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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

The eight best ways to learn French without taking classes (according to a teacher)

When learning French, classes and the individual attention of a teacher is the best route, but this can be very pricey. Alexandra Jones, a language teacher based in Paris, lays out some alternative routes to fluency.

The eight best ways to learn French without taking classes (according to a teacher)
Language classes in France can be expensive. Photo LillGraphie/Depositphotos

Whether you're learning French because of your job, partner or your love for France, there are many tips that will help you get fluent without taking classes. Here are eight of the best:

1. French films and TV series

As French cinema plays such an important cultural role in France, it shouldn’t be difficult for you to find something that takes your fancy or suits your own personal interests. Films are a great way of listening to how French speakers pronounce their words and articulate sentences, without the added pressure of actually having to converse with a native speaker. If you already have some familiarity with the language, then try watching with French subtitles. This way you can read what you hear and increase your chances of retaining new vocabulary.

READ ALSO 10 films that show French arthouse cinema is not just for movie geeks


French cinema is very varied and a great language-learning tool. Photo: AFP

2. YouTube

If the idea of committing to a full length film or series is too daunting or you simply don’t have time, YouTube videos are perfect. Short video clips talking about your interests are just as effective in developing comprehension and vocabulary skills. The search bar on YouTube is endless so there is certainly something for everyone. If you like cooking then find a French YouTuber who gives tutorials on a recipe you would like to try. Travel, music, make-up, yoga, fashion, gaming, history, politics, comedy – it’s all there. 

3. News Articles

To practice reading comprehension skills and to learn new vocabulary, try reading French journalism. Not only will this help to develop your language competency, but it will help you to gain a new perspective on what's going on in France. Start off with shorter articles via online newspapers like Le Monde, 20 minutes or Courrier International.

READ ALSO Ten free and easy ways to learn French

4. Language exchange

A good way to put your grammar, vocabulary and comprehension skills into practice (in an authentic way) is to practice with a native or fluent French speaker. Many French people are very keen to learn English too, so a language exchange could be an ideal way to benefit both partners. The good thing about doing an organised exchange is that you don’t need to worry about the other person becoming impatient when you make mistakes as they are in exactly the same position. Searching online and via social media is the easiest way to find a language exchange partner. 

5. Talk to yourself

It might sound strange but speaking aloud can really help your general fluency as when we talk to ourselves we are not worried about making mistakes and sounding stupid. 

READ ALSO How I learned cold-callers and lovelorn French farmers to learn the language

6. Write a journal

Try keeping a diary or journal and write it in French. You could do a daily, weekly or even monthly journal entry about anything that you may have floating around in your head. This can be focused around what you have been doing in life or how you have been feeling. There really are no limits as the intention is that only you will read it.

7. Keep a vocabulary book

It may sound obvious but a good way to expand your linguistic repertoire is to note down new vocabulary as soon as you read or hear it. Keep a small notebook in your bag and write down any new vocabulary. Return to your vocabulary book at the end of each week to make sure you have memorised the new words and phrases. 

READ ALSO Top 12 French phrases they don't teach you in school

8. Grammar book

French grammar is not easy – even French children have to learn how to conjugate from a young age at school. So obtaining a French grammar book is advised. A good book to start with is Bescherelle: la conjugation pour tous. It includes everything you need to know about French tenses and verbs with a clear and comprehensive guide to conjugations. If you don’t find grammar to be the most interesting part of learning French (and who does?) designate grammar practice to those times when you are feeling most energised and determined in your French development. Prioritise your time wisely.

Alexandra Jones is based in Paris where she works as a language teacher. 

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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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