On the record
Many years ago, when Ineeded good quality A-level listening materials featuring interviews with people speaking everyday French, I bought a pound;25 cassette recorder and off I went. Holidays in France offered ideal opportunities to conduct interviews. After overcoming my initial reticence, I became relatively courageous in approaching complete strangers and explaining that I was interested in recording a short interview with them. People were often fascinated, and the majority were willing to participate. I accumulated a good collection of spontaneous conversations which I subsequently used in my teaching.
My first batch of recordings covered work, leisure and holidays and were much appreciated by my post-GCSE students. Over 15 years I have refined my interviewing technique, upgraded my recording equipment and expanded my range of themes. Most of my recordings have been of great use and some have been unforgettable. Stunningly poignant - the interview with a couple in their eighties who recounted memories of the liberation of Paris in 1944.
Particularly amusing - the conversation with the former chemist who took great delight in telling me how retirement meant that he was relieved of serving his customers with suppositories. Exceptionally surprising - one day near Notre-Dame, out of all the people in Paris, I tried to interview a man who told me I'd interviewed him the year before.
It is relatively easy, not to mention immensely entertaining and hugely satisfying, to create home-grown materials in this way.
First, you need good quality recording equipment. I now use digital format in the shape of a minidisc recorder in conjunction with a professional microphone (pound;250 to pound;300). This may sound expensive but it will provide equipment useful to other colleagues who want to make in-house or in-the-field recordings, and the sound quality is vastly superior to that of cassettes.
Second, you have to find foreign nationals to interview. If you don't live near a ferry-port, most British towns have international residents - in restaurants, companies with international links, and educational establishments.
Third, have confidence. It's not easy to conduct an interview with a complete stranger, even in your own language. However, it is possible to overcome stage fright. Being at ease in the language is obviously important, as is a friendly approach. You must help make the conversation flow. Ask good introductory questions with follow-ups and appropriate comments.
Choose your potential interviewees carefully, go for those who appear friendly and who have time on their hands - people sitting in the park, for example, are often very productive. Introduce yourself, show some identification and explain your purpose. Give them a choice of subjects or mention a topic of current interest.
One particular encounter which gave me great pleasure took place in a park in Brest. The lady in question seemed reluctant to be interviewed, claiming that she had little of interest to say. However, her children were playing nearby and when I said I was interested in her opinions on the role of the family she spoke with authority and conviction, hardly pausing for breath, for five minutes. I have used that interview on many occasions, not just for its content but also for its interesting grammatical structures, the breadth of vocabulary and the sheer vitality with which she delivered her ideas.
You may decide to do some editing before you use your recordings but first make a copy of the original in case you erase something by mistake.
The first time I use a new recording, I often ask students simply to make a resume (either in the target language or in English) of the interview.
Alternatively, or as a follow-up, it is relatively easy to devise exercises similar to those used in external examinations - gap-fill, truefalse, matching beginnings and endings of sentences and so on. A look at some past papers will provide ideas. It is often interesting to use the interviews as a starting point for discussion or for written activities.
When you're ready to release the materials, why not share them with colleagues from other establishments - the creation of a materials bank with other schools is an excellent idea.
Dave Padfield is a senior lecturer in French and in English as a foreign language at Plymouth Business School and author of three French ASA-level listening packs .