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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

The best smartphone apps for learning French

It's often said the best way to learn French is by speaking it, and that's all well and good - but where do you start if you don't have the words to express yourself?

The best smartphone apps for learning French
Photo: stuphoto/Depositphotos

A winning way to learn French is while sitting (or more likely, standing) on the Metro, in your lunch break or whenever you have a spare five minutes.

Yes, there are hundreds of apps out there, but we've rounded up some of the best (in honour of French language week).

Let us know if you have used them and if they helped you.

Learn French by Bravolol Limited

Perfect for tourists or beginners, this app teaches you 800 of the most common and useful words and phrases. A French-speaking parrot helps you improve your spelling and authentic pronunciation – you can record your voice to see if you're getting it right, and the words are sorted into topics so you can choose those most relevant to you.

User Janet Perez wrote: “Simple and helpful. It is easy to use it, it teaches you the basic greetings and words, the pronunciation and it doesn't have annoying commercials.”

Learn French 6000 Words

As the name suggests, this app is a vocabulary builder, teaching you the 6,000 most common words in French, so it's suited to anyone aiming at comprehension (of menus and signs, for example) rather than conversation.

The words are organized in themes with illustrations, phonetic transcriptions and recordings of native pronunciation, and you can test your knowledge using one of the language games. Students can also set the difficulty of the the app according to their level: beginner, intermediate or advanced.

“Great vocabulary builder. Wide selection of vocabulary, also builds spelling skills. Graphics for words are helpful (and funny)” user Amanda McQ commented in the Google Play site.

Le Conjugueur

If you're already familiar with the basic phrases but want to brush up on your grammar, this handy app is a must. You can look up 9,000 French verbs to find out how to conjugate them in any tense, helping you avoid errors even when you're dealing with the tricky irregulars or one of the less common tenses.

User Chris Isbister wrote: “Excellent. A solid app for reviewing verb conjugations and definitions, as well as conjugation rules, all without requiring an internet connection.”

Duolingo

One of the most comprehensive and best-rated language-learning apps out there, Duolingo's makers claim 34 hours on the app “are equivalent to a semester of university-level education”.

Grammar, vocab and phrases are organized into different topics which you work through in small, bite-sized lessons. It evolves as you go so that you'll be tested on the topics you struggle with most. The only downside is that you can't pick and choose specific topics to learn, but have to unlock them in the correct order.

“Amazing! Duolingo is really easy and fun and really does a great job of teaching the language you have chosen!! Its cool that you get 'gems' when you finish a topic and can spend it in the store to get icons or clothes for the Duolingo bird!” writes user Hannah Bottomley.

And the ones that aren't free:

FluentU

This one's a bit different (and only free for the first 15 days). It focuses on video-based learning, meaning that you get to check out real French clips from around the internet and get tested on them afterwards. 

“I really really like the fact that the videos are real authentic videos. It makes it much more interesting. Learning… almost becomes an afterthought to the fact that you are watching cool videos,” one user called Niel said. 

Learn French – Speak French

The app's creators promise that learning French is “easier than you think”, and its 50 million users worldwide seem to agree, judging by its positive reviews.

It's aimed at those who want to develop a comprehensive understanding of French, with vocabulary and grammar units, audio dialogues and language games – you can even send exercises to a native speaker for feedback.

“Awesome! I studied French as a subject but I found this app worth a dozen books,” user Waqar Rizvi said in a Play Store critique.

Only the first lesson is free, with subscriptions starting at around €12 for a month. 

Busuu

And lastly, this app, which costs around €10 a month, allows you to interact with real-life French people so you can learn French like real life.

Plenty of speaking practice on hand here, enough that the app promises you can “learn French in only ten minutes per day”.

“Don't just learn languages, fall in love with them,” says the team, adding that it has 60 million members. 
 
The app was rated by Apple as one of the “Best Apps” in 2014.
 
 
For members

LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.

Masculine

Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty

Feminine

Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 

Plural

And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  

Islands 

Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.

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