This post is a mixture of resources for several levels of French, from absolute beginners (CEFR A1) to advanced users (C1+). I’ve focused on free online resources, plus some that are in public libraries: in celebration and encouragement of open access.
Some are available through university libraries such as our own here at UBC; many of these can also be accessed for free through public libraries. If uncertain or stumped, consult a librarian: if anyone can help you, it will be a librarian, because librarians are awesome knowledge superheroes with superpowers.
[If you are taking a French course here at UBC] your course materials already provide you with some good resources for written work:
—French → multilingual lexicon (at the back of your textbook)
—French lexicon, organized by dossier and leçon (at the back of your workbook, cahier d’exercices)
FREE BI- & MULTILINGUAL FRENCH DICTIONARIES ONLINE
—French to and from English
—French to and from Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Spanish, Swedish
—Chinese, Japanese, and Russian to and from English (from which you can then do an English—> French search)
—This is Dr O’Brien’s top recommendation as it includes lots of examples of usage in context.
- WordReference: French to and from English and Spanish (but also several other languages to and from English, so working through English as intermediary interlanguage is an option)
- Lexilogos: French to and from many, many, many languages, including Arabic (arabe), Chinese (chinois), Gujarati (goujarati), Japanese (japonais), Korean (coréen), Persian (perse), Urdu (ourdou):
- TV5 Monde has some dictionaries, as well as other resources about the French language
- Oxford Language Dictionaries ℅ UBC Library
- more links to dictionaries and other reference works c/o the Open Directory Project and Ask.com is often useful too
- For many-to-most languages: Google Translate usually includes a sound-file of pronunciation, examples of usage, and phonetic transcription. PLEASE NOTE THAT GOOGLE TRANSLATE IS NOT A DICTIONARY. It is of limited usefulness and reliability for beginners; the more context you provide, the more accurate it is. See further below in the TRANSLATION ENGINES section.
MORE DICTIONARIES: MONOLINGUAL AND HISTORICAL
(1) for modern French:
- wordreference.com + its fora
- linguee.fr (especially for its examples of contextual usage)
- UBC library also has a subscription to the electronic Grand Robert, the French equivalent of the OED: access via CWL here: http://resources.library.ubc.ca/page.php?id=1091
(2) for older forms of French:
- Old French (approx. 11th-13th c.): Lexilogos + anglo-norman.net
- Middle French (approx. 14th-15th c.): Lexilogos + some other resources: atilf.fr/spip.php?rubrique42
- Français classique (approx. 16th-18th c.): Lexilogos again; Nicot & the Académie are the main ones I’d use as a first step here: lexilogos.com/nicot.htm and artfl-project.uchicago.edu/content/dictionnaires-
QUELQUES DICTIONNAIRES (VERSION FRANÇAISE)
- Il est fortement conseillé de se procurer :
- ***Le Petit Robert ou Le Petit Larousse***
- un bon dictionnaire bilingue (bon = grand + gros: pas de versions “concise, pocket,” etc.) :
- Wordreference et Linguee—en ligne, gratuits—sont les dictionnaires bilingues (et multilingues) que je vous conseillerai le plus fortement.
- Les options classiques, les grands dictionnaires Oxford-Hachette et Collins-Robert (Senior, Super-Senior), sont maintenant moins complets, moins riches, et moins actuels ; ils se trouvent à la bibliothèque de UBC et existent aussi en versions CD-ROM et en ligne (de même pour le Petit Larousse et le Petit Robert). Ajoutons aussi qu’ils sont chers.
- TV5 > langue française
- Profitez de notre bonne fortune: nous avons les grands dictionnaires en ligne, grâce à la Bibliothèque de UBC: utilisez-les !
Les dictionnaires spécialisés :
- Centre national de ressources textuelles et lexicales (CNRTL, France)
- ARTFL (American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language)
- pour l’ancien et le moyen français, le français de la renaissance, et jusqu’au 17e (et au-delà) : le CNRTL > dictionnaires anciens et Lexilogos
- pour le français du 16e et du 17e: ARTFL, page « dictionnaires d’autrefois », pour chercher des mots dans Jean Nicot, Thresor de la langue française (1606) et le Dictionnaire de L’Académie française (y compris la 1e édition de 1694)
- et aussi: Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie française
- et des ressources supplémentaires pour le français (entr’autres) avant 1700 via Meta-meta-medieval
Automated translation—of larger blocks of text, or indeed a whole text—is of limited usefulness for people who are actually actively learning a language and are in the beginner and intermediate stages, as this is a crucial time for learning how a language’s words—lexicon and semantics—do not map exactly onto words and meanings in your home language. It is also an important time for learning that new language’s grammar and syntax, how a language is structured, how it functions and what it is (in its own right, as a whole thing in itself, for us to work with respectfully rather than just something to instrumentalise and use).
That having been said, translation engines are a very useful supplement to the dictionaries above, for looking up words or phrases (for example, how to express a larger idea). Here is why, and how to make good use of translation engines. A simple search (ex. Google, Bing, Yahoo) for a single word will either provide you with a single answer (which is a top hit but not necessarily the right result for what you want to say) or a list of possible answers. If you’re a beginner, faced with a list of words in a language that is new to you, you have no way to know which of these results—be that a single word, or a list of options—because you don’t know enough of the language yet. So how do you check?
- With any translation engine, provide as much context as possible: at least a sentence, ideally a whole paragraph. Even with engines providing a single top hit, this will help to nuance meaning.
As with any search / research, read all search results or as much as humanly possible (on a Google search, for example, by result #100-120 / page 10-12 you should at least be starting to see patterns: repetitions, answers that seem more likely, answers that seem like outliers). If there are too many results and if there is no coherent pattern, refine your search. Do not rely on a general search engine’s ranking of results, as it has no necessary correlation with what you are looking for. Any search engine is a cybernetic symbiotic hybridising supplement to, not a substitute for, human intelligence and critical judgement.
If in doubt, take the resulting translation (the full sentence or paragraph, NOT just one single word) and run it back through a translation engine into your original language. Does it still look like what you wanted to say?
If the resulting translation uses structures and tenses (and other verb conjugations) that you don’t know, please do not use them. Rework what you wanted to say (in both your original language and French, and ideally working with French to start with) and use the French grammar and syntax that you already know and understand. If in doubt, come and see your instructor in office hours to talk about translation problems.
Use the resulting translation search results to ensure that you have chosen the right French word(s) to translate the word (or short phrase, for an idea for example) that you wanted to express in the first place. This means that you are using a translation engine as a dictionary, using it to perform a more sophisticated dictionary search, and NOT to translate a whole text. (The inclusion of examples of usage, which helps readers to make decisions about meaning in context, are a characteristic of good big monolingual dictionaries, like the OED for English and the Grand Robert for French. Both are in our UBC Library, where you can access their excellent electronic versions for free.)
Last stage: make a note of the new vocabulary that you have learned. This could be in a vocabulary notebook (a physical book or a virtual one) or in your “savoir-vivre” [for more on which, see the next post, “Savoir-vivre” plurilingual intercultural learning portfolios”].
- The best English-French / French-English translation engine at present—and also from and into Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Spanish—is DeepL (from the makers of Linguee)
- Second-best for the seven languages above, but the best at the moment all round for a large number of languages: Google Translate
- Can also be used as a translation engine adapted to use as a higher-powered dictionary:
—Bing Translator and Microsoft Translator (both are Microsoft), and the older heritage Bing (now also Microsoft, as is also the old Windows Live) & Yahoo (& the old Babel Fish).
- Automated translation in, for example, Microsoft Word is notoriously unreliable; verb conjugations, for example. It produces characteristic mistranslation patterns which expert trained linguists, such as your instructor, can recognise immediately. Please do not use such inbuilt spelling and grammar checkers: the other reason not to do so is that using them this way doesn’t help your learning beginners’ and intermediate French. (They can be useful learning tools for other linguistic things, and at a more advanced level; if you’re curious about this, come and talk to me or to other colleagues in the Department of French, Hispanic and Italian Studies.)
- For more, see for example: Wikipedia > Comparison of machine translation applications.
OFFLINE / PHYSICAL BOOKS
- Search the UBC Library catalogue
- Vancouver Public Library catalogue
- The Collins-Robert Senior/Unabridged Engiish-French / French-English dictionary is in Koerner Library reference
- Chinese-French / French-Chinese dictionaries in UBC Libraries
- Chinese-French / French Chinese dictionaries in Vancouver Public Library
- Japanese-French / French-Japanese dictionaries in UBC Libraries
- Korean-French / French-Korean dictionaries in UBC Libraries
Image at the top of this post: Jean-Michel Folon at the Capitoline Museums, Rome, 7 June 2002. ©Luciano del Castillo