As you browse for a French-English dictionary, keep in mind a certain foolish, rich old Roman.
In one of his famous letters, Seneca describes a very eccentric and wealthy Roman who’d go to great lengths to impress his friends. Since his memory was poor, he’d have his servants memorize entire books and stand close by during large dinner parties.
When an interesting topic came up, he’d ask the table to be quiet and order one of his servants to whisper some witty quote from the book most closely related to the conversation. Then he’d repeat that information to the table as if it was from his own memory… even though everyone knew it most certainly wasn’t.
Ridiculous concept, right?
On the one hand, it’s almost laughable to imagine someone jumping through so many hoops just to seem a bit smarter. On the other hand, you could make the argument that this crafty Roman just created an ancient form of “Google.” An in-depth, highly personalized reference source that’s always at hand.
But what does this have to do with dictionaries for French learners?
You need to remember that dictionaries—or any reference source—should be used as an aid, not a crutch in your French learning. The last thing you want to do is develop the habit of constantly asking your source to come over and whisper in your ear.
So we’ve picked out the most useful French-English dictionaries that won’t just help you memorize and spit out word definitions. They’ll help you truly understand what French words mean and grow your vocabulary sustainably.
From old-school, highly respected dictionaries to innovative dictionary apps, there’s something here for every type of learner.
How Often Should You Use Your French-English Dictionary?
One of the main benefits of using a French-English dictionary is obvious: building vocabulary. Dictionaries should be a staple feature at your study table when you’re reading French texts or listening to French being spoken in movies, TV or podcasts—pretty much anything you can pause. Most dictionaries provide nuanced definitions, example sentences and, often, give you related words with a similar meaning.
That said, like we hinted above, you should be picky with what words you choose to look up.
Many new French learners (myself included) have fallen into the terrible trap of looking up every single unfamiliar word. This will eat a significant chunk of your study time, and chances are that you won’t even remember all the words you’re looking up—or even worse, you’ll rarely run across them again. This happened to me when I learned the word rébarbatif (“off putting” or “boring”).
To this day, I haven’t seen that word again and most French natives don’t even know it exists. They also find me rébarbatif when I teach them what it means.
So what’s an eager French learner to do to build vocabulary? Easy! Get good at figuring out what kinds of words are important to look up and which kinds of words can be skipped.
For that, I have two simple rules: prepositions and repetitions.
- Prepositions are pesky for all French learners. They often carry a wide variety of meanings and have few logical usage rules. For example, de can be translated as “of,” “by,” “for” or “from.” So take these two sentences: je viens de Californie (I come from California) and C’est la voiture de mon ami (It’s my friend’s car — Literally, “it’s the car of my friend”).
Both use the preposition de in a totally different way. Confusing, right? Fortunately, your dictionary can help with this!
Most dictionaries come with multiple definitions of a word along with nuanced examples to provide clear context (all the dictionaries in this article give you both!). I always recommend that whenever you come across an unfamiliar preposition in your reading, look it up.
The cool thing is that you won’t need to do this for the rest of your life. After just a few short weeks of constantly looking up prepositions in your dictionary, they’ll just come naturally! Those few weeks may be tedious, but they can save you a lifetime of mistakes in the future!
- Repetitions are clues to important words for the specific French content you’re using. You should look up a word if it pops up multiple times and you’re unclear what it means.
By focusing on repeated words, you’re ensuring that the words you look up will help you understand the overall meaning of your French text or audio. These are the “key words” that’ll help boost your comprehension.
The 4 Best French-English Dictionaries for Learning, Not Just Memorizing
Old School: “Collins Robert French Dictionary”
Grab a pen, some paper and get ready for that surprisingly satisfying smell that you only find from books. Though it may seem outdated to carry a heavy, bulky dictionary around with you, there are some huge advantages to going “old school.”
First, let’s talk about the book itself. The Collins Robert is an incredibly comprehensive French-English dictionary. It has loads of contextual detail for each word, and has a reputation for being reliable for even the most serious of French learners.
One added bonus is that the Collins Robert has a lot of sentences/phrases so you know that you’re getting the nuanced definition of a word, rather than just one core idea (like you’d find from Google Translate, for instance).
But why go analog in a digital world? Won’t that be kind of annoying and tedious?
In short, yes—which is exactly why you should do it. When you’re forced to flip through pages and search for a word (rather than having it spoon fed to you), looking up vocabulary becomes a bit of a hassle. That means that your brain is more motivated to retain the information so you don’t have to constantly re-look up the word. It really does pay off in the long run.
New School: Linguee
Linguee is a bit more controversial and I’ve met several people who don’t like it (though I’ve yet to hear a compelling reason why). However, it’s my absolute favorite when I am working online.
A lot of digital dictionaries provide a basic definition and a bit of context—if you’re lucky. Linguee, on the other hand, gives the main definition, plus less common definitions, plus an extraordinary amount of context.
After the definitions, you have two columns: French and English. But these aren’t word-to-word translations. These are actual French sentences and phrases found from online sources with reliable English translations. That means that you get to see whatever word you’re looking up in action. You can read through the sample phrases to make sure you’re getting the exact definition you’re looking for.
After all, we all know that language lives, breathes and evolves. Linguee helps you keep up with all those little changes.
Finally, Linguee provides you with differences in vocabulary that you may not have even known existed. For example, if you look up tromper (mislead/deceive), you’ll also see se tromper (be wrong/make a mistake). These small but mighty differences are key to building native-level fluency and Linguee is remarkably good at preparing you for these types of distinctions.
Newer School: Ascendo App (iOS, Android)
This is for all you smartphone lovers out there. Ascendo App is a great tool to add to your smartphone. Though there are many French-English dictionary apps out there, Ascendo is one of the newer ones.
It also comes with some pretty neat features like a translator, a phrasebook and a verb conjugator (that last one is gold!). Basically, it’s the Swiss army knife of French-English dictionaries.
The added benefit of having it on your phone is that you can carry it with you everywhere. That means all your downtime can easily become study time!
The app is totally free but you can opt to pay for add-ons, such as an extended phrasebook. Like most apps, the paid version is way more comprehensive but the free version is pretty great, too.
Newest School: FluentU (Web, iOS and Android)
Reading example sentences can only get you so far. FluentU is a uniquely helpful French-English resource because it fills in the contextual gaps that conventional dictionaries don’t provide.
Put simply, you’ll learn new French words the way native speakers actually use them in real life.
Just type a word into the FluentU search box and you’ll see real French videos that have the word. You can immediately click the Dialogue tab to see a full transcript from the video alongside a professional English translation, to learn the word’s meaning in context. But you can also watch the video, where you’ll get interactive subtitles to learn the word you searched (or any other!).
Click any word in the subtitles for an instant definition, translation, memorable picture and examples. FluentU will also point you to other videos that have the word so you can understand how to use it in any context.
This video component is awesome! Rather than just memorizing a definition, you’ll learn how words are pronounced and used in real-world French conversations.
FluentU is great for general vocabulary building too, not just searching individual words. There are hundreds of French videos available, all categorized by genre and level, so it’s easy to find the ones that are most useful and interesting to you. It doesn’t even feel like studying.
No matter what your strategy is for building vocabulary, using a dictionary to learn a language isn’t just a great option—it’s practically a necessity. And, honestly, with any one of these four French-English dictionaries, you’ll be well on your way to building your vocabulary in no time. Just remember: make sure they’re helping your knowledge, not hurting it.
Finally, no matter which French-English dictionary you end up sticking with, you should definitely try the old school method at least once—even if it’s a bit rébarbatif.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.