Welcome to the French Mag-off, where two established magazines for French learners face each other in a showdown for the title of "Best French Learners Magazine". The two candidates are:
écoute, a publication by Spotlight Verlag in Germany and bien-dire, published in France and distributed in the UK by Languages Direct
écoute is a magazine for native speakers of German, whereas bien-dire is aimed at those learning French from an English language background.
..a word on language learning magazines. These are a familiar resource at most newsagents' in many countries in Europe. The idea is to create a learner's magazine in the target language and support the articles with vocabulary, exercises and audio. The reader can enjoy a nice, glossy magazine and benefit from immersion in their target language.
Overall, language learning magazines are great for groups of learners as well as individuals with a steady foundation in grammar and vocabulary. They make interacting with foreign media a little easier, but beginners should have at least an A2 level of study (commonly equated to 60-80 hours of French tuition).
Bien-Dire proudly displays its strap line "From France for learners of French". It's not available for retail in the UK and has to be ordered online for €7.50. My test issue (May/June 2012) features a lead article on Rocquefort cheese and 20 other items in colour and with accompanying vocabulary lists. Advertising content restricts itself to only 4 pages, which is definitely a nice touch.
German-made challenger écoute comes along with another 20 articles, plus flashcards and a little pullout section for beginners. The magazine's definitely bigger despite its lower price of €6.50, but as a trade-off readers do have to put up with about twice as much advertising. Still, it's hardly as prominent as in any given women's magazine and all adverts were relevant to French learners.
Bien-Dire leads with a range of articles on what France has got to offer, from actors to cheese. In fact, it's pretty much all about France. If you're not particularly curious about the place, you may quickly end up bored. The articles' difficulty levels are mostly on the high side - around 2+/3 (the highest being 3), which leaves it a magazine with little variation on either front. This makes a nice travel magazine, and a practice ground particularly useful for advanced learners.
écoute makes use of the German language to guide its readers through the magazine, giving a mini summary of each article and guidance on difficulty levels in the source language. I really liked this structure, the easy introduction made me want to follow through with reading many of the articles. The topics focus on French produce, society, history and geography. It's quite a varied spread, with short street scene interviews on current politics but also a large practice session focusing on real-life skills (in the August 2012 edition, the topic is making appointments). On top of that, there's also a story section.
Both magazines offer audio CDs. écoute's can only be ordered as a subscription, starting from 2 for €16. For bien-dire, the magazine and the CD are only sold together on a subscription basis (2015 price update: 1-year subscription for £99/$150 or 2-year subscription for £169/$259).
Reading the articles while listening to the audio at the same time was a really great experience, and I'd recommend it to any learner. The audio quality was absolutely faultless, by the way, though I did wish that I could vary the speed.
écoute makes more out of its website with little videos on the topic of the month, and also sells a "Plus" issue of each of its magazines which features exercises. Languages Direct also offers bien-dire plus, an interactive study supplement that you can add to your subscription.
These don't come cheap, and I can't shake the feeling that all of these extras at such a cost really need a re-think in an age where everyone can get hold of a big set of free resources on the internet. écoute has started on this one - again, they give me the feeling that they have at least heard of the 21st century with their "word a day" app.
Who's my Winner?
Both of these are high quality products. It is my impression that bien-dire is directing itself at an audience of expats living in France. It would make a great practice read for adult college groups and experienced French speakers wanting to keep their vocabulary active. On top of that, bien-dire scores highly when used in co-ordination with the CD. For me personally, the topics were not as interesting as they could be.
écoute definitely had the feel of being written by journalists, not teachers or tourist guides. Its use of German throughout the magazine was a great little guide and gave the articles an instant "sell" that the bien-dire ones were missing. I wouldn't go out of my way to read about French cheese or olive oil, so it was great to have those two lines at the top telling me why to bother, why this might be interesting. écoute's learning support is good both in the magazine and online: it features exercises, grammar sections and prints letters from its readers. But not much comes for free here.
Overall, the interactivity and relevance of écoute won me over. This is definitely a magazine designed for learners of French, whereas bien-dire feels like a glossy interest magazine for real France lovers who are quite good at French already. What sells language magazines is the offer of well-written content made digestible for a French learner, not a French expert and my message to both publishers is to put themselves way above the crowd by letting go of pricing for their content like audio and exercises. Make it easy for us to like you without spending a fortune!
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