I’ve been asked a couple of times this week about good books for studying French.
For all the great resources that are out there, I still don’t think that you can beat the CLE series. They aren’t glamorous or trendy, and their titles aren’t subtle: Grammaire Progressive Du Francais, Vocabulaire Progressive du Francais. There’s no attempt to dress it up with jazzy front covers or pretty colours: what see is what you get.But what you get is a quality foundation.
The first book I usually get my beginner students to buy is “The Orange Book”. This is the beginner’s Grammaire Progressive. Like all CLE books, it has explanations on each left hand page – all in French, but very clearly laid out, with examples and occasional pictures – and related exercises on the facing page. If you use no other book (aside from a dictionary), this one alone will be enough to teach all the basics of grammar, including five tenses, and a fairly wide range of vocabulary.
And then – oh happy day – once you have finished that, there is a niveau intermédiaire and then a niveau avancé.
The Grammaire Progressive really does start from the very beginning, so I suggest starting with that one. The others, though they may also have labels of débutant, often assume some knowledge.
Conjugaison Progressive Du Francais is wonderful too. It takes you right from the present tense to the imperfect subjunctive, so will serve you well throughout your learning. And honestly, there’s no better way of learning verbs than methodically ploughing through these kinds of exercises, so when the occasional voluntarily purchases this book, it makes my little heart glad.
For most Brits, I tend to use another text book, then supplement it with The Orange Book. But for everyone else – and for the rare Brits who are grammar fiends – I like the combination of Grammaire en Dialogues and Grammaire Progressive. Grammaire en Dialogues does, as they all do, what it says on the tin: each unit has a couple of dialogues that focus on a specific area of grammar but also on a specific area of vocabulary. Once my students are further on, I prefer Communication Progressive du Francais, which is similar but a little less dry, and I use it in combination with Vocabulaire Progressif and Grammaire Progressive.
So, according to your level, here are some suggestions of books you might want to try. There are separate ones for grammar, vocab building, pronunication, spelling (though I haven’t included those), and reading/comprehension. It’s important to note that for the most part you’ll need to buy the answer book separately, which is a bit of a pain but vital if you are going down the path of self-study.
Tutored absolute beginners or self-taught post-beginners (A1):
(Disclaimer: I haven’t used that one, but am going on the assumption that it is of as high a quality as the other books in the series. It’s particularly useful if you are self-taught – hence my not having used it, as a tutor – and don’t have anyone to show you how to make the different sounds of French.)
Lower intermediate (B1)
At this level, you could be convering the second half of the beginner level and the first half of the intermediate level.
(This book is the least “progressif” of them all, with sometimes big jumps in level. I’m not sure it’s great as a self-learning tool, for that reason, but it works well as a resource for tutors.)
– basic business French text book
(Both of these give longer texts about various aspects of France or the French-speaking world, then comprehension and discussion questions. A great resource, though they do feel a little out of date now – they’ve aged much faster than the others in the series, since grammar doesn’t really change, especially the grammar in a country whose language is protected by such a stern body as the Académie Francaise.)
There’s nothing beginner-ish about this, unless they mean beginner in terms of it being your first foray into real Francophone litterature. You get extracts from a broad range of litterature down the ages and across the French-speaking world, alongside comprehension and discussion questions. Recommended, in particular if you want to get a flavour of what French authors would work for you: once you get to this kind of level, you might want to think about reading whole books.
Upper intermediate (B2+/C1)
My advice would be to finish the book and know it thoroughly before you move onto the green book!
— for more hints and tips on language learning, buy Conquering Babel: A Practical Guide to Learning a Language here in the US and here in the UK.