Category Archives: Learning French

French Summer School Online: Free Resources to Download

By   July 22, 2010

Académie en ligne is the official website of Education Nationale in France that provides support materials for all courses in public schools so that students can continue learning during the summer. The site was launched last summer, but I had forgotten until This French Life posted about it.  It’s designed for all students from CP to Terminale (kindergarten through senior year for the Americans) but I like to use it to improve my French and learn more about certain topics from a French perspective.  The subjects available are: German, English, Chinese, Spanish, French, History-Geography, Math, Philosophy, Physics-Chemistry, Life & Earth Science, Economics & Social Science, and Experimental Sciences & Technology.

Of course I’m most interested in the language and geography sections, and I have to say the materials for German and French are pretty useful. Not only are there exercises and the answers (in PDF format) to download, but also audio resources that go with the documents. You can use the DownThemAll add-on for Firefox to download the PDFs at once and the best part is: this is all free! I love free language learning materials! I really wish they had Italian materials too since that’s what I’m focusing on at the moment. More students study Italian than German or Chinese in France so I’m a little confused as to why it’s not included.

It’s worth checking out just to see what it is French students learn in school, and English assistants or tutors could probably use the (British English) materials in their classes. Plus the Mon Cahier d’Europe site has a neat booklet on European Union members, an online game you can play to test your knowledge, and a few links to learn more about the EU.

Death of a Language Website:

By   July 19, 2010

Last year a friend of mine who had recently immigrated to Quebec sent me a link to a great website about learning Canadian French. The URL was simply and the site included grammar and vocabulary specific to Quebec as well as several videos of Quebecois songs and examples of Quebecois speech. It was an extremely useful site for learning the Quebecois accent and understanding another variety of French. I noticed the updates stopped in late 2009 but I only recently checked the actual website and found that it was gone.

I want to learn Canadian French too!

I created a Playlist in YouTube for most of the artists who appeared on the site (plus other famous French Canadian singers), but I would really like to access the rest of the information, especially on pronunciation. The RSS feed only goes back until the end of October and the site is not yet archived in the Wayback Machine. If anyone knows how to get in touch with Kevin, the author of the site, please let me know. It’s such a shame that this valuable resource has disappeared from the internet.

Learning French Slang & Culture through Hip-Hop and Rap

By   July 18, 2010

Even if you don’t like rap in English, it pays to listen to it in foreign languages because the songs are usually full of informal language and slang as well as cultural references. Here are some songs that also teach you verlan (a “backwards” form of slang), French geography, Francophone names, common acronyms and the reduction of the schwa vowel.

Sinik & Diam’s: Le Même Sang French rap from famous rappers who are not français de souche. Sinik is Franco-Algerian and Diam’s was born in Cyprus. Most French rappers have origins in Francophone Africa, such as MC Solaar who is Senegalese (though his parents were from Chad) or come from Marseille and have a distinct accent.

Read lyrics here.
Vocabulary: rentpa, daron, flic, gosse, niquer, braquer, foutre, SMIC, baraque

Grand Corps Malade: Les Voyages en Train Not exactly rap or hip-hop, but slam poetry, or le slam in French. It’s much easier to understand! This poem gives us lots of vocabulary for taking the train in France.

Read lyrics here.
Vocabulary: SNCF, Tipex, se planter, flipper, saouler, pote, trainer

Zaho: C’est Chelou More hip-hop than rap, but there’s verlan in the title. Chelou comes from louche, which means shady, dodgy, sketchy, etc. Also shows us what a typical French douchebag looks like so you know who to avoid.

Read the lyrics here.
Vocabulary: chelou, taspé, taffer

Koxie: Garçon If you take off the cedilla, you’re left with garcon, or gare aux cons. Gare here does not mean train station, but is the slang verb for watch out/beware and con is a really common insult, meaning jerk/idiot/asshole. Not all men are jerks of course, but the ones who harass you on the streets of Paris are.

Read lyrics here.
Vocabulary: gâterie, baiser, défoncer, quéquette, pote, bordel, galère, con, cochonne (careful! some of these words are considered vulgar!)

Fatal Bazooka: Fous ta cagoule ! Michaël Youn is more known as a comedian/actor but his parody band actually has become quite successful in France. This was their first single from 2006, which reached number 1 on French charts and satirizes typical French rap from Marseille in addition to slam, and which teaches us that it is cold in Savoie so you need to put on your ski mask.

Read the lyrics here.
Vocabulary: grelots, boules, Vesoul, Savoie, Picard, putain, espèce de fils de ****

Palmashow: Rap des Prénoms Another comedic group that teaches us French names and what it implies about the person. Eric, Bruno, and Teddy are firemen. Gérard is an alcoholic. Michael and Kévin are showoffs. Sylvie, Martine, and Annick work at supermarkets.

Read lyrics here.
Vocabulary: kéké, tuning, weeling, golri, meuf, Juste Prix, Mondial Moquette, pote, caisse, blase

Palmashow also does hilarious sketches about TV shows called Remakers that you should check out. Click on All Shows and Remakers in the bottom right corner.

For the France & French Lovers in America (and Elsewhere)

By   July 14, 2010

It’s too hot for me to stay at the computer and do a real update. It was about 37° C / 98.6° F here today and it’s still not that cool at 10 PM. The Tour de France started in Chambéry this afternoon before heading down to Gap and I feel sorry for the cyclists who had to deal with this heat. Unlike the rest of France, it has not rained here at all. Normally I love the heat but without air conditioning or a pool, I’m a little over it.

As today is la fête nationale in France (NOT Bastille Day! French people have no idea what that is), here are some new resources for gaining exposure to French language and culture, especially for my fellow Americans:

  • The news channel France 24 is now available everywhere in the United States on the DISH network in its original French version. Previously, only a few states had access to the English version.
  • TV5Monde (also available on DISH network) has a new program dedicated to Francophone related events throughout America: Rendez-vous d’Amérique
  • France finally created an official tourism website for the entire country,, that was officially launched today. It also includes information for residents of France who are studying or working here instead of just visiting as a tourist, available in 5 languages: French, English, German, Italian and Spanish. Unfortunately the servers have already crashed because so many people were accessing the site so it is currently down. Hopefully it will be back online soon!

Non-French French and Why Am I Just Now Learning This?

By   June 22, 2010

I studied French for 3 years in high school and another 3 years at university between 1997 and 2003. Then I took some time off from languages while I was doing my Master’s in Linguistics and ended up moving to France in late 2006. So I guess you could say that I’ve been learning French for 10 years, though those first 6 years were just grammar and literature and not so much useful stuff like comprehension and conversational skills. Granted, I haven’t actually been “studying” French while living in France because I’ve been teaching English most of the time. Nevertheless, after all that time I am still learning new things about the French language that I can’t believe I didn’t learn years ago.

Some French books make a tiny effort to teach you other varieties of French instead of focusing solely on Parisian French. They may mention that Belgian and Swiss French use septante and nonante for 70 and 90 instead of soixante-dix or quatre-vingt-dix. They may also mention that in Quebec, the meals are déjeuner, dîner and souper instead of petit déjeuner, déjeuner and dîner. And that’s about it.

What they forget to tell you is that octante was also once used in Belgium and Switzerland for 80 instead of quatre-vingts – though it’s rarely said nowadays, you can still find it in literature – and that some parts of Switzerland (Vaud, Valais and Fribourg) use huitante. In addition, Belgium and Switzerland both use the same words as Quebec to designate the three meals of the day. I just learned that yesterday. Seriously, I’ve been learning French for years & years and I just now learn that?!?

Obviously I don’t live or work in Belgium or Switzerland or unfortunately don’t regularly talk to Belgians or the Swiss so I understand why it’s harder to pick up the vocabulary differences. I’ve studied in Quebec and still watch Quebecois shows and read blogs written by Quebecois people so I’m familiar with chum, blonde, char, magasiner, dépanneur, vidanges, piastre, niasieux, etc. and I definitely know NOT to use gosses*.

But when it comes to le français belge or suisse, I’m lost. I can’t even detect a Belgian or Swiss accent because I have such little exposure to them. David’s super scientific explanation opinion is that Belgians sound too guttural and the Swiss talk too slow. I love guttural sounds (I think Dutch is the coolest-sounding language EVER) and a slower rhythm would be nice since French people talk way too fast sometimes. Maybe I need to watch some Belgian and Swiss movies. Anyone have any recommendations?

Here are some websites for learning other varieties of French:




*Gosses means testicles in Quebec, not kids!

Multilingual Goodness of the Eurovision Song Contest

By   May 26, 2010

The Eurovision Song Contest is going on this week in Oslo and even though I’m not watching it, I am using the unofficial website to learn languages through song lyrics. It is called the Diggiloo Thrush and it includes the lyrics and translations into English of almost all of the songs ever performed for the contest. This year there are 39 participating countries, but far fewer languages are represented since countries are not required to choose a song in their official language. Nevertheless, the collection of lyrics starts in 1956 so there is plenty of material available to help you learn languages.

The quality of the songs isn’t always great but Eurovision always motivates me to learn more about my European neighbors and their languages. There are even a few countries outside of Europe that participate, such as Israel, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. The official site has a webcast if you want to watch live (or on-demand later), or you can find some songs on YouTube or Spotify (if you live in a country that has access to it).

Using Realia Resources in Language Teaching & Learning

By   May 21, 2010

Realia resources are everyday, authentic objects, such as photographs, menus, brochures, receipts, maps, movies, television shows, commercials, etc. that are used to teach and learn languages. Some researchers include any items that can be used to prompt conversations or role-play, such as telephones, but those are generally meant to be employed in the classroom with other learners. For self-study, the most helpful realia illustrates how the language is actually used in the country where it is spoken. Visiting the country to experience the language is obviously the best way to learn, but in the absence of the time and money necessary for travel, the internet can provide much of the realia needed.

Online ad showing informal French: Yapamieux = Il n’y a pas mieux

The lack of authentic language in language learning materials was most striking to me upon arriving in France and realizing that what I had learned in my classes was not how people actually spoke. I still recall the dialog in my textbook for buying train tickets, which consisted of a mere 4 lines and completely lacked any cultural clues as to what country it was referring to. Most textbooks default to France and teach a little about the rail system, the SNCF, but they neglect to include the specific names of trains. It is very important to know the difference between the TGV and TER, or what types of trains Lunéa, Téoz and Intercités are, or what the Carte 12-25 or Carte Escapades are used for. And as soon as you cross the border into Switzerland or Belgium, there is a new list of names and acronyms for the rail systems and trains to deal with: CFF, SNCB, ICT, ICN, etc.

Realia Resources for learning languagesProbably need to find out what composter means before getting on the train…

So why didn’t my textbook (or teacher) provide us with an actual train ticket and schedule, or at least a copy of one? Why did I never see a real menu from an actual restaurant while we were learning food vocabulary? I realized it may be a little difficult for North American teachers to have access to these types of realia, which is why I started scanning my old train tickets and receipts. Then I started taking pictures of menus and signs; anything with the written language that I thought would be useful for learners. Currently my realia collection includes French, German, Croatian and Danish, and I will be adding Dutch and Italian in the next few months. Every time I travel, I make sure to gather as much visual realia as possible, as well as website addresses of stores, restaurants, museums, and public transportation companies since many offer downloads of catalogs or menus or schedules.

Authentic Language Realia Resources

You don’t necessarily have to be in the country in order to experience and learn its language. The internet allows you to get very close without leaving your home. I certainly wish I would have been able to look at menus before arriving. I would have known that everyone says cookie instead of biscuit and ice tea instead of thé glacé (the latter being the only words my books ever taught me). And if Youtube had been around when I was in school, I could have watched plenty of videos and listened to spoken, informal French instead of relying on scripted dialogs from a textbook. This is yet another reason why I started the Informal French and Listening Resources pages. Getting as much exposure to the real language as possible is now a priority for me when first learning a language (I learned my lesson with French!) and so I find myself using the internet much more often than any of my books, unless I specifically want to focus on grammar.


The Loom of Language: An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages

By   April 27, 2010

The Loom of Language: An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages by Frederick Bodmer has always been my favorite book about learning languages. I first discovered it on F.X. Micheloud’s Learning Languages site about 9 or 10 years ago when I was still an undergrad and much more interested in learning languages on my own rather than taking boring classes at university. I wanted to learn useful vocabulary and focus more on understanding and speaking the language while my classes wanted me to analyze Zola or Sand with very limited knowledge of French. Or my classes were cancelled because not enough students signed up for German or because there were no teachers available for Italian. My language books (all 500 of them) and later the internet became the main resources I used in studying, but I always went back to The Loom of Language because it explained everything so well.

It is the only book that actually teaches languages instead of simply teaching how to learn languages. There are several books and resources available for that already. I was specifically looking for something that compared European languages and gave me the rules and words needed to learn the languages – not to learn about the languages. Originally written in the 1940’s, it is obviously outdated in some parts – the quote “1,800 million people on this globe speak approximately 1,500 different languages” is so very wrong today – but it’s still the best book for multilingual learners to get an overview of Latin and Germanic grammar and vocabulary.

The first part of the book starts with the history of human language and alphabets and leads into morphology and syntax of several languages, and ends with the classification of languages throughout the world. The second part focuses on learning vocabulary (from the given lists) taking advantage of similarities among languages and sound shifts that cause predictable changes from one language to another. What I always found most important, however, was the assertion that you should learn certain words first, such as personal pronouns, auxiliary verbs, demonstratives, prepositions, conjunctions, etc. (essentially function words) because they are the most common and least recognizable when they change cases.

Many nouns, adjectives and verbs should come after the function words because they are more likely to be recognized thanks to common affixes among similar languages and “international” words such as telephone or taxi, and also because these concrete words are highly dependent on the situation. Bodmer’s example of a Dane who learns the word rabbit in one of his first English lessons but who may never talk about rodents of any kind for 10 years really illustrates the need to learn the function and abstract words first, or at least to focus immediately on the words that you will need depending on why you are learning the language.

Bodmer also encourages learners to “get a bird’s-eye view of the grammatical peculiarities of a language before trying to memorize anything” and to not waste time on memorizing case endings of nouns or adjectives until a reading knowledge of the language is achieved. Most textbooks don’t agree with this as they introduce cases and declensions early on so that students are supposed to memorize the endings before they even learn many nouns or adjectives. Bodmer’s method is based on recognition and input of useful vocabulary first, and later intensive reading and writing to perfect the grammar, which seems to be the opposite of certain books.

He also states “If you learn only ten new words of the group which includes particles, pronouns, and pointer words every day for a fortnight, you will have at your disposal at least 25 per cent of the total number of words you use when you write a letter. When you have done this, it is important to have a small vocabulary of essential nouns, adjectives, and verbs ready for use.” All of this essential vocabulary he is referring to is included at the back of the book in several lists that compare English, French, Spanish, Portuguese & Italian and English, Swedish, Danish, Dutch & German. Sound familiar? These “basic vocabularies” were the inspiration for creating my own multilingual lists and lead to the Romance and Germanic Vocabulary & Verbs pages that I am still working on.

The third part of the book gives information on other languages in more detail, including non-Indo-European and constructed languages and leads into a discussion on language planning and a “true Interlingua” that would be “a passport to a wider international culture.” The last paragraph is still relevant today, though written during WWII.

“Of itself, no such change can bring the age-long calamity of war to an end; and it is a dangerous error to conceive that it can do so. We cannot hope to reach a remedy for the language obstacles to international co-operation on a democratic footing, while predatory finance capital, intrigues or armament manufacturers, and the vested interest of a rentier class in the misery of colonial peoples continue to stifle the impulse to a world-wide enterprise for the common wealth of mankind. No language reform can abolish war, while social agencies far more powerful than mere linguistic misunderstandings furnish fresh occasion for it. What intelligent language planning can do is to forge a new instrument for human collaboration on a planetary scale, when social institutions propitious to international strife no longer thwart the constructive task of planning health, leisure and plenty for all.”

Language, culture and politics always have been connected and probably always will be. The government of Belgium just collapsed (again!) because of tensions between French and Flemish speakers and the French-English tensions in Quebec has a long history as well. Hispanics in the US are discriminated against because they do not speak English well enough or not at all even though the US has no official language. Montenegro calls its language Montenegrin though it is actually another dialect of the now defunct Serbo-Croatian language that also includes Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian because the Balkan states must have their own “standardized” language in order to be eligible for EU membership.

Interestingly, WWII and the Balkan wars in the 90’s were what encouraged me to start learning languages in the first place. I wanted to read the original documents and journals and newspapers and try to understand why wars happen and where the hatred for other human beings comes from. There are still several armed conflicts happening all over the world, and the racist propaganda against immigrants in several countries, including both my home and adopted countries, is what keeps me learning languages – so that one day I can help those immigrants, and especially refugees, adjust to their new lives and fight against the discrimination. Perhaps I am a bleeding-heart liberal when it comes to the underprivileged (especially the poor who  are usually immigrants) but rampant inequality among groups of people is heart-breaking to me; and even though it sounds trite and clichéd, I still believe that learning foreign languages plays a large part in making the world a better place.

Update: Also check out Quotes from The Loom of Language on Classroom Learning and the Direct Method

Learning French Slang with Les Simpson

By   April 18, 2010

Watching French TV with the subtitles on was the fastest way for me to learn common French slang words. Back in 2006 when I barely understood spoken French, I spent a lot of time watching TV and writing down the words that I didn’t understand. Unfortunately, French TV shows aren’t all that great, so I resorted to watching American shows dubbed in French. Normally I wouldn’t recommend this because the voice acting is ridiculously bad and the lips don’t match the words, which is extremely important in understanding the front rounded vowels of French.

However, in the case of Les Simpson, I made an exception because the voices are very close to the original and after a while I didn’t even realize that I was watching it in French. I also found The Simpsons Park website that has almost all of the scripts in French so I could go back and read them if I missed something in the subtitles. These scripts, similar to the subtitles, are also written in informal French so that it closely reflects the pronunciation and of course, the French translations are full of slang words that you should really know in order to understand everyday conversations.

Si t’es ici alors qui c’est qu’est là-dedans ? (t’es = tu es; qui c’est qui = qui est-ce qui)

Te biles pas, fiston. (te biles pas = ne t’en fais pas; fiston = fils)

T’as raison Milhouse, se marrer c’est marrant ! (t’as = tu as; se marrer = rire; marrant = drôle)

Ouais, on a rencard de l’autre côté du lac avec des meufs ! (ouais = oui; rencard = rendez-vous; meufs = femmes)

For those who live in the US  & Canada, the region 1 DVDs do have French audio, but it is Quebecois French. As much as I love Quebec and the accent, I have to say the European French version of Les Simpson is far superior to the Quebecois one. Plus, learners of French are more likely to understand the cultural references for France rather than Quebec. Nevertheless, The Simpsons Park does include a few scripts (about 20) in Quebecois French. North Americans who want to watch the European French version will have to buy region 2 (Europe/Middle East/South Africa) or 4 (Latin America/Oceania) DVDs and a region-free player, or try using VLC Media Player. Subtitles in French are also available from several sites (,, if the DVDs don’t have them.

I have tried doing the same with Friends because the Fan Club français de Friends has all of the transcripts in French and English, but watching Friends dubbed in French is torture. The voice acting and sound editing are beyond awful and even the voice actors themselves admit it. I’m not talking about reality TV awful, but more like The Room awful. Sometimes I still watch Friends on French TV when I’m nostalgic for New York, but at other times I’d rather stick a nail in my ear.

As for actual French series, Kaamelott, Samantha Oups !, Scènes de Ménage, Bref, Les Bleus, and Un Gars, Une Fille come to mind, but many DVDs do not have subtitles because laws on subtitling for the deaf and hard-of-hearing population are just now being enforced. Previously, it wasn’t really required for TV series or even movies to have subtitles available. I know Kaamelott and Bref do include subtitles, but I’m not sure about the others.