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Books to help improve your French

Reading is one of the easiest ways to extend your vocabulary in French

Reading in French means you can learn at your own pace Pic: Song_about_summer / Shutterstock

Reading is one of the easiest ways to improve your language skills because you can take it at your own pace. 

People will often find that they can understand more when reading in French than if they were listening to the same passage on TV or in conversation. 

You have more time to consider the context and look up words you don’t recognise, meaning you can often get a fuller picture of what the article or book is about. 

The beauty of reading in another language is that it will always be productive in some shape or form, even if you finish the book with simply a better understanding of sentence structure or with a few new words of vocabulary. 

French Grammar and Usage by Roger Hawkins and Richard Towell

To start, this book provides a very accessible background to French grammar - which can often seem daunting to language learners. 

The textbook forms part of the Routledge Reference Grammar series and I have found it to be the most useful and comprehensive explanation of French grammar. 

It is divided into chapters and sub-chapters, and starts with simple explanations about types of nouns and progresses to more complex grammar points such as relative clauses and conjunctions. 

The contents are clearly labelled so you can quickly identify the section you are looking for making it easy to use. 

You can also find its sister book, Practising French Grammar, where you can practise exercises at the end of each chapter.

French translations 

Reading French translations of your favourite books is another great way to ease yourself into the language. 

Many British and American bestsellers have been translated into French and can be found easily online or in bookshops in France. 

By reading texts you are already familiar with, you can compare languages and understand how certain phrases are translated into French. 

It is also interesting to compare translations to the original, as often the translators will make small cultural changes to relate to the new audience, or even omit certain details if it does not fit with the culture in France. 

Most classics can be found translated as well as the Harry Potter books, which were just as eagerly anticipated in France as in the UK. 

Poetry

If you want to dip in and out, poetry is a good option and those by Jacques Prévert are a great starting point. 

The 20th-century poet used simple language to evoke la vie quotidienne (everyday life) and his work is popular in French schools. 

He published six books over 30 years: Paroles (Words); Spectacle; La Pluie et le beau temps (Rain and good weather); Histoires (Stories); Fatras; and Choses et autres (Things and others) and these can often be found second hand online for a couple of euros. 

His poem, ‘Dejeuner du matin’ is used in classrooms around the world as a gentle introduction to French poetry for anglophone students. 

See also: Five Netflix TV shows to help improve your French

Short stories

A whole book can seem daunting at first, so short stories can be a good way to boost your confidence in reading French.

If you enjoyed Lupin on Netflix, you will be pleased to hear there is a series of short stories by the original author of the Arsene Lupin novels, Maurice Leblanc, called ‘Les aventures extraordinaires d'Arsène Lupin’. 

Like with poetry, short stories allow you to dip in and out and mean you can read them again if you feel you need to cement your understanding of the story. 

Fairytales that you may have originally read in English are also a good tool for improving your French without having to invest too heavily in a storyline.  

Famous examples of French fairytales include Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables which can be found in the book,  ‘Les plus belles fables de La Fontaine’.

Novels 

When you want to progress to French novels, the world is your oyster. There are millions of texts published in the livre de poche format (pocket book) meaning you can slip them into your bag to read as you are on the move. 

It can be a process of trial and error to find authors and styles you like, but the good thing about reading in French is you can always take away something from the book, even if you haven’t necessarily enjoyed it. 

La fille qui lisait dans le metro (The girl who reads on the metro) by Christine Féret-Fleury is a nice short novel that seems an apt place to start, given it revolves around the importance of finding the right book at the right time. 

For classics, L'Étranger by Albert Camus uses simple language, while texts such as La Seine était rouge provide an insight into the situation in France that was for years covered up by the state. 

Le Petit Prince is also charming and not hard to read. Another fun classic is Candide by Voltaire, and Molière is also fairly accessible (and quite funny), such as Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

Modern texts such as Leila Slimani’s Chanson Douce, which won the Goncourt prize in 2016, are great for more confident learners who want to challenge their reading skills. 

If you are interested in crime novels, France is a master of the genre; Belgian writer George Simenon penned 75 books revolving around detective Jules Maigret - which were then adapted into a TV series.  

Meanwhile, others like La Fée Carabine offer both a juicy story and a portrait of society in 1980s Paris. 

Science fiction books of Bernard Werber can also be for an enjoyable read, such as les Thanatonautes.

Do you have any French books to add to our list and/or to recommend? Let us know at news@connexionfrance.com. Thank you!

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