FRENCH IN ACTION: Yale’s Free cult French video Lessons

Learn and improve your French with Yale’s free immersive French language video lessons called “French in Action.” It’s the first of its kind, with a cult following

By Annie André ⦿ updated January 10, 2024  
French in action: the free French videos that help you learn french and French culture through 52 immersive lessons
French in action: the free French videos that help you learn french and French culture through 52 immersive lessons

If you’ve always wanted to learn or improve your French but have been struggling to learn French through traditional methods, “French in Action” might be the solution for you.

This video-based French language course, created by a French professor at Yale University, is the closest thing to a total immersion experience in the French language and culture without having to relocate to France.

While the videos can come across as a bit cheesy, they’re fun, engaging, and incredibly effective— and they are completely free!

What is “French in Action?”

French in Action The Capretz Method

French in Action is a multi-media, audio-visual French language learning course developed by Professor Pierre Capretz, a tousled and wild gray-haired mand from France who taught French at Yale University from 1956 to 2003.

His innovative course uses a combination of video lessons along with corresponding textbooks and workbooks to teach vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.

In 1987, the video lessons gained wider exposure when they were broadcast on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), a platform known for promoting educational content, including language learning programs.

After it debuted on PBS, the French in Action videos developed a kind of cult following and fan base, sometimes referred to as “FIA fans,” short for “French in Action fans.”

At its peak, the program’s videos, textbooks, and workbooks found their way into more than 1,000 universities and high schools across the US. This included prestigious Ivy League institutions such as Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale, where it all started.

French In Action was ahead of its time.

The course’s 52 video lessons that Professor Capretz created were very innovative at the time.

They introduced a new immersive video-based approach to learning French with a quirky storyline that replicated real-life scenarios between the main characters, Robert and Mireille.

Through their whimsical and sometimes cheesy adventures, conversations, and interactions in various daily activities, things unfold naturally, letting learners absorb French culture and the French language within meaningful contexts.

Since the entire video series was filmed on location in France, French learners are exposed to the French landscape, architecture, and culture in various real-life scenarios such as cafes, markets, parks, and more. 

Professor Capretz is now considered the pioneer of video-based foreign-language instruction, which he initially called “The Capretz Method,” and his principles of learning through real communication and cultural context have influenced many modern language education methods.

RIP Professor Capretz: 30 January 1925 – 1 April 2014 (aged 89) in Aix-en-Provence, France

French In Action was originally created to teach French at Yale University

French professor Pierre Capretz creator of French in Action who taught French at Yale University

Professor Capretz began developing his multi-media French learning course in the 1960s, initially for his French classes at Yale University.

According to Professeur Captretz, he based his immersive language learning approach on an oral immersion method pioneered by Jean Boorsch, who also taught at Yale. Borsch called his teaching method “Méthode Orale de Français” (oral French method), focussing on speaking and listening proficiency.

Capretz added the missing piece to immersive language learning: video, which gave words and phrases meaning and context because students could hear the words and see what was happening.

What is the French in Action Storyline?

French In Action follows the daily lives, interactions, and experiences of Robert Taylor, an American student, played by French Canadian actor Charles Mayer, who travels to France to learn French.

Along the way, he meets a French woman named Mireille Belleau (Valérie Allain), who lives with her parents and little sister Marie-Laure.

As the story unfolds, Robert and Mireille navigate various situations, such as going to the market, visiting cafes, and attending social gatherings; French learners witness authentic French conversations and cultural nuances.

Eventually, Robert and Mireille’s friendship blossoms into a kind of romantic comedy, which is one of the endearing things about this French-language video series.

How are the French In Action videos structured?

Example French in Action video scene

Each of the 52 videos is approximately 30 minutes long and conducted entirely in French, except for a brief introduction to explain what the episode is about at the beginning of each episode.

This allows the lessons to focus on repetition and context rather than translating the meaning of the words and phrases spoken by the characters.

As the episodes progress, learners are gradually introduced to new vocabulary and grammatical concepts reinforced by on-screen repetition through authentic conversations, gestures, and expressions which help learners absorb the French language naturally. 

The cultural aspects deepen your understanding of French culture.

Where can you watch “French In Action” for free?

You can watch all 52 videos in a few places, but I recommend going to the Annenberg Learner Funds website, which distributes educational video programs.

Due to licensing agreements, online viewing of the videos may be restricted to the United States and Canada. You can use a VPN to access the material if you can’t view the videos due to geographic restrictions. Don’t know what a VPN is?

Alternatively, you can also watch the entire series on YouTube.

Pros of French in Action

  • FREE: 52 videos that are free online.
  • Best learning method: Follows a highly successful teaching method created at Yale by a native French speaker
  • Immersive Learning: The method provides an immersive experience by presenting content entirely in French, aiding in language absorption through exposure.
  • Contextual Learning: Through its engaging storyline, learners learn language skills in real-life contexts, enhancing practical usability.
  • Cultural Integration: The series integrates French culture, promoting a deeper understanding of cultural nuances and language learning.
  • Engagement: The romantic and comedic storyline keeps learners engaged and motivated, making learning more enjoyable.
  • Audio-Visual Enhancement: The combination of videos and books caters to various learning styles, reinforcing comprehension and retention

Cons of Frech in Action

  • Lack of Explanation: The method sometimes prioritizes immersion over explicit grammar explanations, which could be challenging for some learners. This is where the textbooks would come in handy.
  • Outdated Content: Since the series was introduced in the late 1980s, some cultural references and language use might be outdated.
  • Immersion is not for everyone: Beginning French learners may feel overwhelmed that the video lessons are entirely in French.

French in Action series isn’t just videos.

As I mentioned earlier, this immersive French learning course uses various forms of media to teach French. The video lessons are just one component of a larger program that includes textbooks, workbooks, an instructor’s guide, a study guide, an audio program, and a testing program.

All of which were originally designed for use in universities. 

You don’t necessarily need all the supplementary material, but the textbooks and workbooks that accompany the videos are handy if you want to take your French learning to the next level because they give you written explanations, exercises, and activities to reinforce learning

How are the French in Action Books structured?

The French in Action book comes in two parts, each with 26 bite-sized chapters corresponding to each video.

  1. Part 1 contains lessons 1-26
  2. Part 2 includes lessons 27-52.

There are also transcripts of the videos that let you follow along, which helps learners match written French words and phrases with their correct pronunciation.

The structure of each lesson typically includes watching a segment of the video, followed by engaging with corresponding exercises and activities in the textbooks and workbooks. This combination of visual, auditory, and tactile learning creates a holistic and dynamic learning experience.

These resources complement the videos by providing exercises, activities, and explanations reinforcing vocabulary, grammar, and comprehension.

Where can I buy the French in action textbooks?

French in Action: A Beginning Course in Language and Culture: Part 1 (3rd edition) (English & French)

The third edition of the French in Action textbook is updated with a more modern format and presentation for a new generation of French language learners.

There are now colourful illustrations and pictures instead of the black-and-white ones of the second edition.

It also includes an entirely new feature, the journal entries by the popular little sister, Marie-Laure, who dishes out her humorous take on French culture, technology, and political changes in the world and French life between 1985 and today.

These humorous entries make for an interesting read and give comic relief from the concise grammar explanations and exercises sprinkled throughout the book.

French in Action: Part 2

Part 2  builds on Part 1 and gives you the intermediate skills necessary to communicate in French. It helps you build your vocabulary and pronunciation and offers deep insights into French culture. Each edition has been revised to include more fun learning materials to make the learning process more immersive and enjoyable.

Of course, you get to continue your adventures with Mireille and Robert, her American love interest.

Like part 1, this book is also updated with journal entries from Mireille’s opinionated little sister, Marie-Laure.

Controversy at Yale over French in action video content:

Mireille gets harrassed while she sits in a chair at a park. (French In Action 11 - Encounters I)

Everyone loves a bit of controversy.

In 1990, three female students taking introductory French at Yale University filed a sexual harassment complaint with university officials. They claimed that the “French in Action” video series was “blatantly sexist.” so much so that it interfered with their ability to learn French.

They especially objected to camera angles focusing on Mireille’s legs or breasts, claiming she isn’t wearing a bra. In one lesson, a Pickup artist harrassed Mireille as she sat in a park. In another scene, protesters say, a woman gagged and struggled. In other lessons, women are always the victims, and men always portray professors.

Professor Capretz responded, “I wouldn’t change any of it.”.On the basis that to teach French effectively, “you have to make the students observe the language being used by native speakers in real situations” (source)

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a 'petite commission' at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through my links. It helps me buy more wine and cheese. Please read my disclosure for more info.

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.

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