Monday 5 September 2016

"Boy those French! They have a different word for everything." (Steve Martin)

Responding to my last post, where I mentioned my love of reading in French, Ellen (A tiny house in Normandy) suggested that I might take this a bit further for anyone keen to do the same thing. Back living in Sydney, now, and without the full breadth of the French libraries, bookstores, supermarkets and vide-greniers that I have previously had at my disposal, my own reading choices are not really choices at all. I don't discriminate and happily take whatever is rotated through our one French shelf at the local library, be it fiction or non-fiction: biography, reference book, children's story, mystery etc.

Let me preface this post by pointing out that I have been studying the French language since the age of 12 (so a while!). Initially, it was probably the academic nature of the subject that drew me in: the deciphering, code breaking and working out how to put parts together to make a whole. Perhaps, not surprisingly, I was also fascinated by Maths and Music, with similar challenges. From the very beginning, the sounds of the French language were interesting, sometimes difficult, immensely pleasing to try and reproduce, but I'm not sure that communication was what motivated me. After all, I had never left Australia and the world was not connected like it is today.

A year after reading my first "Bonjour! Ca va?" scripted text book dialogues, my sisters and I accompanied my parents to Scotland for my father's sabbatical year at Edinburgh University. Squashed four abreast in the back seat of the family car, we subsequently travelled the continent in our mid-year break, and things started to really change. I encountered languages, food and customs that were unfamiliar to me and, even though we did not visit France on that trip, when a new school year recommenced, my desire to be able to communicate in a different language had been well and truly ignited. My older sister tells me that I used to refuse to speak with her if she didn't try and speak French with me. I'm sure that she is exaggerating, but what a pain I must have been if she's right! (NDLR No need to agree!)

Naturally enough, the resources at my disposition back then were extremely limited. I didn't have podcasts, 24-hour news services, Youtube and song clips with convenient translations to refine my aural skills, French speakers were thin on the ground in suburban Adelaide and the terraced houses of Morningside, and written material was confined to the inked sheets that my French teachers printed off for us and dusty editions of Hugo, Voltaire, Flaubert, Zola, Camus... when I hit University later on.

Today, what a different world.

What has not changed, though, is that learning requires commitment, patience, hard work, practice and determination. If you think that you will just pick things up by being exposed to the language, everyday or on the odd occasion, you will probably be disappointed.

But, let's go back to reading:

  • Read everything that you can lay your hands on...bus tickets, concert programs, flyers, advertisements, invitations, bills, Facebook posts...
  • When you read these familiar documents you know roughly what should be where, but pay attention and look up anything (vocab, verb conjugation, tense) that is unfamiliar to you. Keep a notebook on you or use the Notes function on your phone to record new words that interest you or that you want to look up later.
  • Even as an adult, children's books are for you. Imagiers or Baby books with single words and pictures, hardcover books with one or two sentences and bright, simple pictures, familiar stories from your childhood (see Peter Pan and Le Club des Cinq (Famous Five) below). Read them aloud, read them often and if you have children, read them to your children.
  • When you are cooking, look up your recipes on the Internet or spoil yourself with a print edition (see Mon cours de cuisine below).
  • Subscribe to a French magazine for children. A brand new magazine is a treat to receive in the post every month or so. Select according to your level of language. Cultural affairs are much more accessible initially in this format than in a daily newspaper.
  • Just as it is for young learners, it is easier to persist with something that interests you (see below Insectes, L'Australie, Dinosaures)
  • After the heavily illustrated books, progress to children's novels and young adult fiction (see below Sheltie et le poney abandonné and Poisson d'Avril).
  • Familiar mysteries and crime stories (such as the John Le Carré novel below).
  • Best-sellers such as Harry Potter and Dan Brown's Da Vinci code
  • Historical fiction (such as Régine Deforges, an interesting French author whose erotica writing was ahead of her times, but who is equally as well known for her trilogy, which begins with La bicyclette bleue and starts in 1939 in WW2 France.)
  • For easy romances and quick reads take your time browsing and selecting from the Pocket Books  selection.
  • Try simpler classics such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince
  • Get a news feed from France Info to your phone, consult it without moderation and keep abreast of the news of the world at the same time as working on your French.
  • Consult the books and ebooks at Decitrefnac and make your choice.
  • Finally, read as often as you can and enjoy!



Please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments box below.


  1. I find it easy to read relatively light things, such as lifestyle magazines like Elle, Paris Match, Vogue or Madame Figaro, but harder to read serious fiction. I can do it, but it tires me out.
    The Internet is great for giving us anything anywhere in any language. Check out, by Sophie Fontanel, read the hilarious back columns of Dr. Aga on (my favorite thing ever!), get recipes like all French women on
    Also: a lovely, lovely book that is not difficult to read (I read it in one sitting): Le Coeur n'a pas de rides (The Heart Doesn't Have Wrinkles), by Marina Rozenman. It's a collection of true stories about couples who found (and sometimes lost) love late in life. Much more interesting than children's books, yet written in plain language. I really did laugh and cry, sometimes simultaneously.

    1. Thanks so much for your suggestions. Yes, the Internet is an amazing resource for learners, and lifestyle (fashion, deco, travel, current affairs, real estate (!)...) magazines are great choices for linking interest and learning. The language can be hard and sometimes off-putting for beginners, but at an intermediate level, perfect. Le coeur n'a pas de rides sounds like a lovely read.

  2. Dear Catherine,this is the most encouraging advice I have had in a long time! While I can follow some things that I read, I find it so difficult to follow the spoken language, especially when words flow into each other and become unrecognisable. When I spent a few months in France as a younger person I would often say, "how do you spell that, please ?" regards, Jeanne

    1. Hi Jeanne, even after all these years, I learn something new about the French language every day. I love that! I work hard at it, but as it is both my profession and passion, it is a joy. And, one that I love to share! I, too, like to know how something is spelt. For visual learners this is an important reinforcement of the acquisition. Thanks!

  3. These are all great suggestions. I'll have to admit that the limit of my French lately has been duolingo and any French phrases I add to my novel writing.
    Thanks for playing along with Dreaming of France. Here’s my Dreaming of France meme

  4. Thank you so much for these varied and creative suggestions, Catherine! Should be required reading for all of us who plan on going to live in France (or even visit for more than a week!).

  5. Very encouraging suggestions. I was just telling my husband that I need to carry a small notebook around to jot down any new words I pick up as I'm traveling in France and to write down in English anything I really need to learn how to say in French for next time. I love the idea of ordering a magazine in French and children's books.

    1. Often, for me I think of something that I need to look up whilst I'm driving (Sydney traffic lends itself to hours of reflection...). I then have a mad scramble through the bottom of my handbag or the car glovebox for a piece of paper and pen as I'm waiting at the traffic lights so that I don't forget. Do have a look at the magazines that you can order. There is a great selection in the link that I've provided, but feel free to email me if you have questions.

  6. It's amazing how reading helps your French. I read to my children and it really helps me. I'm loving French translations of Agatha Christie books at the moment too. It really helps to imbed vocabulary you know, verb tenses and help you to truly understand the meaning of words. I've learnt words in the past that have gone in completely, but reading them in context sets them in place. Great tips!

    1. Hi Andrea, yes, translations of books that you are familiar with are great. You read them differently, of course, with an eye out for things unfamiliar (vocab, sentence construction...) but it can still be a pleasure and not just a learning exercice. The nicest moments for me, over all the years, though, have been reading aloud to my son in French. We both love it. Hope that you are all feeling settled and happy.