The best books to learn French

Learning French is important – we have argued this in numerous articles on the subject. But have you forgotten the good old-fashioned book?

Not the Bible, although it is a bestseller now available in audiobook form. The road towards fluency doesn’t have to be about textbooks and grammar rules, a good novel can easily do the trick.

Books of all shapes and sizes are a fantastic way to improve your level of French, but are sadly still a neglected way of learning a foreign language. Most learners are often disheartened to start a 300-page novel – after all, who wouldn’t be? But not all books are boring, far from it.

Without further ado, Gymglish has selected a list of 5 page-turners we deem to be essential to learning French.

1) Vingt mille lieues sous les mers by Jules Verne

If there were no thunder, men would have little fear of lightning.” Also known as “Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” to Anglophones, this 256-page book is a fantastic read for any beginner in French. Published in 1870, it tells the story of three accidental visitors to an underwater world hosted by the mysterious Captain Nemo and his submarine Nautilus. Together, they travel through all of the world’s oceans, a total of 43,200 miles, or 20,000 leagues. The book is filled with nautical terms from the late 19th century, so we suggest you skip over these archaic words and simply enjoy the excitement of the adventure. An interesting fact about this book: it’s the fifth most translated book in history.

For which level? Vingt mille lieues sous les mers is fit for upper beginner to lower intermediate learners of French. However, bear in mind a dictionary is recommended to follow the story. And if you get stuck, you can always buy the English translation to help you.

If you’re looking for more recommendations of French books for beginners, we’ve got you covered!

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2) The Roald Dahl box set

Who would have thought that translations of English books could be so useful? The fact is, Roald Dahl translations are very accurate and will help you passively absorb French grammar and idioms. We do find that re-discovering the French versions of books you have loved during your childhood is a very useful way of learning new vocabulary. Short, easy-to-read books such as Charlie et la Chocolaterie (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Le Bon Gros Géant (The BFG) and even James et la Grosse Pêche (James and the Giant Peach) will have you enter the magical world of Dahl’s imagination and learn new vocabulary in no time. You’ll find that if you start reading books you’ve already read in English, you’ll already know the storyline and therefore you’ll only need to look up some vocabulary or idioms here and there.

For which level? Whether you’re a beginner learner of French or have a more advanced level, you are bound to find at least one out of his 48 published books that matches your level of French.

3) L’Élégance du Hérisson by Muriel Barbery

A French bestseller that achieved critical acclaim, L’Elégance du Hérisson (“The Elegance of the Hedgehog”) revolves around the stories of its two women narrators: Renée Michel, a dowdy, 50-something concierge living in an upscale apartment at 7, rue de Grenelle in Paris and Paloma Josse, a precocious 12-year-old, daughter of one of the most bourgeois families in the house. Don’t worry, we won’t be giving anything away, just wait until the last 50 pages kick in. Muriel Barbery uses an extensive and beautiful vocabulary and we found it’s a great tool to learn new vocabulary and grammar points, such as relative pronouns or descriptive adjectives. What’s more, the novel is filled with French cultural references.

For which level? Intermediate to more advanced learners of French will come to love this book. Some readers say it’s the most quotable book they have ever read. Up to you to find out if it matches the hype.

4) Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

If you want to move away from the standard novel, this childhood classic is the perfect way to go – a timeless charm if you ask us – and its millions of satisfied readers. The 96-page novel tells the story of a pilot who, after crashing his plane in the Sahara, meets a young boy known to readers as the Little Prince. While the text might sound easy (and the illustrations do help), the subtext is much more complex and rich – you’ll definitely need to read between the lines. Furthermore, reading such a book will improve your French comprehension. Some say you should read it three times to grasp the subtleties of the story: as a child, as a young adult and as an older adult. Did you know the book was even translated into Esperanto?

For which level? This book can be enjoyed time and time again by intermediate learners of French. The story is short, but do bear in mind there might be some challenging vocabulary and you might find it difficult to understand some tenses.

5) Que serais-je sans toi ? by Guillaume Musso

Want to fully immerse yourself in French culture? In that case, Guillaume Musso is someone you should know about. He has sold over 11 million copies of his novels worldwide, and chances are you’ll find bilingual versions of his bestselling books. Que serais-je sans toi ? is a romantic thriller that explores how Parisian cop Martin Beaumont attempts to track down one of the world’s greatest art thieves, Archibald Maclean, and heads to San Francisco – back into the arms of his first love, Gabrielle. This love story blends emotion, suspense and the supernatural. The book is easy to follow vocabulary-wise even though the storyline is somehow predictable.

For which level? We would suggest this novel for intermediate to advanced learners of French. If you find the storyline too complicated, an audiobook may save you.

If you think even the best books won’t be sufficient to learn French – or that it’s OK to judge a book by its cover – try our online French course Frantastique.

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