The 17 best tools for learning French: from beginner to advanced

24th July 2017

Imagine waking up in a remote town in the French countryside, where no one speaks English. Would you be able to get by in French?

If your answer is “non”, you’re in good company.

French is one of the most studied languages at school, yet most people can only remember a few random phrases like “Où est la bibliothèque?”

That’s because at school, you usually learn grammar, vocabulary lists and phrases, but no one teaches how to actually use them in conversation. The result: you end up sounding like these guys.

If, like most people, you studied for a few years and didn’t get very far, you’d be forgiven for thinking it must take decades to speak fluent French.

Luckily for us, that’s simply not true.

Using the wrong tools makes things seem more difficult than they really are. Trying to learn a language the way most of us did at school is like trying to chop wood with a kitchen knife: it’ll take you a lot longer than it should and you’ll get very frustrated along the way.

The right resources for learning French

There is no one size fits all, best way to learn French. Lot's of different methods work. But from what I’ve seen, they all have two things in common:

  1. They don’t spend a disproportionate amount of time learning grammar and vocabulary for the sake of it.
  2. They help you learn by doing.

It makes sense really. Speaking French is a practical skill, like riding a bike or learning to swim. Just as you can’t learn to swim by reading a book, you’ll never be able to have a conversation in French by memorising a few verbs.

You’ve got to practise using French in realistic situations.

The best resources for learning French are geared towards helping you speak and understand French in real-life contexts. They should:

  • Teach you how to build new sentences so you can express yourself.
  • Show you realistic examples.
  • Give you the chance to practise.
  • Help you understand how French is spoken in the real world.

These 17 resources for French learners will do exactly that, from beginner to advanced level:

Picking up the basics: French resources for beginners

The best French resources for beginners show you how to build sentences right from the start. The tools in this list will help you pick up words and grammar easily through repetition and show you how to apply what you learn in new situations.

1. Michel Thomas French

The Michel Thomas method is probably the best resource I know of for picking up basic French in a flash.

The audio-only course helps you remember grammar painlessly by organising verbs into groups that are easy to remember and most importantly, shows you how to use these verbs to build useful sentences.

The course also shows you how to take advantage of the 30% of English words that have a French equivalent (known as cognates), like information, conversation, animal, original, distance, importance... Of course, the pronunciation is a bit different, but all you have to do is put on a French accent and voilà - you know loads of French words!

I’ve used Michel Thomas to get off the starting block for French, Italian and Spanish and I’m always surprised by how much I can say after only a few hours of listening.

2. Coffee Break French

The Coffee Break French series is a lovely, relaxing way to pick up French. The fun and interactive lessons help you learn the basics at a nice pace and presenter Mark Pentleton throws in lots of cultural anecdotes, which make the lessons a pleasure to listen to.

But don’t let the laid-back tone fool you - the Coffee Break French series is a very efficient way to learn basic French.

And there are enough episodes to take you further along your French journey - the series goes from beginner right up to advanced, and the podcasts are free.

Getting conversational

Now you’ve picked up the basics, you can practise using French in real-life situations. It's time to jump in and have a go at speaking (even if you don’t feel ready yet!) and gradually start doing stuff in French that you enjoy doing in your native language.

As you venture into the world of real French, you’ll need plenty of support from subtitles, and slow, clear speech. You’ll also need a good dictionary and a way to remember all those new words!

3. Language exchanges

When you first start practising your speaking skills, it can feel a bit awkward to strike up a conversation with a French person - what if they reply too fast and you don't understand what they're saying? What if you forget a word mid-sentence?

Language exchanges are the perfect training ground for speaking French because your partner knows you’re a beginner (be sure to tell them!) and they’re there to help. This takes the pressure off as they don't expect you to be able hold a full conversation yet: it's OK if you don't understand what they're saying or forget a word mid-sentence!

However, there are a few pitfalls to watch out for. For example, if you’re a native English speaker and you team up with a French person who speaks brilliant English, it might feel easier to speak in English most of the time. To get around this, you should set a specific time, say ½ hour French, then ½ hour English. If you find a partner who keeps speaking English when they should be helping you with French, it’s time to look for a new one.

I’ve had some brilliant experiences with language exchanges: as well as helping you practise your French, they’re a great way to get to know French people and learn more about French culture.

If you go to France, I highly recommend setting up a language exchange at your destination. I did this in Paris and I met some lovely Parisiens who took me to their favourite hangouts - a fab way to learn the language and get off the beaten tourist track!

To find language exchange partners at home or abroad, try www.conversationexchange.com.

4. Italki

If you like the idea of improving your speaking skills quickly and cheaply without leaving your living room, you should give italki a try.

It’s a website where you can get one-to-one, online conversation lessons with French conversation tutors - called community tutors - sometimes for less than $10 an hour.

And you don’t need to worry about speaking slowly, making mistakes or sounding silly – tutors are there to help you learn and most are friendly, patient and used to working with beginners.

If you’d like to try italki, you can get a free lesson by clicking any of the italki links on this page. All you have to do is sign up, book your first lesson and you’ll get the next lesson free (up to $10).

I don’t get any commission if you buy through this link, but I do get a free lesson with my French conversation tutor on italki, which helps me save money and spend more time writing articles like the one you’re reading now - merci!

Italki is also handy if you want to work on your writing skills: you can post your writing on the “notebook” section and a native speaker will correct it for you.

If you like the idea, but you're not sure where to start, voilà a tutorial on how to use it:

italki: How to learn a language with an online tutor

I usually practise my speaking skills on italki, a website where you can book conversation lessons with native speakers.

5. News in Slow French

News in Slow French makes a refreshing change to the boring and overly simplistic topics usually on offer for learners. The presenters cover the week’s news in a light and entertaining way, in French that’s slow (hence the name!) and easy to follow.

6. Journal en Français Facile

Although the name translates literally as “The News in Easy French”, this news show by Radio France Internationale is a lot more challenging than News in Slow French. Often, the pace doesn’t seem that different to the normal French news, but that makes it great way to challenge your listening. On the Journal en Français Facile website they have the transcripts so you can check your understanding and read along as you listen.

7. Easy French

Follow the presenters of Easy French “on the streets”, as they pose interesting questions to French passers-by such as “What would you do to make the world a better place?” The interview format is perfect as you hear the same question over and over, and the answers are usually entertaining. To help you follow along, there are big subtitles in French and smaller subtitles in English. It's the perfect way to ease yourself into listening to real, spoken French.

8. Wordreference

Once you start engaging with real French, you’ll need a good dictionary to look up the new words you come across. Wordreference is one of the best: it gives you examples of how the word is used in real sentences, which helps you understand how to use the word yourself later on. There’s also a “verb conjugator”, which shows you how to use French verbs in different tenses.

9. Memrise

As well as a good dictionary, you'll need a way to remember the new words you learn. The Memrise app helps you learn French words faster, using a method known as spaced repetition.

It’s based on scientific studies which show that we remember information better when we learn it a few times over a longer period of time, compared to many times within a short space of time. The app quizzes you on words you’ve learnt at specific intervals which optimise learning.

Memrise is huge in the language learning community and you’ll find lots of French courses with ready made vocabulary lists already on there. However, it’s better to make your own course with example sentences that you’ve already seen or heard being used in real life, for the following reasons:

  1. Learning words in sentences (rather than in isolation) helps you understand how to use them later.
  2. Learning words that you’ve already come across in real life helps you form stronger memory associations.

Advanced

Now you can hold a conversation and understand simple spoken French, it’s time to hone your skills by listening and reading things intended for native speakers. Moving onto native speaker materials is a great feeling - you can:

  1. Really start to understand how French speakers communicate with each other.
  2. Learn a lot about French culture.
  3. Improve your French while doing things you enjoy, like watching films or reading the newspaper.

Here are a few of my favourites.

10. France 24

The France 24 website is packed with French videos. It’s a news channel, so they have lots of programmes about current affairs, but they also cover other topics including art, science, culture and travel. The presenters usually speak quite slowly and clearly, so it’s a great resource to bridge the gap between intermediate and native speaker materials.

11. Your web browser

With the Google Translate Chrome add-on, you can turn any French website into an interactive French dictionary. When you click on a word you don’t know, the English translation pops up on the same page, so you you can read websites without constantly stopping to look up words.

12. Le monde

Le Monde is one of the most famous newspapers in France. On the website, you can catch up on current affairs with articles, videos and blogs. The YouTube channel is particularly good because they have 3 minute videos that explain important issues in current affairs or little snippets of French culture. And they have French subtitles, so you can turn them on and read anything you missed in the listening.

13. Le Gorafi

If you prefer something a little lighter, try reading le Gorafi. It’s a parody newspaper with fake news articles, like the French version of The Daily Mash. If you enjoy this kind of humor, it’s a brilliant resource for stretching your French reading skills. Riina, a member of the joy of languages Facebook group, recently said that you can say you’re fluent in a language “when you can understand jokes”. If you get this kind of satire, you can be confident that your level of French is pretty good.

Le Gorafi also gives you loads of cultural insights about France, from small details, like how people in the South often drink pastis, to more serious things, like the decline in popularity of the Socialist Party.

14. Buzzfeed

If you’re after something even lighter, have a go at reading French BuzzFeed. The “listicle” style articles with pictures are a great way to practise reading real French, without having to get your head around large amounts of text.

YouTube

Now you’re advanced, the whole world of French YouTube is open to you. Here are a few channels to get you started:

15. Un gars et une fille

This Quebec sitcom shows short scenes in the life of a couple who are often getting into funny squabbles. They speak very fast but the videos are only a few minutes long, so it’s a great way to train your listening in short but intense bursts. And as the subject is very light, it leaves your brain free to concentrate on the French.

16. Cyprien

Cyprien is one of the most popular YouTubers in France. He’s a comedian who likes to point out the silly in everyday situations. Here’s his take on “people on the internet”.

His channel is fab for advanced level French listening. Like most YouTubers, he speaks inhumanely fast, but that's actually quite good for pushing your listening skills: once you can understand Cyprien, French conversations at normal speed will be a breeze! He has subtitles in French and in English, which means you can read along in French if the audio alone is too tricky, and use the English ones from time to time to check your understanding.

If you enjoyed that Cyprien video, you might like Norman and Squeezie’s channels too.

Thanks to Christine for recommending these French YouTubers in the comments section of my last post: how I'm becoming fluent in French from my living room.

17. Simplissime

The simplissime cookery channel, with the tag line “the easiest recipes in the world” is another great resource to ease you into listening to native speaker materials. The narrator speaks slowly and the words often appear on screen, which makes things a lot easier to follow for us non-native speakers. To see what I mean, watch this quick video on how to make a chocolate mousse.

And as a bonus, you’ll come away with some cooking tips too!

E voilà! Those were my 17 best resources for learning French from beginner to advanced, I hope you found them useful.

Over to you

  1. Which of these resources do you think is the most useful for learning French? Why?
  2. Can you add any more to the list? I’m on a French mission at the moment so I’m always looking out for new resources - recommendations in the comments please!

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