So here's my strategy for learning French:

  1. Took 4 years in high school, so I already know the basics and a lot of vocabulary.

  2. Memorize ~2000 new nouns and ~2000 new verbs, thus expanding vocabulary and enabling myself to read without having to look up every single word I come across.

  3. Read regularly to embed grammar patterns into my mind while learning new words and expressions.

  4. Watch news and movies to perfect pronunciation and get used to aurally parsing French speech.

So here's my dilemma. I'm heading towards completion of step 2 and I'm preparing for step 3. But the thing is, all books and newspapers in French are written with the literary tenses. Which are perfectly important for learning to read in French! Great! But I'd like to be able to speak and communicate first, which means I'd like to get used to normal tenses, which means I'd like to find reading material that uses the normal tenses instead of the literary ones. You could advise me to listen to things for this instead of reading, but I learn best by seeing words on a page, and if I try to listen to movies/news/radio in French and try to comprehend it before I've seen it written down and gotten used to it that way, it will be MUCH more difficult for me.

So does such reading material exist, and if so, where can I find it?

  • 4
    What are the tenses you call “literary”? I'm under the impression that news websites avoid the use of passé simple, passé antérieur, imparfait du subjonctif and plus-que-parfait du subjonctif. The other tenses I can think of are really used in Spoken French.
    – user1152
    Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 1:34
  • 2
    Do newspapers really use literary tenses? Perhaps the ones I read are not as fancy (or maybe because they're Canadians), but I didn't notice them to use such tenses. I shall have to be more attentive the next time I read the paper!
    – Kareen
    Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 1:57
  • That's funny: before I checked, I would have bet highbrowed newspapers such as Le Monde still used passé simple. But I was wrong: passé composé seems to be the norm.
    – user1152
    Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 2:12
  • 1
    Twenty years ago, reading Le Monde needed one to keep a dictionnary at hand, it was a real great way to increase vocabulary and overall language level. Nowadays, for some reasons (to be discussed elsewhere I guess), any 10 years old kid can read it without much trouble (and probably without learning anything, by the way). Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 7:41
  • 1
    When I was in primary school, I was using a dictionary called "Mes 10000 mots". Commented Jun 13, 2012 at 6:45

7 Answers 7


To improve your vocabulary, I warmly recommend the free anki software. It help you review your vocabulary daily in way that aims at optimality regarding time spent versus number of words actually learnt, that is words that you will remember more than a few days or weeks. Peruse the website for explanation about its philosophy. it might seems a bit elaborated at first but it does work (for me at least) and it is really easy to use.

Regarding press, if you do not live in France, you might be interested in newspaper that are not to nationally centred. Check Courrier international : it deals with international news that are taken from foreign newspaper. As its material is translated, it uses rather simple language but of good quality (as opposed to some junk magazines of free newspapers such as 20 minutes).

I do not think comic books are well suited to learn a language because they contains many partial phrases or deliberately ill constructed ones. Astérix is a lot of fun, especially the albums written by Goscinny (contrariwise, avoid the very last ones like plague) but its humour relies heavily on puns which might be difficult to grasp for a foreigner.

Speakers at France Info (a news radio station) speak a good French but their flow of speech might be of challenge. This remark could apply to most radio stations. For that matter, you might want to give RFI a try. They have a journal en français facile (news programme in easy French). Avoid Fun radio, Skyrock, NRJ and the like : their French is sometimes bellow average.

Finally, as an original alternative, I would suggest interactive fictions. They are story in which your choices affect the events. Actually they really are text based games and were very popular a few decades ago but still live today ; lots of games get published, some of them very finely crafted. See here or here for an introduction to these. Here the text are usually simpler than in novels but the game part makes it immersing though. Here and there you will find some games in French.

  • +1 for Courrier International. Great answer overall. Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 8:47

Good luck with that. I'm assuming you mean the passé simple and the subjunctive imperfect (though the latter shows up so infrequently it's not a worry).

I do not know of any way to specifically find such material. AFAIK only a few quirky writers or translators write in the passé composé (I have read a LOT of books and only ever seen one, though the situation might be different in, e.g. children's lit). In any case you'll want to focus on contemporary material.

Alternatively, you could try to sidestep the problem by avoiding the prose. You will probably never be able to escape the passé simple entirely, but if you look for bandes dessinées, of which there is a thriving market beyond the few classics that have been translated to English, you'll find a LOT of stuff that may also have the advantage of being slightly closer to spoken French.

ETA: Now, if you aren't looking only for fiction, I realize (as some commenters have noted) your options are a whole lot broader. Much of non-fiction is hardly ever in the passé simple (heck, history material in French is quite/most often in the present, which I've grown to find jarring): magazines and newspaper are full of the stuff (though you'll find the occasional passé simple in fancy columns or editorials), and nonfiction in whatever topic you like (in my case, that's mostly linguistics and plant science) will probably fit the bill well.

  • +1 for comic books. They're also a great cultural treasure, such as Astérix and Tintin, to only name those two.
    – Kareen
    Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 1:58
  • 4
    Based on a relatively small sample, a reasonable number of children's books use the passé simple. I haven't come across the subjunctive yet, but my home is still reading those books with very thick pages. I don't think there's any hope for e.g. Harry Potter. Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 4:17
  • « Lorsque Mr et Mrs Dursley s'éveillèrent, au matin du mardi où commence cette histoire,... »
    – user1152
    Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 6:23
  • Yes, narrative present can appear strange, but it's hardly a french language specificity (example ?) But I personnaly find one even more puzzling : The Futur historique (see here) to refer to past acts at futur tense. Talk about a weird feature... Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 7:48
  • Not that weird to me ; the example provided in the wiki page you cited explains it pretty well. Translation of that phrase in english would probably use will' which is usually devoted to the future (or maybe would' ?). On the other hand, something like `When I am old, can be a doctor' can be a bit disturbing for french people.
    – M. Toya
    Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 14:31

As others have pointed out, French fiction almost always uses the passé simple for narration. One exception is Camus’s L’Étranger (The Stranger), which is notable for its use of the passé composé. So, give that one a read, and then just take the hit read books written with the passé simple.

  • Does even modern french fiction use the passé simple???
    – Trajan
    Commented Jan 30, 2019 at 21:15

Le petit Nicolas doesn't contain any passé simple. The language is at a good level for beginners, and it's a classic of children's fiction.

  • 1
    However, IIRC, some sentences in Le Petit Nicolas are voluntarily erroneous ; Nicolas being the narrator and a child tend to mix up narrative and oral speech.
    – Édouard
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 17:05
  • @Édouard, do you have any examples? As far as I can tell, his grammar is impeccable. I'm not an expert though, so I could be wrong, but it would be very strange for an eight-year old kid to speak with incorrect grammar. I don't understand what you mean by narrative and oral speech.
    – dangph
    Commented May 31, 2014 at 8:07

Literature is not oral speech!

Unless it is material dedicated to learning spoken French, nobody write in true spoken language.

Even in cartoon, it will be either
* Academic french, such as Tintin or Spirou
* A mix of academic for narration and spoken
* Over the top slang (e.g. le petit Nicolas)

The only true spoken french you can read is transcription of somebody speaking French.
As an example, you can watch a movie while reading only the french subtitle.

Another abundant source is transcription of french podcast.
You will find some here

Note that most of those source are formal spoken french.
Formal spoken (the way I speak to my boss) is also different from academic.

As a reminder:
* Formal academique: Cela vous convient-il?
* Formal spoken: Est-ce que cela convient?
* Informal academic: ça marche? (can also be spoken)
* Informal spoken : est-ce que ça marche?

  • I know that "Le petit nicolas" is not outrageously over the top, but seriously, does any adult or nowadays kid speak that way?
    – Madlozoz
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 5:59
  • I have to downvote this because once you read the top two answers it becomes clear that by comparison this is neither useful nor accurate, sorry. Commented May 30, 2014 at 15:07
  • Although the podcast link is nice :) Commented May 30, 2014 at 15:08

Try Wikipedia or your local library. However, I don't think you need to worry about literary tenses. They are all past tense, I think, so if you see a word conjugated in one of them, you'll already know 90% of what it's trying to tell you.

Using them in your own writing is another matter, but basically no Francophone does that, so you don't need to bother.


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