Are you tuned to the right French frequency?
Let’s try asking that question a different way.
Don’t you just hate it when you’ve been practicing your French for hours on end but then someone says, “Comment ça va ?” (How are you?) and you completely freeze, racking your brain for the simplest of answers?
It happens to all of us—we think we’ve been studying the right words and phrases but they just don’t hold up in the real world.
We arrive at the bank or the grocery store clueless.
We can’t engage a stranger in conversation to save our lives.
If this has been happening to you, the problem is that you’ve been prioritizing the wrong words.
What you need is a French frequency list!
Why You Need a French Frequency List
French frequency lists are a great way to learn the essentials from the very beginning.
They are, essentially, lists of the most commonly used words in the language. They’re much more than simple vocabulary lists, they’re comprehensive guides that include all parts of speech.
It just makes sense to learn the words that will be most useful to you in everyday life before anything else. With a practical list of French words, you’ll be able to apply them immediately rather than trying to remember them for ages before getting to make use of them.
This will help you memorize words faster as well, since using words on a daily basis is the best way to commit them to memory.
You can also use French frequency lists to maximize your learning with FluentU. FluentU’s spaced repetition system already makes its quizzes based on real-world videos—like movie trailers and music videos—super-efficient, but having a list of the most frequently used French words you don’t know gives you the option to personalize your lessons even further, while simultaneously ensuring that filling in those essential gaps in your French education isn’t a rote-learning snoozefest.
Doing this is really simple: If you haven’t already, sign up for FluentU’s Plus plan. Then, go to “My Content,” select “Flashcards,” and click on “New Flashcard Set.” Give the set a name like “Frequent French Words” and click “Create flashcard set.” Then click the “New Words” button, enter (or copy and paste) all the words from a frequency list that you haven’t learned yet, and you’ll immediately get multimedia flashcards with video clips from all over the site for a completely personalized study kit.
Whenever you have a moment to learn, this will ensure that you’re doing so at your maximum potential.
Whether you’re a beginner and in need of all the top French words or an intermediate-advanced student looking to fill in the gaps, I recommend the following five online resources, each well-suited to optimal learning.
As a bonus, they’re all completely free!
French’s Greatest Hits: The 5 Hottest French Frequency Lists
Lexique 3 is a French database that was developed by L’Université Savoie Mont Blanc, a large university in France’s Savoy region.
This database contains 135,000 French words and provides a number of details to go along with each entry. For example, they note each word’s syllables, frequency as compared with a group of 15 million words, phonemes, letters, phonology and much more.
This is the most in-depth and the largest word database of all that I’ll recommend in this article and it will be useful if you really want explanations and further data to accompany your frequency list.
When using Lexique 3, simply choose from a number of downloadable reports. Each report uses data taken from a different source such as movie subtitles, books or web pages.
They also offer plenty of information on their research methods and summaries of their findings, if that interests you.
The lists themselves come with a guide to reading them, but to give you an idea, the column titled “nblettres” stands for le nombre de lettres (the number of letters in the word) and the column titled “freqlivres” stands for la fréquence dans les livres (the number of times the word shows up in books).
Once you get the hang of the charts, it’s pretty easy from there. As a bonus, you have the option to type any word you want into the database and be shown all of the research compiled on it.
The Lexiteria is actually a company that creates word lists for other businesses. However, they’ve made one very useful French frequency list available to the public.
Their list contains the top 200 French words that came up in their research of French web pages. If you want the longer version (with over 423,000 words), you have to pay for it.
Their chart is broken down into rank, word, part of speech, how many times the word showed up in their research, how frequent the word is per million words and the number of letters in the word.
The list contains everything from commonly used prepositions and pronouns to important vocabulary words.
AnkiWeb is a website for constructing flashcards and one of my favorite places for a French frequency list.
Aside from using the format of flashcards, the main thing that sets them apart from the previous two databases is that they include the English translation with each word, so you don’t have to waste time looking it up.
Their flashcards include 5,000 commonly used French words and are accompanied by all sorts of information.
For example, not only will you see the part of speech, rank and frequency, but you’ll also get loads of example sentences in both English and French, as well as audio recordings of both the French words and example sentences.
AnkiWeb is a fantastic resource for learners. After downloading the flashcards, you’ll be able to make personal changes to them if you want, adding helpful notes, flagging any words that you struggle with and changing how many details you want to be presented on each card.
In order to download these flashcards, you’ll need to download the Anki program first, which is easy to do and completely free.
This list was compiled by several professors at Brigham Young University with the goal of allowing language learners to have access to a frequency list that was easier to navigate.
The list has been published as a PDF and contains a useful introduction on how to approach the guide.
The data has been collected from both written and spoken resources and contains a list of 5,000 useful French words.
My favorite thing about this list is that it has been organized in several different ways, making it really easy to find what you’re looking for. You can search by frequency, alphabetically or by themes like animals, transportation or verbs of communication.
Additionally, there are tons of example sentences included that learners will find very helpful.
This frequency list is one of the easiest to read, as rather than giving you tables with tons of abbreviations, they simply write their entries exactly as you’d expect to find them in a dictionary, with English translations of both the words and example sentences.
This website is actually run by Le Ministère de l’Éducation Nationale (the National Ministry of French Education) and contains lists of the 1,500 most frequently used words.
As it’s a French site, English definitions aren’t provided, but the lists are still quite helpful for knowing exactly what you should be studying.
Each available list contains the same information but is organized differently. For example, one list contains the 1,500 words in alphabetical order and another displays them in order of their frequency.
The lists are available to be downloaded as Excel spreadsheets, PDFs or Open Office documents and each contains additional information on the words such as part of speech, frequency, etc.
Now that you have some great resources to get you started, try to master the most commonly used words on the lists above before moving on to the rest.
Hopefully, the next time you’re asked a simple question in French, you can answer with:
“Je vais très bien et maintenant, je suis un pro au français !” (I’m doing very well and now, I’m a pro at French!)
Camille Turner is an experienced freelance writer and ESL teacher.
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