
Unit 19 Culture: A stay in Paris (culture: séjour à Paris) If you don't want to get away from it all, this unit tells you about places to stay and eat in Paris. I find it a little strange that there is a whole page devoted to Parisian markets followed by a page of exercises but no mention of any museum, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tower and so on.
Unit 20 French-speakers (Les Francophones) are looked at in this final unit. A map of the world shows French-speaking countries, and several of them are focused on, namely Belgium, Luxembourg, Andorra, Switzerland, Monaco, and an Italian region called Le Val d'Aoste. I myself learned a little here about the differences between French as in France and Belgian French. The very last exercise asks you to use language you have learned earlier in the book, such as where exactly Guadeloupe is, what the weather is like, and what water sports you can practise there.
There is no Unité étape following Unit 20.
Answers to all exercises in the book are given at the back, along with a fifteen-page language summary, a glossary (French-English only), a map of France and transcripts of the material on the CDs. A table of common irregular verbs forms part of the language summary.
The grammar covered by Book 1 would be roughly equivalent to GCSE level, covering present, future, perfect and imperfect tenses, imperatives and infinitives, as well as nouns, pronouns, adjectives, prepositions and adverbs.The French Experience 1 Activity Book (Isabelle Fournier, BBC 2003, ISBN 056347257X) follows the course book unit by unit, giving extra exercises to practise vocabulary and grammar for those who feel the course book moves on too quickly. In addition, free online activities are available at bbc.co.uk/languages.
I do have mixed feelings about this language pack, and however useful it is, I don't feel it can stand on its own. The amount of grammar, for instance, that is packed into Unit 13 seems to me unreasonable, especially when the last four units introduce no new grammar. The perfect tense in particular needs more explanation and practice. On the other hand, the CDs are very useful for listening to actual French speakers using their everyday language in a natural way. It's likely that you will need to listen more than once, but that doesn't matter, and if you are still confused you can refer to the transcripts. I recently used the CD for Unit 9 with a Year 9 school pupil, and she found the descriptions of the houses quite easy to follow.
If you feel that the topics covered are relevant to you, I would suggest following this course but also buying a grammar workbook such as 'La Grammaire en Clair' or 'Schaum's Outlines of French Grammar'. There is a 'French Experience 2' which carries on where number 1 leaves off, and includes more material from other Francophone countries as well as more advanced language structures. Even then there will be gaps: I was recently asked to write a list of expressions to use at the hairdresser for a website, as this is a topic not usually included in coursebooks but needed by those living in France.
It is hard to find a textbook that covers every aspect and every detail of language learning, so any serious student will almost definitely need to buy more than one book or set of CDs. Try to avoid paying the full price Amazon offers a good discount.
The French Experience 1 Language Pack and 4 CDs. Book: 288 pages;
Marie-Thérèse Bougard and Danièle Bourdais, BBC 2003, ISBN 0563472618.
Price £39.99, Amazon £19.99
This highly successful course has now been revised and updated to include the euro and other key changes in France and French life. The French Experience 1 is the ideal course for beginners in French. The course book and four audio CDs constitute a complete, self-contained course, linked to the content of the BBC TV series The French Experience and with free online activities at www bbc.co.uk/languages. The French Experience 1 is designed both for independent learners and for those studying in classes. From the very beginning, it encourages you to develop your listening and speaking skills with confidence. This pack includes the full-colour coursebook and the 4 audio CDs with over 5 hours of listening and speaking practice.