Thirteen free and easy ways to learn French

Struggling to learn French? Not everyone can go back to college or afford private tutors. So with the help of our readers and an author who's written a book on the subject, here are some free and easy ways to help you conquer French.

Thirteen free and easy ways to learn French
Photo: Runs With Scissors/Flickr

1. Pillow talk

Photo: Henrik Berger Jorgensen/Flickr

Improving your understanding of irregular verbs is usually the furthest thing from your mind when lying in bed with your French lover. However, some expats have found that exchanging sweet nothings can be a great way to pick up a phrase here and there. “Seriously, nothing focuses your mind quite like sex, and later on, you’ll find you were really paying attention to every word,” says American burlesque dancer Brian Scott Bagley.

2. Listen and repeat

Your best, most easily-available French teachers are the French. So when they speak, mimic all their little phrases. “There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when trying to express yourself,” says English blogger Victoria Wall. “If you say ‘merci’ and a French person replies ‘Je vous en prie,’ then say that next time for ‘You’re welcome.’ No need to scratch your head and blurt out ‘Vous..etes..bienvenue’ – the French have already figured it out, so just repeat after them.”

3. Get smarter with your smartphone

These days there's an app for everything, including learning French. Several of them actually. The benefits are that many of the apps feel more like games, you can learn on the go or whenever you have a spare minute, and many of them are free or very cheap. Try checking out Duolingo to start, and see our list of top smartphone apps for learning French.

4. Turn subtitles on

Photo: Gomazio ASBL/Youtube

Watching French movies with French subtitles on can be a huge boost to your understanding of the language. If reading French is your forté, then hearing the words spoken alongside the text will vastly improve your ear. And if you hear and understand the sounds and phrases of French just fine, then having it written down will help you link the two together. And of course, you can watch your favourite English-language films with French subtitles too.

5. Listen to the news

You can keep yourself up to date on current events and learn French at the same time just by listening to some French radio in the morning. If you find that they speak too quickly for you to understand, try the News in Slow French, a weekly news roundup that you can listen to in slowly-spoken French. A surefire way to get your comprehension skills up to speed.

6. Go back to your childhood roots

Several French-speakers who taught themselves recommended this one. Watch cartoons on TV, read children’s books, and don’t be ashamed to enjoy it. “The French is at a beginner’s level, it’s very easy to pick up, and the TV shows especially are full of little word games that will really help. And it’s fun!” says Brian Scott Bagley.

7. Play

Photo: The Local

Learning a language cannot be all work and no play or you will soon lose interest. “Do crossword puzzles in French or play scrabble or learn the words to your favourite French songs,” says Lynn McBride.

8. Phrase of the day

“I put French phrases on my calendar so I can learn one each day,” says Lynn McBride. “I will try to learn and use that phrase during the day.” This tip requires a bit of discipline, organization and a decent-sized calendar. Although it may not sound like much, if you really learn the phrase each day you will soon find it easier to pick up and use other words and expressions.

9. Turn GPS to French

Photo: Cheon Fong Liew/Flickr

Driving in France might be daunting enough without having your GPS barking orders at you to “tournez à gauche” or continue “tout droit” at the “rond-point”. Nevertheless, asking your GPS guide to speak to you in French instead of English is a handy way of forcing yourself to hear and understand the language you are trying to learn, says author Lynn McBride. Just give a little bit of extra driving time to cover for getting lost.

10. Get sporty

Not on your own of course, and not just with expats. The French love their sport and there are thousands of local clubs up and down the country that cater for everything from running to rugby and probably darts too. Join up. “You just have to throw yourself in at the deep-end. I joined a local rugby club, which helped a lot. You socialize and mix with the locals,” reader Nick Ord says.

11. Cooking

Combining work and pleasure is always the best way to learn. If you enjoy cooking then force yourself to ditch your Jamie Oliver English cook book and opt for Raymond Blanc’s recipes instead – in French of course. Not only will you learn plenty of names for ingredients, but there’ll be plenty of useful verbs in there too and you might just become a Michelin star chef in the process.

12. Talk to yourself

This might sound a strange tip and it might raise a few eyebrows from other patrons in the café you're in, but Lynn McBride says “you’ll come up with lots of phrases and words that you don’t know and will then want to look up.” If you get bored of talking to yourself you can always do a little bit of role play with your alter ego – the moody French waiter, your French boss at work or even the French man or woman of your dreams… but maybe not in public.

13. YouTube tutorials 

There are so many of them you can get lost. But just do one a day for the rest of your days and you'll improve your French to a point where you can start doing your own YouTube tutorials.

A previous version of this article was published in 2013. But seeming as though we are all still struggling with French we decided to publish an updated version.


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Puns, sex and urban legends: How English movie titles are translated into French

If you've ever browsed French cinema listings or Netflix, you will instantly notice that the titles of English-language movies often have quite unexpected translations.

Puns, sex and urban legends: How English movie titles are translated into French

It is of course completely normal for the titles of books, films, TV series and other artworks to be translated in a non-literal way – usually the translator will try and get something that conveys the sense and message of the artwork, rather than going for a word-for-word translation.

But from concepts that get lost in translation to untranslatable puns and – of course – the French fondness for English phrases, some titles may surprise you. 

The untranslatable ones

Some concepts just don’t cross international borders.

Groundhog DayUn jour sans fin (an endless day) – Groundhog day in the US and Canada is a festival celebrated on February 2nd that is said to predict spring weather.

The festival doesn’t exist in France, or in the UK come to that, but while British audiences just had to accept a film with a weird title, in France it was translated as ‘an endless day’, which more accurately describes what the film is all about.  

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking BarrelsArnaques, Crimes et Botanique (scams, crimes and botanicals) – the film’s English title is a pun on the phrase ‘lock, stock and barrel’ which means complete, with ‘smoking barrels’ as a nod to the gun storyline.

Puns are pretty hard to translate in general, but a mixture of two puns obviously had the French translators reaching for the white flag. Instead they’re gone for a three-word list that offers a pretty fair overall summary of what the film is all about. 

The Shawshank RedemptionLes Évadés (The Escaped) – Frank Darabont’s slow-burn classic prison drama based on Stephen King’s short story couldn’t really translate into French, so you can’t blame them for not trying. Instead, they kept it simple.

Home AloneMaman, j’ai raté l’avion (Mummy I missed the plane) – another example of deciding not to bother trying to translate a phrase and just giving a straightforward description of what the film is about comes from Home Alone.

Con airLes ailes de l’enfer (the wings of hell) – the 1997 US film centres on a prison break aboard the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System aircraft, nicknamed ‘con air’, with ‘con’ the English abbreviation for convict (prisoner). Not having an exact French-language equivalent, the translators went for the frankly much more poetic ‘the wings of hell’.

Die HardPiège de cristal (The Crystal Trap) – Bruce Willis’s famously festive film gets a completely different name in French – and Spanish and Italian, come to that.

It gave French distributors a bit of a problem when the sequels came out, but they solved it by ignoring any links between the first film and those that followed completely. Die Hard 2: Die Harder translated to 58 Minutes Pour Vivre (58 Minutes to Live), while Die Hard with a Vengeance – which, in English, also pretty much glossed over Die Hard 2 for aesthetic reasons –  became Une journée en enfer (A Day in Hell)

The totally different 

TwilightLe saga du désir interdit (the story of forbidden desire) – Stephanie Meyer’s series of teen vampire romance novels, later turned into a film franchise, appeared in the English-speaking world with the series name ‘twilight’.

A French translation of this time of day of course exists (crépuscule) but instead French translators decided to spell out the theme of the series – forbidden desire. The books appeared in France under the titles of Fascination (fascination) Tentation (temptation) Hésitation (hesitation) Révélation (revelation) L’Appel du sang (the call of blood) and Midnight Sun.

The A TeamL’agence tous risques (the risk-all agency) – similarly with The A Team, French film distributors apparently decided that audiences needed to be clearly informed of the premise – a group of agents who would take on any mission, even the most risky.

Airplane!Y a-t-il un pilote dans l’avion? (Is there a pilot on the plane?) – they kept the name of the 1980 disaster movie spoof, surely? No, the French decided to rename that, too  … and don’t call me Shirley.

The improvements

No time to dieMourir peut attendre (death can wait) – if you didn’t know better you might assume that the cool, classy ‘death can wait’ was the original title of the latest James Bond film and ‘no time to die’ the awkward translation. In fact, it was the other way round.  

JawsLes dents de la mer (the sea’s teeth) – the title of the Spielberg movie in English just refers to the shark, but the title in French refers to both the shark itself and the greater sense of the unknown dangers of the deep. 

The weird and/or sexist  

Mean GirlsLolita malgré moi (Lolita despite myself) – French schoolgirls are mean, bitchy and cliquey too, so there are plenty of options in French for a near-literal translation of the title of high-school drama Mean Girls.

Instead the translator went for the fairly problematic option of ‘Lolita despite myself’ – by which we can assume he never read Nabakov’s classic novel (first published in France, incidentally) telling the story of the paedophile Humbert Humbert and his victim Lolita.

Little WomenLes 4 filles du docteur March (the four daughters of Dr March) – it’s a film (based on a book) entirely about the lives of women, the four March sisters and their mother. Dr March barely features (because he’s away fighting in the American Civil War) but that doesn’t stop the French version from deciding that it’s all about him.  

The inexplicably sexy ones 

Sometimes English language movie titles remain in English but with different titles – for example The Hangover in France is Very Bad Trip. But there is also a distinct trend to just add the word ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ to an English language title to, well, sex it up a bit . . .

Not Another Scary Movie – Sex Academy 

Out Cold – Snow, Sex and Sun

Wild Things – Sex Crimes

Euro Trip – Sex Trip

The English titles for French films

With all the effort that goes into translating English titles into French, you might get a surprise when you start viewing something with an English title, only to find that it’s as French as a snail-filled baguette.

Family Business – the Netflix series about a Paris family who get drawn into international drug smuggling is smart, funny and completely French – it just has an English title.

LOL – although there is an American remake of the teen film LOL, the French version (starring Sophie Marceau) came first.

In France people use the acronym MDR (mort de rire or died laughing) in text speak, but the filmmakers obviously reckoned that the English acronym was well enough known for the title.

The film is entirely in French, with only a very brief foray into English when the characters go on a school trip to London (and experience rain and horrible food, naturally).

MILF – the American acronym MILF (Mom I’d like to F**k) really hit the mainstream thanks to the 2003 film American Pie and by 2018 French film-makers were confident that it was well enough known even in France to use as the title of a French movie.

The film depicts three older women who take a road trip to try and rediscover their youth and friendship – no prizes for guessing what they end up doing.

We asked our French friends if there is a French equivalent of MILF and no-one could suggest one. 


For all that French cinema distributors are happy to have the odd partially or wholly English title, strict language rules in French-speaking Canada mean that movies there often have completely different titles.

For example American Pie – released under its English name in France – became Folies de graduation (graduation madness) in Quebec, while Ghost also kept its original title in France but was released as Mon Fantôme d’amour (My ghost love) in Quebec.

. . . and the myth

There’s an urban legend that The Matrix appeared in France as Les jeunes qui traversent des dimensions en portant des lunettes de soleil (young people who travel in dimensions while wearing sunglasses) but in fact the film appeared in France as Matrix, although it was La Matrice in Quebec.