Mar 09 2014

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Which ‘apps’ are best for learning French?


When I first started making my yearly trips to France in the late nineties, a sizable percentage of my meagre 20kg luggage allowance was taken up by books. I read several books a week, and as I could not read French terribly well in those days, I had to take a stack of English books with me. I also had to take my dictionary—a medium-sized one, and a pocket-sized one for my handbag, and also a pocket ‘Bescherelle’. This name derives from a French nineteenth-century grammarian and lexicographer, Louis-Nicolas Bescherelle, who established a series of French grammar books (now in other languages also), in particular a whole volume devoted to the conjugation of French verbs. In some French companies in pre-internet days, one would sometimes see employees with their own copies of Bescherelle in their pockets or on desks, so complex is the system of French verb conjugation!


I still have all these books on my shelves, but happily I no longer have to lug them to the other side of the world in my suitcase. The invention of ‘apps’ (mini computer applications for smartphones) means that I can have hundreds of such reference works on my phone. I don’t actually have hundreds, but I do have a lot. With my Larousse dictionary app I can look up words quickly at French conversation soirées, with my conjugation app I can check if I am conjugating a French verb correctly (who knew the past participle of the verb coudre was cousu?), and a host of other useful activities.

A fellow Francophile recently asked me to suggest the most useful apps for French learners, which is why I’m making it the subject of this post. What follows is not a definitive list, and readers might like to add to it using the comments field below. I’ve used a variety of French-learning apps on both an iPhone and more recently on my Samsung Galaxy S3, and these types of phones are worth buying simply for this function, although of course they do a great deal more.


If you only have one French-learning app, make it the Larousse English-French dictionary; it has 80,000 words and 135,000 definitions, and costs around $5. I would say that 99 percent of all words I look up are in this dictionary. I also use it when I am doing translations (shameless self-promotion alert: my first published translation is a short story by Goncourt Prize-winner Bernard Comment in the literary magazine Meanjin, and also on the journal’s website.

For the one percent of words that I cannot find in this dictionary, usually more complex or unusual words, I use a Larousse unilingue dictionary app, which has the definitions appearing only in French, along with synonyms so you can still learn the meaning of words, and read more French while doing so! I think this costs the same as the previous one, but as I obtained it over a year ago, I forget the price.

For the conjugation of verbs, I use a free app called Le Conjugueur as it seems to me to have everything that the Bescherelle app has, without the (albeit not large) price. Another free app for verb conjugation is Verb2Verbe which also gives the English meaning. I also have a Littré dictionary app, again unilingue, which I wanted mainly because it’s so popular in France.

Another useful app is ‘A French word a day’, which is visible on my home screen in the first image above, although mine seems to change several times a day! All apps vary a lot in quality and functionality and you need to read the reviews before purchasing or downloading them, to determine those that best suit your needs. My latest French app is World Proverbs—French, just downloaded tonight, and my first proverb is ‘Il ne faut pas mettre tous ses oeufs dans le meme panier’! It’s unusual to have proverbs as similar as this across the two languages! This app also reminds me of the downside of free apps—the advertising! If you can ignore it, then free apps are worth it, but if not, some apps do offer a paid version without the advertising. The most annoying advertising has a flashing bar saying ‘You have a virus, click here to get rid of it’ (or words to that effect). Then when you click, it takes you to a webpage with advertising. You just have to try and ignore these irritations, or buy the ad-free versions, where they exist.

To obtain these apps and more, if you have an android phone you simply go to the internet Google Play Store—either via your phone or your computer (you need to set up a google account when you start, including a gmail address, which is not hard), and select ‘Apps’, then type in a word or two that describes what you’re looking for. When I find an app that looks suitable, I always try to read the reviews underneath. Once I was looking for an English-German dictionary, was about to choose a free one, when I read in one of the reviews that this dictionary did not include the gender of the nouns! A dictionary with this omission would be as useless for German (that has three genders) as it would for French.

Obtaining apps is much the same procedure if you have an iPhone, but not as simple a process (since acquiring my android, I’ve become very prejudiced against all things Apple), and instead of going to Google Play you go to iTunes.


I put all my French-learning apps in a special folder on my home screen for ease of access. In addition to these, I also have apps that enable me to access French media on my phone: I have one called France Radio, but there are several available; the best channels to listen to for improving your French are France Culture and France Info, in my opinion; and I have an app for France 24, the international French public TV channel that broadcasts in French, English and Arabic (you can set it for whichever language you want). Apps are also available for French newspapers, and the two that I have are Le Monde and Liberation.

With apps, one is never bored while waiting for a tram, or standing in the supermarket queue!



Permanent link to this article: http://www.escapetoparis.com/2014/03/which-apps-are-best-for-learning-french/

1 comment

  1. Sandra

    Terrific article! I use the Larousse app many, many times a day while studying. Verb2verbe is fantastic but so too is V2Vtest wherein you can test your conjugation proficiency to a point you will be a conjugating queen (or king). MindSnacks French is oft overlooked as it is a game but it is extremely challenging as you move up the levels and the games are very testing. Duolingo too looks very basic but is in fact increasingly difficult and both the aforementioned will not let you move up until you’ve mastered the current skills.

    Apps are underrated for language learning but no-one said learning couldn’t be fun:)

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