There’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s.
There’s no wrong way to dance.
And there’s no wrong way to doodle.
But is there a wrong way to read a French novel?
Well, some ways are definitely better than others.
Here’s the thing: If you want to get lost in a good book while greatly improving your French at the same time, there are some valuable tips you’ll want to use.
These tips will cast a spell on you, getting you absorbed in a whirlwind of new French vocabulary and page-turning storytelling.
But first things first—how do you choose a book to read?
How to Choose Your Novel for Smooth Reading in French
Grab a newsstand novel that the French love
It might sound obvious, but a hardcover treasury of Victor Hugo’s classics is probably going to be fairly taxing on your back if you’re carrying it around in your bag all the time.
The smart choice would be a short book that you can slip into any bag or even your pocket. Books sold on newsstands are often version poche (pocket edition) publications—books you’ll be twice as likely to bother taking out and about with you. They keep you captivated from the first page to the last with plot lines that cater to everyone, as they’re made for the mass market.
Most newsstand books are thrillers with some romantic interest. The language of these books is very current and common, which will help you to pick up words and phrases better than slogging through a classic. One of the best things about a newsstand novel is that because they are so widely read, you’re likely to be able to find someone who has read the same one—native or learner—who can chat about the book with you, bringing a whole other dimension to your experience. Some suggestions if you’re not likely to be at a French train station any time soon:
- Guillaume Musso draws on several months in New York City and a near-death experience to write beautiful, captivating thrillers. His book “Et Après…” (and afterwards) has been made into a film.
- Marc Levy is the most widely read French author in the world. His books are enthralling and also draw on a life full of experiences.
- Books you’ve read in English are great because you don’t have to worry about understanding the plot as you read—perfect for a book you’re constantly picking up and putting down.
Make sure it’s a book that you’ll love
This can sometimes be more difficult than it sounds if you’re not picking a book you’ve already read in English.
When browsing for a book, take the time to read through the blurb on the back, looking up words if you need to. Try to look at the reviews for a book, because often fellow learners post helpful reviews on how they found it. If you find an author you like, try and read all of their books; you’re more likely to open a book from an author you’ve enjoyed in the past.
7 Magical Tips to Get the Most out of Reading in French
1. Keep your options open
Okay, so we’ve got that you want to read a novel. But that doesn’t necessarily mean picking up a paperback.
If you spend a lot of time driving or out walking the dog, audiobooks can be a great alternative. The skills that you will develop will vary from reading a traditional book—audiobooks certainly won’t help your spelling! However, if you can keep your concentration, it can be very useful in helping you advance to fluency.
E-books are also a great idea for language learners. They’re cheaply and easily available and many e-readers have bilingual dictionary capabilities, so you can look up a word quickly. As they hold many books, you can easily flick between your bestseller and your French grammar guide, helping you learn as you read. Don’t forget that you can also highlight and add notes to pages on most e-readers, so you can check things out later if you need to.
2. Don’t look up every word you don’t know
If you’re reaching for your dictionary every third word, it’s not going to be a fun reading session. To help you avoid frustration, try to work out a word or leave it.
To help you with the former, think about the context of it. Read the sentence and think of the kind of things that would fit. Think about the parts of the word that are similar to English words or another French word. Try and guess, and pencil this in with a question mark next to the word. If you need to, look the word up at a later date.
If that same word crops up again while you’re reading, it’s probably best to look it up—if words are used again and again by authors, you might as well know it. If you don’t feel like dragging your dictionary around with you, try a French dictionary app.
Learning by context can seem challenging, but it just takes practice. One way to build up that reading skill is by watching bilingual subtitled content on FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Because the videos have both French and English subtitles, it’s easier to get through the clips since you’re not constantly looking up the words in a dictionary. Once you’re comfortable enough, you can turn off the English subtitles to see what information you can gather just by the context itself.
Intrigued? Feel free to sign up for a free FluentU trial!
3. Try to understand the gist, not grammar details
There’s no point trying to learn every grammar structure and tense that you come across while reading if you’re only at an intermediate stage. It’ll take forever and you’ll probably get confused. But don’t lose heart, you can usually work out a verb from its stem and ignore the conjugation for now.
If you can get a grasp of what is going on, that’s probably enough, but make a note of the passage you struggled with so that you can look at it later. Try to let a lot of things you’re unfamiliar with go; you won’t get many benefits from pouring over each page with a grammar book. As long as you’ve got the gist, you’re on your way.
4. Highlight areas of confusion with Post-it notes
You might want to keep a pack of Post-its handy if you have little room to add in notes. Good things to make notes of are:
- New grammar structures that you’ve studied before but want to refresh because you found it difficult.
- Idiomatic phrases you want to try out in real life.
- New words that you found the meanings of.
- General French culture points you want to note
- Locations or places mentioned that you want to look up on a map
You can then take these notes out in a study session and do each of the actions, perhaps noting what you learned in a notebook.
5. Stay relaxed and avoid frustration
It can be very easy to lose your sanity over a French novel, but try not to. To help you let go and enjoy the experience, you need to know when to give up on a particular point.
If you feel yourself getting frustrated or not getting the gist of a page, put your book down. This might happen a lot as you get started, but you’ll soon get into reading in French to the point where you rarely have to do this. Go with how you’re feeling and if you start to feel bored or frustrated, switch what you’re doing and come back to it later. Take small bites!
6. Regularly review what you’ve read and learned
Making notes as you read is great, as recommended in tip #4, but having books stuffed with Post-its isn’t going to help you learn French on its own.
To help you get the most out of reading, try and review your notes after every day of reading. This way you won’t overwhelm yourself weeks down the road with a pile of notes to go through. You’ll also have a better insight and understanding as you read on.
Try making flashcards out of vocabulary you’ve learned, so if it crops up again you’ll have the meaning on hand. Now is also the time to review that grammar you thought was weird—try and understand how it works so you can cruise through next time it crops up.
7. Do a follow-up activity after finishing a book
You’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment when you finish a novel in French—but don’t let the fun end there! Here are more ways to gain meaningful language practice using the same book:
- Watch the movie version. If your book has a movie version, it’s time to bust out the popcorn. Watching the movie of a book you’ve read can help you understand the setting and culture of the book you’ve read with more clarity. You will pick up pronunciation and dialogue while enjoying a film based on a book that you loved.
- Write a book review. Writing a French review of the novel you’ve read will help you to practice a different style of writing. You’ll have more of a window to be creative with what you write—you could describe the cover and whether you liked it, write a character description and try to express your opinion in different ways. Once you’ve written a stellar review, you could post it on Amazon or Goodreads, and you’ll be helping other learners choose a book they’ll treasure!
- Discuss the book with a native. Sharing books you’ve read can be a great way to keep the conversation flowing. You could ask a native about phrases that you found difficult, or when to use a certain phrase. You could even talk about parts of the culture you found unusual or bizarre. A French book club could also be a perfect way to discuss French literature with others. Look out for a group near you on Meetup or the French Alliance.
Forget the excuses, you now have the complete toolbox for French reading!