Four things I wish I’d had when I was learning French

Alysa Salzberg
8 min readOct 23, 2023

Autumn has finally come to Paris. In the Tuileries Gardens, I admire the flowers the gardeners have planted and savor the cool air on my skin. For a moment, I think, “What a time to be alive.”

That feeling doesn’t end when I settle into a chair in the Gardens’ cool playground and let my son go wild on the incredibly high slide and spinning platforms. I turn on my Kindle and start to read a few more pages of a book in French. Coming upon a word I don’t know, I highlight it with my finger and a definition comes up, thanks to the French dictionary that’s linked to my trusty e-reader.

Life isn’t perfect, and times are hard. And yet, when it comes to learning a language, at least, I can also say, “What a time to be alive.”

People often ask me how I learned French. The way it happened was pretty standard for the time: years of middle and high school French class, and anything else I could glean for practice. I managed, sure, but I often think of all the language learning tools and resources that have come out in the past twenty or so years, and of how much easier practicing French would have been if I’d had access to them when I started my journey to French fluency back in the mid-’90’s.

I’m still feeling that spirit of awed appreciation even now — in fact, it never really leaves me. Every time I click on a word on my Kindle screen and get an instant definition, or easily find a primary source document in French for my novel research without having to leave my apartment, that feeling is there. And so, I thought, why not write about it?

Maybe this post will give French learners — as well as students of any language — some ideas of different ways to practice their new skills. Or, if they’re already in the know, they can vibe along with me.

So, with that in mind, here are four modern-day, easily accessible resources I wish I’d had when I was learning French.

• French dictionary apps and e-dictionaries

I love print books more than I can say. And there’s nothing like flipping through a print dictionary, maybe discovering other words along the way to the one you’re searching for. But in terms of portability, nothing beats an electronic French dictionary or French dictionary app. My long history of overweight baggage fees prior to their invention can attest to that!

I love that you can choose anything from a basic, free French dictionary in e-book format, to a French-English online dictionary with bonus features like conjugation charts, and carry it with you anywhere you go. Bonus points for dictionaries that don’t need an internet connection.

And then there’s the fact that you can configure many of these e-dictionaries to your e-reader, letting you just highlight a French word you don’t understand to get an instant definition. Perfectly convenient.

  • Conversation exchange websites

When I was learning French, you could practice by typing to native speakers in chatrooms. But you couldn’t hear them.

When I came back from a year abroad in France, I put ads on a few community sites to find a native French speaker to have conversation practice with in real life. Luckily, I was able to find someone. We’d meet once a week or so at her university for an hour or two of discussion.

Nowadays, though, you can find numerous conversation exchange websites where you can easily connect with native French speakers whenever and wherever you want!

Of course, just as I had to be aware of safety in chatrooms and live meet-ups, the same holds true; these sites will advise you never to do things like give out personal information or send money to anyone participating. But as far as I’ve seen and heard, these platforms are mostly full of people who just want to practice speaking your native language a while, in exchange for letting you practice their native French.

There are some paying conversation exchange sites out there, and you could just opt for a native French speaking tutor for conversation practice, but the fact that the majority of conversation exchange sites are usually free and open to anyone means they’re accessible to all language learners.

French learning apps

Outside school, my French practice was supplemented with whatever else I could glean — an Edith Piaf CD here, a French chatroom exchange there, a treasured copy of Le Petit Nicolas bought for a high price at a French bookstore in New York, and so on. But nowadays, there are so. many. French learning apps out there.

Whether you use them to learn French or to supplement your French studies, they’re an amazing resource — and the huge variety of them means you’re bound to find at least a few that fit your learning style and goals.

For instance, back in the day, I really needed to practice my French speaking and listening skills — something that became painfully apparent when I got to Paris, thinking I’d be totally fine based on my solid reading and writing skills. I overcame my weakness in the listening and speaking departments through the sheer pressure of immersion, but it would have been a lot easier if I’d been able to use a French learning app or two that focused on these aspects, before heading overseas.

Some French learning apps are free, others are pricey, some are full of bells and whistles, while others privilege simple design. One French conversation app I particularly like is the French Together app, whose blog I’m proud to write for.

Featuring conversational French lessons for beginner to intermediate (B1 CEFR level) students, it’s super easy to use and lets you practice listening and speaking while also building your vocabulary and getting some basic grammar practice along the way.

One of the reasons I like the French Together app in particular is that it uses only native French speakers for the audio, and uses vocabulary and expressions that contemporary French speakers actually use in everyday life. The app lets you listen to dialogues at both regular and slow speeds. You can always consult a transcript or read a particular phrase if you need to, as well, which is a major advantage for hearing impaired and visual learners like myself.

I also like that you can listen to individual phrases from the dialogues and then record yourself, playing your own audio back to compare it to the source. Even as a fluent speaker, I have to say exercises like this are helpful for me to go back to, since they force me to slow down and work on some trickier French pronunciation feats.

The French Together app is a web app, not a mobile app, which means that you can access it from a mobile device OR from a computer — or switch between devices, which is how I like to roll when it comes to French online resources. I love that versatility. I also love the app’s simple design. I’m not worried about finding where different features are located or how to access something. It’s straight to the point and lets you focus on learning.

I might seem biased when it comes to the French Together app, since, as I mentioned, I blog for them. But I never put my name to something I don’t believe in, so take that into consideration. I’m just jazzed that this app — as well as all the other ones out there — offers so many ways for French learners to practice French.

My cat Arsène settling in to watch a French TV show…or maybe practice his French speaking skills on the sly?

Easy access to French books, TV shows, movies, and more

Back when I started learning French, there wasn’t much on the web and getting actual print material, be it a French magazine or newspaper, or a book, wasn’t easy unless maybe you lived in a major city. Even then, your choices were limited.

I can’t imagine how much more difficult it would have been to research Hearts at Dawn, as well as my new novel-in-progress, just twenty years ago, especially since I wasn’t living in France then and thus had no access to French libraries, museums, and archives. But nowadays, wherever you are in the world, you can have access to everything from obscure first-person accounts of events in French history to classic French books, via sites like Gallica and Wikisource.

If you can’t find what you’re looking for there, it’s also easy to order print or digital French books and periodicals. You can even just visit millions of French-language websites. As a girl who hoarded the few precious French novels she managed to come by, and savored receiving her monthly copies of Ciné Live and Première magazines, I say it again: “What a time to be alive!”

And it’s even easier to watch French TV shows, movies, documentaries, web series, and so on. Streaming services like Netflix not only feature French shows and movies, but also often offer the option of using French audio for shows and movies in other languages (Pro tip: A great way to practice French listening is to set that movie you watch so often you’ve nearly memorized it, into French and give it a watch that way).

And even if you don’t subscribe to a streaming service, you can just go onto YouTube and watch anything from famous French YouTubers to countless French documentaries, news reports, and shows. My favorites of the latter include Laissez-vous guider, in which popular French history host Stéphane Bern and actor/Paris history aficionado Laurent Deutsch talk about and re-create the Paris of different eras (and, more recently, other places, too). I also love Secrets d’Histoire, a history-related show also hosted by Berne. In addition to these favorites, my husband watches a lot of French crime documentaries, and my son is a big fan of old episodes of the game show Fort Boyard and the old children’s science show C’est pas Sorcier. It’s amazing to think that all of this content is free and accessible anywhere you have an internet connection.

I’ve only mentioned the French media I use, but it’s also easy to find French radio stations, podcasts, and so much more, online, often for free as well.

As the French would say, C’est incroyable mais vrai.

If you’re learning French (or another language), I hope this list was helpful, either as a reminder of how many resources are out there and easily accessible, or as a guide as you start your learning journey. Profitez-en bien ! (Enjoy and make the most of them!)



Alysa Salzberg

is a writer & worrier. She recently published her first novel, “Hearts at Dawn”, a Beauty & the Beast retelling set during the 1870 Siege of Paris.