So You Want to Improve Your French [Secret Life of an Expat]
Maybe you’ve been saying it ever since you studied French in high school. Maybe it’s a New Years Resolution, or you’re prepping for a trip to Tunisia. Maybe you’re looking for an activity to keep your brain sharp and you’re sick of doing crosswords. Whatever the reason is for wanting to brush up your French, I understand. Even as a resident of France, I kick myself every day for not trying harder. It’s true that I’m in an immersion situation, but it’s only immersion when there are French people around me, and as I work at home right now, I spend a lot of time in an English speaking bubble.
So, I’ve compiled a list of affordable in-home French study aids, most of which can be acquired and used without ever leaving the comforting glow of your computer screen.
You need to do four things to learn a language: Learn the Grammar, Listen, Read, and Speak. Let’s start with Grammar.
Tex’s French Grammar is a great website, recommended to me by a French teacher in the US. All aspects of French grammar are taught here, and there are interactive exercises so you can quiz yourself on what you’ve learned. The explanations for the grammar and such are written in English, for whatever it’s worth. Some people prefer that, some don’t.
If you’re into workbooks, we’ve got workbooks. Les 500 Exercises de Grammaire is a strict book of grammar exercises used at the Sorbonne (a Parisien University that has a highly respected French as a foreign language program), and the slightly lighter Alter Ego textbooks are used at the Alliance Française here in Paris. You can buy both of these on Amazon.com (in the US — I checked!). The third book is a Cahier de Vacances, which is a review workbook that parents force their kids to do during long vacations (tigres mamans?). They are sold at supermarkets and the FNAC here in France, and are made for all ages and subject matters. I have one for middle schoolers. I’m not too proud to admit a 12 year old French person probably speaks better than me.
If you’re buying a French language book from France, you should know about the Common European Framework of References for Language (CEFR). This is a guideline for identifying levels of language comprehension. A1 is beginner, then it goes to A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2. C2 is mastery. You’ll see these codes on the books pictured above. The last time I was tested in 2009, I passed into B1, threshold/intermediate.
Don’t forget your reference books, all available at the American iTunes store. The Larousse French/English dictionary ($5.99) Le Petit Robert, is an excellent all French dictionary ($37.99), and Bescherelle offers their famous conjugation book ($3.99) as well as a number of other useful materials.
The Daily Frenchpod is a website dedicated to teaching French to English speakers. There is a five-ish minute daily podcast that you can access through the website or on iTunes, which features a lovely French man who slowly reads a news article, then goes back and breaks down all the sentences to be sure that you’ve understood the grammar and the vocabulary. It’s pretty great, and it’s free, and it’s updated frequently. You can listen to it on iTunes or on the Daily Frenchpod website. There are also Video Vocabulary lessons on the website for free. To access the Grammar and Vocab exercises, and transcripts of the audio and other fun stuff, you have to pay a monthly fee ($18 or less, depending on how long you sign up for). I’ve listened to a lot of “Let me teach you french on my podcast” recordings, and this is definitely the best one.
So now that you remember how the grammar works, it’s time to start reading!
Try a periodical: Les Inrockuptibles (France’s answer to Rolling Stone), the daily newspaper Le Monde, and news and celebrity gossip mag Paris Match, are all free in the American iTunes store. Try reading an article a day and see where it gets you.
Or a book! France is a bit behind where the Kindle is concerned, they just became available at amazon.fr, so the media is behind too. Unfortunately, Kindle content is restricted to the country in which your Kindle is registered, but there are a lot of public domain French classics available in Kindle edition (most of them for free) at Amazon.com.
Or you might order a real book in French. Depending on your level, and how you feel about reading with a dictionary in your lap, I recommend reading something that’s a) written for younger readers, and b) a story you already know. Maybe it’s cheating, but it can be nice to not waste half of your mental energy trying to follow the story, when the grammar and verb tenses and vocabulary are enough to deal with.
Another tip regarding reading a foreign language is this: Read it twice, and the first time around read without stopping. If you stop to look up every word you don’t know, you might lose the thread of the story and consequently your desire to keep reading. You’ll probably figure out half of those unknown words in context, and realize the other half weren’t super crucial to understanding the story. Then read it a second time with a dictionary at hand to make sure you understood.
But you also need to HEAR French, and that’s easy too!
My first recommendation: Go look in your DVD collection. You probably already own a whole bunch of movies with French language tracks. Try watching a favorite movie dubbed in French. It’s even better if you put on French subtitles with it. Sometimes the subtitles don’t match the script at all (annoying!) but they mean the same thing. Listening in French and reading in English, will be far less immersive.
You can also rent French movies, obviously, if you don’t have anything at the house. I just rented a great comedy for 99¢ at iTunes, it’s called Priceless.
My mom pays Time Warner a little extra to get TV5 Monde, an international French television channel, piped into the house. In looking for their logo, I stumbled upon apprendre.tv, a website created by TV5 Monde for learning French.
And then there’s French Radio. Many stations are available on iTunes or streaming from their websites. My personal favorite is FranceInter, which I understand as the closest thing to NPR we have here. There are tons and tons of things to listen to on the FranceInter website, or one of its smaller branches including FranceInfo, FranceBleu, FranceMusique, or my favorite FranceCulture.
The best thing about FranceCulture is their emissions page, where tons and tons of interesting radio broadcasts can be streamed. My favorite show right now is Fictions/Feuilleton. The listening here is going to be more advanced, and it’s a 25 minute show where works of fiction and non-fiction are recreated for radio. Last year I listened to their abridged version of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest with a full cast, sound effects and music, and they recently did a 20 episode history of Led Zeppelin. This can also be downloaded as a podcast but they only keep the most recent 25 episodes available.
Arte is something like PBS in the US. A television station, made collaboratively by France and Germany,that plays lots of classy movies and documentaries. The ArteRadio website has lots of great listening opportunities on it, from reportages (I suppose NPR would call them auraldocs, or audioportraits?) where normal people are simply followed with a microphone, with no interviewer or editing, to other sound experiments and stories and reports. It’s a really interesting website, and if you can understand it, I highly suggest checking it out. Rather than a trained journalist reading clearly from a script, the recordings found on Arte will give you the most candid audio experience for your French listening pleasure.
But if you don’t feel like going to all this trouble, you can always follow the advice in the following video, How to Fake French.
This is just a slice of what’s available out there to help with your French studies, and I hope it helps! If anyone has other hints or tricks for low-cost at home French study, please let me know about them in the comments.
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