Do you want to learn French outside the classroom? Immerse yourself in the French language and improve your vocabulary, but can’t afford to visit abroad?
One excellent way to improve your command of the French language is to watch French films and French TV - including the French news.
But maybe you have already watched all the francophone films available on Netflix, or the news is simply too abstract or is spoken too fast for you to follow. Maybe you want to focus on your written French and your reading comprehension.
If so, here are some tips on ways to improve your French while reading!
Learn with French Newspapers Online
Newspapers are a great way to learn a foreign language. The variety of subjects they cover, from the editorial to the articles to the obituaries and even the ads, are sure to improve your French vocabulary dramatically. You can choose to read a column with your dictionary in hand or only peruse articles with content you have read elsewhere - the International Herald Tribune or the New York Times or other English-language newspapers covering international news.
The first newspaper published in France was the Gazette de France or simply Gazette in 1615, named after the government news pamphlets issued in Italian cities such as Venice, which cost one gazetta (local currency) per issue. It became a weekly periodical in 1631. In the eighteenth century newspapers proliferated, with about 1,300 historical newspapers known from the time between 1789 and 1799 (during the French Revolution and the Terreur) alone. Most did not last very long.
Today, you will find a good many French newspapers of international fame ranging from dailies such as Le Monde, to regional newspapers such as La voix du nord (for the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region) to local newspapers such as Nice Matin. Here is a list of some of the better known daily newspaper titles of the French press:
- Le Monde, a daily French newspaper from the centre right; probably the best known and one of the easiest to get outside of France. Not to be confused with the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique (”Le Diplo”), which concentrates on culture and foreign affairs (left-wing).
- Le Figaro, the second of the international newspapers from France. Centre-right again in its views, it is the oldest French newspaper still in circulation. This historic newspaper was founded in 1826 and took its name from the 18th-century play by Pierre Beaumarchais, The Mariage of Figaro (Mozart composed an opera based on it), a satire on the over-priviledged.
- The daily newspaper Le Parisien is the most widely-read in France. The national newspaper edition of Le Parisien is Aujourd’hui en France.
- If you are looking for a newspaper centered more on business and economics, Les Echos is the daily news for you.
The weekly news from France can be found in the following publications:
- L’Express, a centre-right journalism magazine published weekly, was founded in 1953 to bring to the French press what weeklies Times Magazine was to the US newspapers and Der Spiegel was to German journalism. In 1964, a number of journalists working at L’Express quit to found the paper Le Nouvel Observateur.
- Le Nouvel Observateur, now simply known as l’Obs, is a centre-left general information weekly with in-depth articles on current affairs.
- The weekly tabloid Paris Match is the go-to for any information on French celebrities. It has lately made the front page itself for its reporting of the presidential love life of Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande (whose new girl-friend was a reporter for Paris-Match itself!)
And of course, satirical newspapers, for those who want their news from France served with a touch of sarcasm:
- Le Canard Enchaîné, founded in World War I. Its name derives from a slang word for newspaper, “canard”, which also means “duck”. Privately owned (mostly by its own journalists) and privately funded, it is almost unique in having no advertisements. It features political cartoons, investigative journalism, and a series of internal monickers for celebrities that might make it a bit difficult for beginner French learners.
- Charlie Hebdo made a headline for publishing a satirical cartoon featuring a caricature of the prophet Mohammed. Since the Quran prohibits images of the prophet, the Hebdo caused quite an outrage in the more conservative Islamic community and prompted a terror attack that killed twelve of the staff instigated by French Muslims descended from migrant Algerians. Its views are mostly left-wing.
Note: You can start taking French lessons online today.
French newspapers online
If you prefer to read your news online, most papers have a digital newspaper as well and offer their headlines for free. Some ask for a voluntary donation, others will let you read the beginning of the articles so you can get to know them, but only unlock the full article if you take out a subscription.
It’s often worth it just for the archives: where previously you had to go to your local library and see if they happened to have microfiche archives of a French newspaper, now many newspaper archives are digitized. News sites also often offer short videos and additional content, offering more ways to learn colloquial French words and expressions.
There are several online-only newspapers as well, such as:
- France soir, one of several daily online newspapers, which switched to online-only in 2014
- La Tribune, an economic newspaper whose digitization dates to 2012. La Tribune still publishes a weekly paper version.
Use French Magazines to Improve Your French
If the news is too much to stomach in a foreign language, you could try subscribing to a magazine in French. Learn all about your favourite hobby in articles written by French speaking enthusiasts - it can be as effective as french lessons!
French print magazines
To get an idea of what French magazines are out there about your hobby, take a trip to an international press shop at one of the large train stations or while waiting for your next flight into the lovely Dordogne region.
If you like science, you can try Science&Vie, which has articles on innovations in all branches of science. If the language is too complicated for you, try its version aimed at young adults, Science&Vie Junior . If you are truly a beginner French student, there are science magazines for elementary school children (Astrapi) and pre-teens (Okapi) with comics and games in French.
Photography buffs might enjoy Chasseur d’images, which focuses on aesthetic and artistry; Photo is very technical and for more advanced readers, whereas Compétences photo is also aimed at beginner photographers and reads more easily.
Amateurs of French cuisine might enjoy the culinary offerings in Cuisine & Vins de France or Cuisine et terroirs for regional recipes.
French blogs on your hobbies
If you are an online sort of person, who watches the French news from her tablet and has never owned a paper Journal in her life, then why not search the net for French blogs about your hobby?
Learn about the telegraph’s 19th century French brother the semaphore and how it was hacked, how to cross-stitch tiny ornaments or do fun crafts.
Some French Literature Classics (and French audio books) to Help You Learn French
If non-fiction is not for you or you simply enjoy diversity when learning French, why not read a book? Reading fiction prepares you for more complex narratives and introduces new words and phrases not necessarily used by a reporter or journalist.
You can browse libraries for children’s books written in French, useful as the publisher will often give an age group so you know the level of difficulty. Maybe your librarian will be able to recommend something suitable for beginner French readers.
But in case you are interested in classic French literature and would like to know where to start, here are three titles to get you started.
Beginners: Le Petit Prince
Written by aviator Antoine de St.-Exupéry, The Little Prince is a bittersweet tale about love and innocence. A young boy leaves the asteroid he lives on (where he tends to his three volcanoes, weeds out baobabs and sees to the needs of a narcissist rose) to find himself a friend, leaving his imperious rose behind. In his travels, he meets a very many peculiar people reflecting the absurdity of adulthood, learns to tame a fox and see with his heart, and realises that, for all her faults, his rose was his and needs him.
Sometimes, you can still hear his crystalline laugh among the stars.
The language is simple and charming, the book divided into very short chapters usually not more than three pages long. An ideal book for learning French for the young-at-heart. You can watch the film recently made of it to improve your understanding of French.
As much a social commentary as The Little Prince, but with a good deal more sarcasm, Voltaire’s Candide is a philosophical novel chronicling the adventures of a naive young man seeking to be reunited with his lady love. Over the course of the novel, his optimist upbringing - his tutor Doctor Pangloss is convinced we live in the best of all possible worlds - is confronted with the harsh realities of the world.
Although first published in the eighteenth century, the language is not too complicated and the book is fairly short, making it a good read for someone with a fair command of French but not too much stamina.
Advanced: Les Trois Mousquetaires
For those with stamina, Alexandre Dumas’ nineteenth-century classic tale of swashbuckling adventure is sure to enthuse. We follow young D’Artagnan on his yellow mare into the political intrigues of Paris with his inseparable new friends Athos, Porthos and Aramis. Each of the main characters has his own story, seamlessly woven into D’Artagnan’s love escapades and rash decision that lead him into a race against time to save the honour of the Queen of France herself!
Though certainly more descriptive than many modern novels, The Three Musketeers is not as long-winded as some other nineteenth-century classics, making it a good read for an advanced student of French. Be warned, though: you will encounter new and unusual vocabulary, so have your dictionary at the ready!
No time for reading, or would you rather focus on your listening comprehension? Get the French audio book of your favourite tales!