Fine, I’ll admit it.
I never used to think reading plays was “my thing.”
After college, reading them always came just a little too close to resembling the particular bit of schoolwork I often dreaded.
So when my French teacher suggested we read one together several years ago as part of class, I secretly balked at the idea.
I could feel myself reverting to my younger self, groaning and lamenting, “Ugh, it seems so painfully booooring.” Especially because I knew there were just so many other ways I could immerse myself in French.
But then we started reading. We read together in class. I read at home in my spare time, with and without my husband. And I started to realize something.
Maybe there was something to this play thing after all—especially in another language. Because I was learning in a fun and completely different way, and the truth is that I loved it!
Why Learn French Conversation with Plays?
So you’re probably wondering what makes plays so special. Why can’t a regular book do the trick? It would probably help if I explained what I’ve learned to love about plays, and why I find them so valuable for rounding out French practice.
- Long conversations. Good conversational skills are critical in any language, and working hard to continually improve your speaking skills will only make French easier and more enjoyable. Unlike a regular book in which dialogue only plays a small part, each play is essentially just one ongoing conversation. So by focusing intently on the conversations in plays—both reading them to yourself and reading them out loud to others—there’s no question your ability to have a conversation in French will improve through your extended exposure.
- Flow of dialogue. The cadence of conversations in plays is often more true to life than you’ll find in a regular book: the witty banter, the constant back and forth. All of it helps you get a better understanding of not only how French dialogue flows in real-life situations, but also of how to construct sentences that make you sound more like a native.
- Interactive learning. We all know how wonderful books can be for learning, but they do have their limits. With plays, you can get the benefits of reading a book, combined with the practice you’d get from having a regular conversation in French. It’s true that you’re not coming up with the words on your own, but accustoming yourself to repeating common phrases means you’ll be so much more likely to have those phrases at the ready when you want to say them for yourself.
- Vocabulary and cultural awareness. Whether you’re reading modern plays or the classics, everything helps. Of course the vocabulary in some of the classics may be slightly less common in everyday conversations, but it’s still good to get it down. Plus we all know how important knowledge of the arts and culture is to the French, so why not get ahead with your language and culture all at once?
Of course it never hurts to become a French bookworm while you’re reading a play—there’s no reason the two can’t peacefully coexist.
How to Learn Conversation with French Plays
So now that I’ve let you in on how French plays wil help you, let me fill you in on some of the ways you can make them an especially useful learning tool.
1. Begin reading like a book
My recommendation is to begin like you would with any book, and start by reading the play to yourself. Take some time just getting a grasp for the vocabulary you aren’t sure of, along with the broader tone of the story and the personalities of the individual characters.
You don’t necessarily have to read the entire thing through at this point. In fact, I think you might find it more useful to just read a few pages to yourself, perhaps just until you reach a good break point, like the end of a scene. Make sure you really understand those pages well. It’ll make the next part a lot easier and more interesting.
2. Read the dialogue aloud
Once you’ve got them down, go back and try reading the dialogue out loud and see if you can get a feel for the flow. Try to identify the type of conversation and the personalities of the characters, and then take that knowledge and use it as you say the lines. If you have a study buddy, get them involved too. Assign characters and re-assign them as each new scene requires. Really try to get into the emotional mindset of everyone.
3. Watch a performance of the play
Now put the play down and pick up your computer. Lots of plays are available on YouTube in one form or another, and for many you can watch the entire thing performed. So find your play and watch the scene(s) you’ve just studied.
How does your acting compare with what you see in the clips? What are you learning from the actors? After you’ve watched some clips, try going back and reading the dialogue again. Chances are you’ll feel even more confident in your words and demeanor.
So, which play should you read?
There are so many great plays you could read, but I’ve included four below that cover a range of styles, topics and lengths.
4 Irresistable French Plays to Master the Art of French Conversation
Written by Francis Veber and published in 1998, “Le dîner de cons” is the story of Pierre Brochant and his weekly “idiots’ dinner,” an event where Pierre and his well-to-do friends come together for a dinner, each with an unknowing “idiot” of their choice. At the end of the evening, a winner is selected based on the most hilarious “idiot.”
On this particular night, everything seems to go wrong and the dinner doesn’t happen at all. Nonetheless, Brochant and his chosen “idiot” end up spending the evening together, dealing with a series of hilarious mishaps and cringe-inducing moments.
You may also recognize this plot from its American remake with Steve Carell, “Dinner for Schmucks.”
Bottom line: If you prefer a more modern comedy with more straightforward dialogue, this is a great place to start.
Watch a clip: “Le dîner de cons”
Written by Yasmina Reza in 2006, “Le Dieu du carnage” tells the story of two sets of parents who come together to discuss their sons. The boys have recently gotten into a fight at a local park, and now the parents are trying to figure out how to resolve the conflict.
While the night begins with plenty of civility as the parents discuss what happened, it quickly and painfully deteriorates into chaos as the parents begin to verbally attack both each other and their children.
Bottom line: If you prefer a more modern play with a darker side, you’ll be happy with this choice.
Watch a clip: “Le Dieu du carnage”
3. “Huis clos”
Written by Jean-Paul Sartre and published in 1947, Huis clos is the story of three individuals—two women and one man—who all die and end up living in a room together in l’enfer (hell).
Over the course of the play, each of them shares a bit about their lives and how they ended up there in hell. The longer they are in the room together, the more they begin to bother each other and the closer we get to crux of the story—and the ultimate point that Sartre is trying to make.
Bottom line: If you’re looking for something more philosophical in nature without stepping too far back in time, this would be a good bet.
Watch a clip: “Huis clos“
Written by Molière in 1664, “Le Tartuffe” tells the tale of an unwelcome house guest who has enchanted the several members of a family, much to the dismay of the rest of the family. The house guest, Tartuffe, feigns piety to get into the good graces of several more welcoming members of the family, who refuse to turn against him until later in the story when his duplicitous ways are shown to them as well.
The play is written in rhyming couplets, which actually makes following along slightly easier and helps with reading it aloud.
Bottom line: “Le Tartuffe” is the oldest and by far the most challenging of the four plays listed in this post. If you’re up for a challenge and looking forward to reading through a classic, give it a shot!
Watch a clip: “Le Tartuffe“
Whether you’re a lover of plays or even if you’re a little concerned by the format (like I was!), I urge you to give it a try. My guess is you’ll be plesantly surprised.
Now get out there and get on with your play. No acting skills required—I promise!
Jamie Walters is a freelance writer and the owner of Pure Paris, a travel planning company that provides personalized daily itineraries to help travelers see Paris like a local. Originally from Seattle, she and her husband now live in Paris, where they have immersed themselves in la vie Parisienne.
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