Previous Up Next

Chapter 5  Books

You cannot learn French without using a combination of good books. In this chapter I offer my recommendations for a wide variety of books, including dictionaries, grammar books, vocabulary books, novels and cultural books.

5.1  Dictionaries

When learning French, you can guess the meaning of many new words from the context of their use. However, occasionally, context will not be sufficient and this is when you will find it useful to have a dictionary. A bilingual dictionary, that is, an English-French, French-English dictionary, can be invaluable. For many people, a bilingual dictionary is the only dictionary they ever need. However, if your knowledge of French grows to a reasonable fluency, then you might find it useful to get a monolingual, that is, French-only, dictionary. There are two reasons for this. First, French-only dictionaries tend to provide deeper explanations of words—with more synonyms and expressions of use—than do bilingual dictionaries. Second, the use of a French-only dictionary helps you to make connections between different parts of the language directly—without having to translate between French and English—and this deepens your knowledge of the language.


French-English Visual Bilingual Dictionary, published by DK (Dorling Kindersley)
This is an unusual dictionary because it has lots of pictures. It organises words into chapters by theme and offers a fun way to learn vocabulary for all ages and levels. Once you have learnt a few words, you should try to build up your own sentences. In this way you will learn vocabulary effectively because you will be using the new words in a context that is useful to you. You will need a good grammar book to help you make sentences in French.


French Dictionary: French-English, English-French, published by Oxford Hachette
This is more than “just” a bilingual dictionary; it contains a lot of other useful reference material too. For example, one section of the dictionary provides many sample French- and English-language documents, including invoices, faxes, staff memos, CVs and letters for different occasions. Some concepts in the dictionary, such as date, time and quantity, have tables that provide useful expressions involving those concepts, and the last page of the dictionary contains a handy index of those tables.


Le Petit Robert, published by Le Robert, France
Once your language skills have evolved, you should use a French-only dictionary. Though petit means small, this is actually a large dictionary. It is useful because when looking for a word, you will learn new vocabulary, including synonyms from the definition of the word you needed. You also find some verb tables at the end of the dictionary. Many French households own Le Petit Robert.


Specialised Dictionaries
You might want to have a synonyms or idioms dictionary, and perhaps a slang dico (in French slang, dico is short for dictionnaire). If you study French for business, get a French business dictionary. Some dictionaries are also available on CD-rom to use with your computer, which is really handy for those who travel a lot because printed dictionaries can be bulky. Alternatively, purchase a pocket dictionary that is small enough to carry everywhere with you. I do not have any strong preference for particular brands of specialised dictionaries, so I do not offer specific recommendations. Instead, you should browse through the selection you can find in a bookshop or read readers’ reviews on Amazon.

5.2  Grammar Books

Grammar is one of those topics that makes most people of all ages have nightmares. It should not be like this. In the beginning, you just need to get the hang of how French works, and then play and experiment with it, until it makes sense. Forget about French verb drills and other exercises. Instead, read a good easy-to-understand French grammar book until you understand it.

5.2.1  Grammar Books for Learners of French

There are a lot of grammar books available, which fall into two categories: those that give you a bit of theory and a lot of exercises to do, and those that give you only or mainly the theory. Avoid those that give you plenty of exercises to do; too much drilling does not help, it is just tedious work. Instead, pick a grammar book that gives you the theory in simple language and does not look daunting. Build up your own sentences based on the rules and examples you find in these theory books. You will remember the sentences that you created because they are meaningful and personal to you. All grammar books listed here can be used at all levels.


English Grammar for Students of French, Jacqueline Morton
There is a problem that many English learners face when studying French: they do not have a good knowledge of the grammar of their own language. This slim book comes to the rescue of such people. It plainly explains the structure of both languages in parallel, which makes it valuable to all levels.


Modern French Grammar, Margaret Lang and Isabelle Perez
This theory-based grammar book should be used as a reference guide. The first part offers grammatical explanations and uses examples to show the structure of the language. The second part covers a range of topics, such as expressing surprise and sympathy. Though, it is aimed at more advanced learners, the clear and concise explanations make it accessible to the beginner learner too.


Practice in French Grammar, Michael Gross
What I like about this book is that each grammar point is illustrated with a dialogue or a small paragraph. This gives the learner the opportunity to see grammar in action, instead of grammar being meaningless.


Grammaire en dialogues, Claire Miquel
This comes in two volumes: niveau débutant (beginner’s level) and niveau intermédiaire (intermediate level). Each grammar point is illustrated with a dialogue that you can also find on the provided CD. You can listen to the dialogues at your own leisure; not necessarily together with the book.


Difficultés expliquées du français for English Speakers, Alain Vercollier, Claudine Vercollier and Kay Bourlier
This book explains the most frequent errors made by native English speakers when learning French. Though, it is for niveau intermédiaire et avancé (intermediate and advanced levels), beginner learners can find it useful to know what typical mistakes to avoid. There is a booklet with the corrigés (solutions), but you need to buy that separately.

5.2.2  Grammar Book for French Natives

Many French natives consider language accuracy to be important. This is why dictation competitions are such a popular hobby among French people of all ages. All grammar books listed here are theory based.


Bescherelle, la Conjugaison pour tous, published by Hatier
Most verb books laboriously conjugate hundreds or thousands verbs in their entirety, and this results in massive duplication because many verbs conjugate in a similar manner. In contrast, La Bescherelle, as the French call it, conjugates about 80 verbs that, between them, represent all possible variations in conjugation across all the regular and irregular verbs. An index at the back of the book cross-references thousands of French verbs with those 80 example verb conjugations. Color coding in the example conjugations is used to highlight the tricky parts of conjugations. In this way, La Bescherelle, offers conjugations for all the 12,000 French verbs in approximately 200 pages. In contrast, another famous verb book takes almost 700 pages to conjugate 501 verbs.

La Bescherelle is the best verb book ever written. It has been widely used in French schools for generations and many households have a copy. Would you not feel good about yourself to know that you learn French verbs the way the French themselves do?

By the way, the book’s name, La Bescherelle, comes from its original author, who has long since died, and the publisher, Hatier, now uses La Bescherelle as a brand name for a series of grammar books. All three books in the series have a distinctive, red hardback cover and are quite slim, which makes them very portable.


Bescherelle, La Grammaire pour tous, published by Hatier
This grammar book is from the famous La Bescherelle series. It uses colour-coding for easy understanding, and it has a distinctive, red hardback cover, as you would expect.


Bescherelle, l’orthographe pour tous, published by Hatier
This is the final title in the La Bescherelle series, and it deals with the spelling of French words. Like the other books in the series, it uses colour-coding for easy understanding and has a distinctive, red hardback cover.


Le bon usage, Vaugelas Grevisse and André Goosse
This large French theory-based grammar book is in many French households. Be forewarned that Le bon usage is not very accessible to foreign learners of French language because it is very detailed and daunting. So, unless you are a linguist, you do not necessarily need it.

5.3  Vocabulary and Conversation Books

Vocabulary means all the words contained in a language. You cannot learn vocabulary mainly from dictionaries or vocabulary lists. Vocabulary, like grammar, is best learnt in action, how it is used in daily life. Still, it is important to have some vocabulary books that concentrate on teaching you vocabulary in a systematic way. These books should be used as reference material on as needed-basis. The books listed here are accessible to learners of all ages and levels. And most of them give you the opportunity to listen to vocabulary and dialogues on CDs for pronunciation purposes.

You might also want to get a phrase book. There are many phrase books on the market. You should examine a few and pick one that best suits your needs. These phrase books provide ready-made sentences to help you with speaking French when you go on holidays. But be warned that relying exclusively on ready-made sentences will not help you becoming independent in speaking French.


Using French Vocabulary, Jean H.Duffy
This book has detailed lists of words, arranged by theme and on three levels of difficulty, and split into chapters for easy access. Each chapter has exercises on the three levels of difficulty, and you can find the answer to these exercises at the end of the book.


French for Homebuyers, Peter Macbride and Monique Perceau
If you want to buy a house in France, then this book—from the Teach Yourself series—can help you with vocabulary required for this task. The book comes with a CD that contains tutorials to practise listening and speaking.


Vocabulaire en dialogues, Évelyne Siréjols
Like Grammaire en dialogues by Claire Miquel, Vocabulaire en dialogues teaches you French in action, the way you use it in real life. Listen to the dialogues on the CD that accompanies the book.


Conversations, pratiques de l’oral, Cidalia Martins and Jean-Jacques Mabilat
This book contains small dialogues and other phrases that are taken from everyday life. The included CD provides key phrases and tips on pronunciation.

5.4  Children’s Books

Children’s stories are your best choice to start with when you are learning French because they are written in easy-to-understand language. Get an encyclopedia written for French children, and you are guaranteed to learn a lot of new useful vocabulary and interesting facts too. Instead of using vocabulary lists to learn vocabulary, get children’s books that talk about nature, animals, the human body, weather, history, and so on, to help you build up your vocabulary by themes.

Read fairy tales (contes de fées), sit back and enjoy their magic world. Would you not be tempted to read Cinderella as Cendrillon, Little Red Riding Hood as Le petit chaperon rouge, and so on? What about reading Harry Potter in French?

Some children’s stories are also available as audio CDs (livre audio) or in comic-book format. By the way, the French of all ages love reading comics (les bandes dessinées or les BDs as they are also known). Some popular comics include Tintin and Astérix.


Nouveaux contes de fées, Comtesse de Ségur
Comtesse de Ségur, the daughter of a nineteenth century Russian diplomat, married a French count and lived in a mansion near Paris. She started writing fairy tales to entertain her granddaughters. Her stories are still popular among French children today. Les malheurs de Sophie is one of her most famous, but others such as Les vacances, Les petites filles, and so on are equally entertaining. You can learn more about this author in The Educational Children’s Stories of Comtesse de Ségur, which you can find on www.BiancaMcHale.com.


Le petit Nicolas, Goschinny and Sempé
This is a book of short stories about a boy called Nicolas. There are other books in the Le petit Nicolas series, such as Le petit Nicolas a des ennuis, Les vacances du petit Nicolas, and Le petit Nicolas et les copains. Being written from a child’s point of view, it is really light-hearted, funny, and uses easy French, which makes it an excellent tool for people learning French.


Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Little Prince is a philosophical fairy tale. It tells the story of a little prince and his perspective on the world. It is the all-time best-selling French book in the world, and it is the most widely translated French book too.


Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours, Jules Verne
This book, known in English as Around the World in Eighty Days, takes you on a fantastic imaginary journey around the globe. Jules Verne wrote other science-fiction and adventure novels equally fun to read, such as Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea), De la Terre à la Lune (From the Earth to the Moon), and Voyage au centre de la Terre (Journey to the Center of the Earth). Jules Verne is, after Agatha Christie, the second-most translated author of all time. Some of his writings have been turned into movies.


Le meilleur des perles des enfants, Éric Devrot and Sophie Decoudun
This book comprises a hilarious collection of bloopers made by children when answering and asking questions.

5.5  Novels

Reading novels is far more interesting than reading individual sentences and short paragraphs in textbooks. This is important because being interested in what you read provides a motivation to continue reading, and this facilitates learning.

Whenever you encounter an unknown word, do not immediately reach for the dictionary. Instead, try to understand the word from the context. In the beginning, it is important that you are able to follow the plot and get the gist of the story. Aim to understand the main ideas on each page, and gradually you will build on that. Read a book as many times as you want. It is like listening to a song, if you like it you keep going back to it, and you build a sort of emotional link with the artist.

Novels that have a lot of dialogue rather than a lot of description are better for learning purposes because dialogue language is easier to grasp. Also, the vocabulary you get from dialogues is more useful to your immediate needs than a lot of descriptive words. The words that stick in your mind are the words you encounter most often. Thus, the more you read, the more you will remember. Some people may argue that learning vocabulary from novels and articles requires more time to accumulate than learning from vocabulary lists. However, when you learn words in context, it is easier to remember them.

It is best to not read French-language novels primarily for learning because that turns reading into a chore. Instead, you should read for pleasure; if you do that, then learning will occur naturally. The following subsections provide some recommendations for novels in several genres. Do not forget that novels are often turned into movies. It can be useful to watch a movie version of a novel, before or after reading the book: before to increase your chance of fully understanding the story, or after to check that you understood the story. You should take note of any differences between a novel and its movie version, as this could be an interesting topic of conversation with other speakers of French.

5.5.1  Contemporary Novels

If you like reading contemporary literature, then you are spoilt for choice.


Comme un roman, Daniel Pennac
This book is the story of a teacher who tells his students that they have the right to read what and when they want, and even to not read at all. Other titles by this author that you might consider adding to your reading list include Au bonheur des ogres, La fée carabine and Messieurs les enfants.


La grammaire est une chanson douce, Erik Orsenna
This book celebrates language and the power of words in an easy-to-understand writing style.


Ensemble, c’est tout, Anna Gavalda
Although quite long—around 600 pages—this book is an easy read due to the large amount of dialogue. You might also want to watch the movie with the same title. The author’s first novel, Je voudrais que quelqu’un m’attende quelque part, is a collection of lively short stories.


Stupeur et tremblements, Amélie Nothomb
Amélie Nothomb, daughter of Belgian diplomats, was born in Japan where she lived until the age of 5. When the author became an adult she returned to Japan for a year. This book humorously describes her difficulties of working in a strictly hierarchical, Japanese company.


Où es-tu?, Marc Lévy
This is a love story, full of emotions and surprises.


Un sac de billes, Joseph Joffo
This is a captivating story about two boys on the run during the Nazi occupation of Paris. The story is told through the eyes of the author as a boy.


Elise ou la vraie vie, Claire Etcherelli
This book deals with the Arab-French identity during the French occupation of North Africa. This emotional personal story with historical connotations opens your eyes to a far away world.


La statue de sel, Albert Memmi
This is another excellent novel dealing with the Arab-French identity topic.


La Gloire de mon père, Marcel Pagnol
This book and Le Château de ma mère form the collection Souvenirs d’enfance in which the author describes the magic world of childhood. Another of the author’s most celebrated series is Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. In these two novels, the author makes us discover, one by one, characters together with their good and bad points, their happiness and misery. All four of these books were turned into highly acclaimed movies.


Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan
This book describes and endorses a hedonistic lifestyle. It is no wonder the book was acclaimed by some and seen as a scandal by others in the 1950s when it first appeared. You might also want to watch the film version of this book to complement your understanding of the book.


Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas, Olivier Adam
This slim novel is easy to read because of its very short sentences and simple language. The story is quite captivating. I suggest you also watch the movie version of the story.


Exercices de style, Raymond Queneau
This book contains a short story that is told in 99 different styles! And no, it is not boring. You can also read it as Exercises in Style, translated by Barbara Wright.

5.5.2  Classic Novels

If you like reading classics, then you have a lot of choice within French literature. However, be forewarned that many of these books are rather long, and do not have much dialogue. Still, it is worth reading at least a few from the list below. Like the English classics, many of the French classics were made into films.


Les trois mousquetaires, Alexandre Dumas
History, adventure, fights, love stories, and three courageous men are only a few of the topics in this book whose English title is The Three Musketeers. Although a long story, it knows how to capture the reader’s attention throughout. If Dumas’ writing has charmed you, then you should also read Le Comte de Monte Cristo (The Count of Monte Cristo). The movie versions of both books are regarded as classics.


Le Père Goriot, Honoré de Balzac
You can learn a lot about human nature, greed and Parisian high class by reading this story.


Le rouge et le noir, Stendhal
This book deals with themes similar to Balzac’s Le Père Goriot.


Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
It is the story of a bourgeoise woman who is unhappily married, and engages in adulterous affairs to escape her endless boredom of a provincial life. It was made into a highly acclaimed movie.


La peste, Albert Camus
This story is a metaphor for France’s suffering under the Nazi occupation, and the human bravery in the face of a gloomy existence. Other existentialist novels by the same author include La chute and L’étranger. Though Camus is a twentieth century writer, his books are viewed as classics and widely studied.


Les Misérables, Victor Hugo
This is a great story about early nineteenth century Paris. In case you cannot take the plunge to read this rather long book, I recommend you watch the film in English, starring the world famous French actor Gérard Depardieu. Alternatively, watch the theatre play. Or get the Easy Reader version that comes with a CD. You might also like reading Notre-Dame de Paris by the same author, and watch its Disney adaptation known as Le Bossu de Notre-Dame.


Candide, Voltaire
This satirical story contains a lot of dialogue. I recommend you get the dual-language book translated and edited by Shane Weller.


Tartarin de Tarascon, Alphonse Daudet
This is a short, funny story of a man who dreams of going to Africa to hunt, and in the meantime he acts and tells stories as if he is already the biggest hunter around.

5.6  Cultural Books

When learning French, sooner or later you will read about French culture, art, geography and history.


Speak the Culture: France, published by Thorogood
Although written in English, this book is a good read because it gives you an overview of the French lifestyle, literature, art, cinema, music, media, food and politics.


Chez vous en France, Geneviève Brame
This book is written in French for both native and foreign readers. It contains everything you need to know about the practicalities of French life, from working and residing in France to health and education.


French Toast, Harriet Rochefort
Although the title is in English, this book is written in French. The author is an American woman married to a French man, and living in France. She gives her opinion on the French nation.


Guides Voir: France, published by Hachette
This book, written in French, covers all areas of France, describing and showing photographs of the places worth visiting. It also has maps of the regions and the town centres.

5.7  Miscellaneous Books

You can improve your French vocabulary by reading books on whatever topics or hobbies interest you. For example, if you like cooking, then get a cookery book in French and try your hand at some recipes. Do you want to find out about the highway code in France? Then get the Code de la route. Do you want to see the world through French eyes? Then get a French-language atlas. If you love jokes (les blagues), then get a French joke book, and laugh in French!

There are bilingual (also known as parallel text or dual-language) versions of many French novels. This means that one page is in French, and the facing page contains an English translation. Many people find these books a useful aid to learning sentence structure and new vocabulary. However, I recommend you use them in moderation because the ease of looking at the translation can hinder you in building up the skills required to increase your reading fluency.

Egmont, a publishing house, prints a series of books (in several European languages, including French) that are aimed at language learners of various abilities. The books in the Easy Reader series are simplified-language rewrites of classic literature. A related series called Teen Reader provides simplified-language modern novels aimed at a teenage audience. You can browse the entire list of Easy Reader and Teen Reader book at www.easyreaders.eu.

Egmont is not the only publisher to provide books written with simplified language. For example, CLE International calls its series of simplified-language books Lectures CLE en français facile, which you can browse at www.cle-inter.com/recherche-15.html. And CIDEB calls its series Lire et s’entraîner, which you can browse at www.blackcat-cideb.com/3-french-catalogue.

You can look for simplified-language books in online shops, such as amazon.co.uk, and in bookshops, such as The European Bookshop and Grant and Cutler (Section 2.1). Some of the simplified-language books are bundled with a CD containing an audio version of the book.


Previous Up Next