Why Learning Written French Is Different from Learning Spoken French
Mastering written French is necessary for those who want to become fluent in French. It’s really a skill of its own—many people say that written French is practically its own language. As such, with written French, you have to focus on a different skill set. Here are some of the major differences you’ll encounter with written French versus spoken French:
You Don’t Have to Worry About Listening
Students often find written French easier than spoken French. This is because there are lots of French-English cognates—or, words that look similar in both French and English.
Even beginner students can look at a text in French and guess the meaning of many words. It’s the tricky French pronunciation that trips up English-speaking learners! So, when learning written French you can focus on grammar without stressing too much about listening comprehension.
Written French Isn’t Phonetic at All
There’s a slight caveat to what I just said. Reading French may be a breeze for English speakers, but writing in French is not at all intuitive. French is one of those languages that isn’t spoken as it’s written.
Sometimes long words will only have one or two syllables when pronounced. Sometimes a word will end in a consonant that you can’t possibly hear! So, if you’ve been mostly learning French through video and audio immersion, be prepared: you’ll have to put some effort into learning French spelling.
Written French Includes “Literary” Tenses
Generally, in class you’ll be exposed to the verb tenses that are used when speaking: the passé composé, the imparfait and so forth. So you may be surprised to find tenses such as the passé simple when you read, especially in older or more advanced texts.
These tenses may not be covered in class, but you’ll find plenty of online resources to practice them on your own.
Grammar Is Far More Important
You might be asking: “Isn’t grammar important for spoken French as well?” Well, yes. But the difference is that if you make a mistake while speaking, it’ll quickly be forgotten. If you make a mistake in your writing, say in a report for work or a term paper for class, it’ll be there forever. This is why you should make comprehensive grammar practice part of your project to learn written French.
Tips and Strategies for Improving Written French
A major flaw of many French classes is the lack of long-form writing. Students do lots of sentence-long exercises, for sure, but in reality, that’s not how people tend to write in their native language. Fortunately, with a wealth of internet resources available at your fingertips, practicing written French is a breeze. But where should you begin?
Look for a French-speaking Penpal
You may have heard this tip before. Your teacher may have even made you find a penpal as a homework assignment. This is because actually writing with another person is a great way to get used to writing in real-world scenarios. What’s more, native speakers can correct your mistakes, and you can make a great friend in the process.
Some of the best sites for finding a penpal include InterPals, arguably the largest site dedicated to finding penpals in other countries, and Language For Exchange, which is like InterPals but focused on language learning. On both of these sites, when making your profile, you can specify your native language and the language you’re learning.
Join French-language Forums
Forums are a great resource for learning written French. They offer some very unique advantages, which are different from what you’ll get from classroom exercises or a penpal relationship. If you find a forum for a particular hobby or interest that you enjoy, you can learn lots of vocabulary specific to that subject. For example, if you like video games, you could join JeuxVideo.com. If you like gardening, you can check out AuJardin.org.
In these forums, you’ll learn lots of French slang, which is a double win! Like with a penpal relationship, forums train you to make your French understandable to other French speakers, which is fantastic practice. If you’re looking for a general chat group where you can talk about anything and everything, check out /r/france, Reddit’s largest French-speaking forum. From there, you’ll find links to smaller French-speaking subreddits (forums) for every interest imaginable.
Practice Written Translations
Yes, the idea of written translations sounds very…19th century. But hear me out. Translation is coming back into favor as a language acquisition technique, and it has real benefits for beginning and advanced learners. There are some great translation exercises out there where you can translate to French and check your work. Another method is to translate Wikipedia articles and check how you did by comparing your translation to the official French article.
Once you’re an advanced speaker you can even volunteer as a translator or find work as one. Translation is one of the best methods to practice your written French because to complete a good translation you’ll need to research both grammar and vocabulary. Translation helps you learn the nuance of the French language, such as when you have to decide how to translate a specific word based on context.
Read, Read, Read
Surely you’ve read French before, either in classroom exercises or in homework. But now’s the time to go above and beyond what’s required. If you want to write French well, you need to know how it’s written. And that means you have to read.
Try to spend at least 15 minutes a day reading something that interests you. That could be a French newspaper or some French short stories. Take the time to look up words you don’t understand, but don’t worry if there are lots you don’t know. That’s how you learn more vocabulary.
Do a Daily Writing Prompt
Writing prompts are a great way to get your creative juices flowing. For example, you could start with the question: “If you could’ve been born in any decade, which would you choose?” Set a timer, sit down and just write whatever comes to mind in French. After, you can go back and check for grammar and spelling.
Writing prompts help you practice writing essays, so they’re great practice for standardized French exams. They also allow you to learn vocabulary about diverse topics. Some of the best sites for finding free writing prompts are A Vos Plumes! and The Daily Post.
Essential Tools for Your Written French Toolbox
None of us are experts, and we all need resources to check our grammar and look up words. These are some of the best online support resources available for writing in French.
The first tool you need for your written French is a comprehensive dictionary. Although there are some great classic dictionaries out there, I honestly don’t remember the last time I looked up a word in a physical dictionary, and my guess is you don’t either. WordReference is hands-down the best online dictionary available. Every French word comes with its translation to English, its gender and some example sentences.
You can even look up expressions and slang terms. One of the best features of WordReference is its active forum. At the bottom of each dictionary definition page, you can find user questions pertaining to the word you looked up. This is great for learning how a word can be used differently depending on the country.
BonPatron can be an absolute life-saver for French writers. With BonPatron, you can copy and paste entire passages of written French and see all the grammatical mistakes you made. Not only does BonPatron highlight the mistakes you made, it also explains why each one is a mistake and even suggests alternatives. It’s surprisingly detailed and can even correct accents and conjugation mistakes.
FluentU’s authentic videos present vocabulary words in context, so you can learn how French is really spoken by native speakers. Interactive subtitles make it easy to follow along and look up unfamiliar words.
Although FluentU is a video-focused resource, it’s great for writers precisely because it presents words in context. Do you know a word but you’re not sure how to use it? Simply look it up on FluentU. You’ll find a definition as well as tons of example sentences and links to videos that use the word in context. This can help your writing sound more like that of a native speaker.
Speaking of context, Linguee is a great resource for looking up entire sentences or passages in French. If you know the definition of a word but you don’t understand its context, type it into Linguee’s translation dictionary.
Linguee then scours the internet to find all references of that word within sources that have already been translated between English and French. That way, you can see the French word within the context of a sentence, side-by-side with the same sentence translated into English.
What? I’m recommending Google?! That’s right. Google search is an amazing tool for checking your grammar. You can search any French phrase in quotes, which will return only websites where that exact phrase is used. Then, look at the number of results to gauge if the phrase is written correctly. If you get lots of results, that means native speakers write the phrase in that way.
This is especially good for hammering out the nitty-gritty details of language learning, such as article usage. For example, imagine you want to say “learn to …” but you don’t know if it’s correct to say apprendre à or apprendre de. Just go to Google and type “apprendre à programmer” (learn to program), which gives over a million results. You’ll see that “apprendre de programmer” only returns only about 12,000 results. Knowing nothing else, you can reasonably conclude that it’s correct to say apprendre à programmer (learn to program).
If you’re a writer at heart, learning written French will be the most enjoyable part of learning the language.
With the right tools and strategies in hand, you too can join the ranks of Proust and Sartre—or just finish your term paper in time.