Category Archives: Learning French

Learning new words in French & English while traveling in France: Des Oiseaux / Birds

Yesterday David and I went to the Parc des Oiseaux in Villars-les-Dombes and then to the medieval city of Pérouges, both in the département of Ain. The only things I knew about Ain were its capital city (Bourg-en-Bresse) and its number (01). I had never been there before or heard much about it. Even though it’s the départment directly to the north and west of Savoie and Haute-Savoie, there really aren’t many mountains and the landscape is mostly flat (at least in the western Dombes area) with lots of cornfields, forests and ponds.  Since it’s bordered by both the Saône and Rhône rivers, fishing and wine are also important industries. It seemed radically different from Savoie even though it’s only 1.5 hours away – yet another reason why I love exploring France. Everywhere you go, it’s as if you enter a new country every few hours.

Département de l’Ain

At the Parc des Oiseaux, I learned several new words in both French and English for different types of birds. I do love animals, but I’m not exactly an expert on the classification of birds or know where their native habitats are. The park was divided into Africa, Asia, South America, Europe and Oceania, with over 100 species of birds and the signs had translations of their names in English and German so I was able to learn more vocabulary in more than one language.

We started in la forêt tropicale des toucans and then walked through la volière (aviary) du Pantanal and saw beautiful colorful birds from Brazil. Next was the crique des manchots where we watched the adorable penguins swim in their little wave pool.


Le bush Australien was my favorite part because there were wallabies! I love wallabies!


La vallée des rapaces (raptors/birds of prey) was a bit creepy because of this guy sitting next to the entrance. Not that vautours (vultures) will kill you… but they wish you were dead so they could eat you already.


Past le champ des cigognes (storks) was la plaine Africaine with the largest bird of all: l’autruche (ostrich). Some males can weigh up to 155 kilos / 340 pounds! They can run 70 kph / 45 mph for half an hour! Their wingspan is 6 ft. 7 inches / 2 meters and their height can reach 9 feet / 2.75 meters! In short, they are one badass bird.  Except for their adorable, funny-looking faces and eyes that are bigger than their brain.


Afterwards, we entered the terre des calaos where I learned about the hornbills. These birds were the most unfamiliar to me. Their beaks are slightly like toucans, but with an extra something (apparently called a casque in both English and French) on top.


We ended our tour du monde of birds with the étang des pélicans and the baie de Cuba with the bright flamants (flamingos). But before returning home so I could look up the differences between nandous, émeus and autruches (rheas, emus and ostriches) or why manchot is the translation of penguin even though most books still say it’s pingouin* (though no one in France ever calls them that), we decided to stop in the medieval town of Pérouges.


Pérouges is listed as one of the plus beaux villages en France and it is indeed a beautiful place. Founded by Gauls returning from Perugia, Italy, in the 12th century, the town officially became French in 1601.


Most of the buildings date from the 15th century.


I don’t think I would want to live in a medieval town today, but they sure are interesting to explore.


Check out my Flickr account for the rest of the Parc des Oiseaux and Pérouges photos!

*Pingouin in French is actually a razorbill in English, which is technically an auk and not a penguin. Manchot is the correct translation of penguin in French, even though most other Indo-European languages also use a word similar to penguin. French just likes to be different. It still doesn’t explain why the character of Penguin in Batman was translated as Pingouin though!

La Rentrée en France: Back to School… and Strikes

The official back to school shopping list for all French public school students is not only a lesson in vocabulary, but also in culture.  Most people know that France is a very centralized country and that all roads (and railroads) lead to Paris. The academic calendar is set in stone for the three zones of France years in advance and the school curriculum is essentially the same throughout the entire country. The joke about every student studying the same subject from the same textbook at the same time everywhere in France isn’t exactly true, yet take a look at the specificity of the school supplies that parents are supposed to buy for their children:

Fournitures : Qualité type attendue
Grand cahier 96 pages (21 x 29,7 cm) : Dos agrafé, 80 à 90 g/m2
Grand cahier 96 pages (24 x 32 cm) : Dos agrafé, 80 à 90 g/m2
Petit cahier de 96 pages (17 x 22 cm) : Dos agrafé, 80 à 90 g/m2
Feuillets mobiles perforés (21 x 29,7 cm) : 70 à 90 g/m2
Copies doubles perforées (21 x 29,7 cm) : 70 à 90 g/m2
Cahier de musique de 48 pages (17 x 22 cm)
Classeur rigide (21 x 29,7 cm) : Cartonné recyclable
Classeur souple (21 x 29,7 cm) : Plastique
Protège-cahiers (17 x 22 – 21 x 29,7 – 24 x 32)
Pochettes transparentes perforées (21 x 29,7 cm) : Lot de 90 à 100
Rouleau de plastique pour couvrir les livres
Stylos à bille : 1 bleu, 1 noir, 1 rouge, 1 vert – pointe moyenne
Crayons à papier : H.B. – bout gomme
Pochette de 12 crayons de couleur
Pochette de 12 feutres de couleur : Lavables, sans solvant, non toxiques
5 tubes (10 ml) de gouache – 5 couleurs primaires : Peinture à l’eau
Stylo correcteur
Bâton de colle – lot de 2 à 4 : Non toxique – sans solvant
Rouleau de ruban adhésif : Sans dévidoir
Porte-vues – 21 x 29,7cm – 40 à 60 vues : Matière plastique ou recyclée

I certainly don’t remember my back to school lists being this specific. Teachers just told us to buy a notebook or folders or colored pencils. I was never told dimensions or numbers of pages or stapled, not glued. Maybe things have changed since my school days (I graduated high school in 2000), but somehow I don’t think American schools are quite as exigeant with their school supplies as l’Education Nationale in France.

I’ve worked in 3 high schools, 2 middle schools and 1 university in France and I can attest to the fact that all students use the same pens, plastic rulers, glue sticks, notebooks, sheets of paper, etc. Students may not all be studying math at 10 AM on Tuesday mornings, but they most likely are all using the same blue pens and grid paper and not one will attempt to draw a line without using their ruler, or without asking where exactly on the page to draw it. To Americans, this rigidness seems like a lack of imagination or creativity, whereas to the French, it is essential to suivre le modèle and not step out of line (or color outside of the lines).  I’m not saying that one country’s education system is better than the other – because I have a lot of problems with both – but maybe we should strive to be more like Finland instead. Just sayin’!

To learn school supply vocabulary online, I recommend browsing paper store websites such as You’ll notice that certain supplies that are common in the US don’t actually exist in France or aren’t used very often (two-pocket folders, spiral notebooks, lined paper).

Another facet of French culture that is evident at this time of year? Strikes! Even though everyone is just returning from summer vacation and going back to work and school this week, there is already a nation-wide strike scheduled for Tuesday. I love you, France, because you make me laugh and cry at the same time.

Free and/or Public Domain Materials for Listening to & Reading Languages Simultaneously

Previously I explained how reading subtitles while watching TV shows or movies helps enormously with foreign language comprehension. I wanted to expand on the Listening & Reading method – because it is what I use foremost when studying languages – and list some freely available resources where you can find text and audio in several languages.

When I first started learning languages in the mid 90’s, audio was an expensive component of language resources and even when cassettes or CDs were provided, the recordings were limited to an hour or so of common phrases and simple dialog. It was never enough to progress beyond the beginning stage. Luckily the internet and the ease with which materials can be accessed and downloaded changed all that – especially concerning materials in the public domain.

Below are websites with free and/or public domain audio files and transcripts to download for your personal use. There’s never any reason to spend hundreds of dollars on language courses!

  • When learning a new language, I like to start with Book2 because they offer 100 phrases & sound files in over 40 languages. You can choose any combination of languages instead of just using English as the first language. It’s handy for comparing two languages or using one language to help you learn another at the beginning A1/A2 level.
  • LangMedia offers many videos of common conversations and situations that you’re likely to encounter, filmed in the country where the language is spoken. A lot of cultural notes and even realia are also provided. About 30 languages are available.
  • If you already have a certain text in a foreign language, but you want to hear how it is pronounced, request a recording at Rhinospike. Native speakers will record an mp3 that you can listen to online or download – and usually more than one person will do the recording so you can learn from a variety of accents.
  • There are a lot of language podcasts these days, but many do not offer the transcripts for free. The type of speech available can be put into two categories: rehearsed and spontaneous. Sites like Spanish NewsBites, Radio Arlecchino, and Slow German provide recordings of native speakers reading a text with no mistakes because it has been rehearsed, while sites like France Bienvenue and my French Listening Resources provide spontaneous speech with false starts and fillers. I prefer the latter because it’s more representative of what you hear in normal everyday conversations, but spontaneous resources are much harder to find.

FSI Italian FAST course

  • Foreign Service Institute courses can be a bit boring because the vocabulary is aimed at diplomats serving abroad, but nevertheless, they do contain common phrases and useful conversations for everyday use – not to mention hours and hours of audio and materials for languages that have very little resources available. The books can be downloaded in PDF format, but I am still attempting to create HTML and perhaps eventually DOC or EPUB versions for some of the courses. (I just uploaded six more units of Italian FAST this weekend.)
  • For a more literary approach, Librivox and many other e-book sites, such as Logos, offer many classic books and children’s books in several languages, with recordings done by volunteers. I tend not to use these books as much as other materials because literature is very different from everyday speech, but they are helpful for pronunciation and vocabulary nonetheless.
  • News sites, such as Euronews which is available in nine languages, sometimes do not offer exact transcripts of what is said in each video. This is the same problem with subtitles for a lot of programs or films. The sentences are similar enough so the meaning is generally the same, but it can be really distracting for beginning learners. At an intermediate level, you can start comparing what is said to what is written and learn two ways to say the same thing.

Le Grand Robert & Collins French/English CD-ROM Dictionary

Since I’ve been doing more French-English translations lately, I decided to invest in a CD-ROM dictionary instead of a standard paper dictionary. is of course a great online resource but I wanted something more.

Le Grand Robert & Collins French/English CD-ROM Dictionary contains 425,000 entries, all with standard IPA pronunciation and plenty of sample phrases and expressions. You can also listen to the pronunciation of about 15,000 French words. It is possible to search for phrases instead of individual words, though you must spell everything correctly because no suggested words or entries appear as you type.  You can copy & paste from the entries as well as double click on another word that you would like to look up and it will take you automatically to that entry.

Le Grand Robert & Collins CD-ROM Dictionary

Also included are 15,000 entries of business vocabulary, a guide d’expressions which provides many set phrases for communicating (opinions, preferences, apologies, etc.),  cultural notes mostly about France, common proverbs (which are included in regular dictionary entries as well) and some PDF files in the Help section on verb conjugations; numbers, time and dates; and weights, measurements and temperatures.

This CD-ROM is a bit expensive at ($190 USD) but slightly less at ($96 CAD / $91 USD) so Americans might want to just pay for the extra shipping from Canada. At the price is 67€ / $86 USD but they only ship within the EU. There are also versions from 2007 and 2003, which I’ve heard are nearly identical to each other, but I don’t know how different they are from this latest edition.

Are you a Juillettiste or an Aoûtien? and Another Reason to Visit France

We are in the middle of les grandes vacances in France and it certainly shows, even in smaller towns rather than just Paris. Many shops are closed or not nearly as crowded as usual, most of the people wandering the streets have cameras around their necks, and I can always find a parking spot directly in front of my building. Some things haven’t changed – there are just as many loud scooters on the streets that drive me insane – but France in August is definitely my favorite time of the year. And every summer I’m reminded just how much French language and culture are inseparable by the fact that there are words for people who take their annual vacation in July, les juillettistes, or in August, les aoûtiens.

Most French people have 5 weeks of paid vacation per year, and some have even more time off with the inclusion of their RTTs (essentially, personal days) for those who work more than 35 hours per week. My fonctionnaire (civil servant) boyfriend has nine weeks off per year, all paid of course – and this is only his second year as a fonctionnaire.  Even the education system makes sure there are 2 week vacations after every 6 weeks during the school year, which consequently means summer vacation is only 2 months instead of 3 like in the States, and hence why there are no real juinistes (people who take their vacation in June; very few people use this word and it’s not in the dictionary). Nevertheless, French law makes sure everyone gets plenty of vacation!

Regardless of whether you are a juillettiste or an aoûtien, there is yet another reason to spend your vacation in France: UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has just inscribed a new cultural site in France on their World Heritage List. The episcopal city of Albi, located in the southwest near Toulouse, is the 31st World Heritage cultural site in mainland France and there are also natural sites on the islands of Corsica, La Réunion, and New Caledonia. Of course, you should visit countries to learn the language, meet the people, eat the food, etc. instead of just hopping from Heritage site to Heritage site, but the list is a nice way to get an overview of the history and culture of an area.

The Importance of Learning Collocations instead of Individual Words

As Randy from Yearlyglot pointed out recently, word pattern recognition is an important concept in language learning and attaining fluency. Word patterns or collocations are simply the way certain words (whether function or content) habitually occur together. These conventional sequences are instantly recognizable to native speakers of a language, but remain difficult for second language learners to acquire and use properly.

It is usually recommend to learn the gender along with the noun or the plural along with the singular or the feminine form of adjectives when studying vocabulary. But we should go a step further and include collocational information (as well as alternate meanings) for every word we learn. Every time you learn a new adjective or verb, make sure to learn if a preposition follows it before a noun and/or a verb. In French we say se marier avec quelqu’un while in Engish we get married to someone, not with someone. Even with closely related languages, such as French and Italian, the prepositions can differ. In French we are intéréssé par quelque chose, in Italian we are interessato a qualcosa and in English we are interested in something. The verbal counterparts of “to be interested in” in French and Italian are s’intéresser à and interessarsi di. Don’t you just love prepositions?

Translating collocations is also problematic even when there are no prepositions involved. In English we say safe and sound whereas in French it’s sain et sauf (healthy and safe).  Students who are unfamiliar with the concept of collocations will most likely attempt to translate literally from their native language, which results in the common mistakes that language teachers hear over and over again. Even after a year of university English, a lot of my students still said I listen music even though to listen to is one of the most basic verbs that is taught in their middle and high school classes. It is certainly not possible that they had never been exposed to this verb before freshman year of college. And yet, they still had not learned to express themselves properly in English by using fixed phrases instead of translating word for word.

Common two-word collocations in English

I remember learning vocabulary from my textbooks in college and being surprised that collocational information was often not included in the glossaries. In my first grammar class, I was confused that Je lui ai dit (I told him/her) was grammatically correct instead of Je l’ai dit because my textbook simply taught that dire meant to say/tell and did not specify that the correct phrase was dire quelque chose à quelqu’un (to say/tell something to someone or to say/tell someone something). I was also confused about seeing demander à and demander de and not understanding why both prepositions were used. Then I learned the expressions demander à faire quelque chose (to ask to do something) and demander à quelqu’un de faire quelque chose (to ask someone to do something) and the little light bulbs in my head went on all over the place. Why couldn’t my textbooks have taught those full expressions immediately instead of just the verbs dire and demander?

If only all uses of prepositions were this easy to learn…

Prepositions are highly idiomatic in all languages and therefore, can be quite unpredictable. Why does French say prêt à faire quelque chose (ready to do something) but content de faire quelque chose (happy to do something)? I suppose it doesn’t really matter why, the point is to simply memorize the collocation instead of the adjective. This also helps with verbs that change their meaning depending on what preposition and/or complement follow them. If you only learn that défendre means to defend, then the expression défendre à quelqu’un de faire quelque chose will make no sense until you learn that it actually means to forbid someone to do something. The same goes for assister – it doesn’t just mean to help. Assister à quelque chose means to attend something (an event, a performance, etc.)

A good dictionary will always include this information for each entry. There are also collocation dictionaries like Robert’s Dictionnaire des Combinaison de Mots that are useful for quick reference. And if you have no other resources, try Google or Google Battle to see which preposition you think should follow a certain word. Not that everything written on the internet is grammatically correct, but it’s at least something!

For other linguistics nerds who are interested in the lexical approach to language learning (i.e. that lexical items, such as collocations, and not simply individual words and definitely not grammar alone, is the basis of language and therefore should play a central role in language teaching and learning), check out books by Michael Lewis, Paul Nation, Alison Wray and Ann M. Peters. Related to collocations is the research done in the field of corpus linguistics and how we use concordance analysis of authentic language to create frequency lists of these lexical units. If you’re confused by this last sentence, read John Sinclair’s Corpus, Concordance, Collocation.  There is a lot of research in this area nowadays, especially with the emergence of CALL (computer-assisted language learning).

Improving Comprehension of Foreign Languages with TV Series, Movies and Subtitles

Watching television shows and movies in the target language is a great way to learn the (real) language, but it is even better if you can read along with the subtitles while watching and listening. Most linguistics studies and language students agree, but someone needs to tell the producers of DVDs this.  I am still amazed that there are several French movies and TV series on DVD that include absolutely NO subtitles at all – not even for the deaf & hard of hearing population, which is extremely unfair and a bit insulting.  Even though the loi sur le handicap from 2005 stated that the seven main French television stations must subtitle 100% of their programs from February 2010 on, this does not mean that the DVDs also include the subtitles.

I bought the first season of Les Bleus: Premiers Pas dans la Police last summer after seeing it on M6. It is actually a decent French show that is not a rip-off of an American show, and it includes plenty of slang and informal language. There are subtitles when it is broadcast on M6 and its sister channel W9, but the DVDs have no subtitles at all. Consequently, I am not going to buy the 2nd/3rd season DVD set because it’s not very useful to me. I’ll just wait until it is on TV again and record it on my Freebox.  Luckily the one other French TV series that I like, Kaamelott, does include subtitles and it’s really funny so I recommend it to all French learners.


You can find subtitles in various languages for major movies online at sites such as,,,, and even for a bunch of French subtitles if you still feel like watching in the original language, but want to learn some vocabulary by reading the subtitles in French. I used to do that years ago with American DVDs that only had English as the audio but did provide a few other languages in subtitles.

However, finding subtitles for French series like Les Bleus is practically impossible since most subtitles are not created for language learning purposes or even for the deaf community, but so that foreign programs can be watched in the original language or because no one wants to wait months and months for a dubbed version to air in their country. Most of these subtitle websites offer .srt files which means you have to watch on your computer with VLC, though you can hardcode the subtitles if you really want to create your own DVD or just hook up your computer to your TV screen. Sometimes the synchronization is not exact, so you might need to add or subtract a few seconds.

For anyone else in France, adslTV is a great program for watching TV on your computer if you subscribe to Free, SFR, Orange, Alice or Bouygues. Not all channels can be watched through adslTV (most notably, TF1, M6 and W9 do not allow it) but you can turn on the subtitles and record programs to your hard drive. I use it often for watching and recording shows on the three RAI channels because I can’t always turn on the subtitles with my Freebox but I can with adslTV, so it’s helping a lot with improving my comprehension of Italian.

The site Medias-soustitres, which was created by volunteers for the deaf community, also has a list of French DVDs that do include subtitles since a lot of online stores ( I’m talking about you!) don’t always include proper information about what subtitles are available.

French Summer School Online: Free Resources to Download

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:

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.