Department of French

Modern & Medieval Languages

Department of French

Essential advance preparation for undergraduates before starting the course

It is vital that you do some preparatory work on the following two areas before you arrive in Cambridge to start the course:

  • French language
  • French literature, thought, film and linguistics.

This preparation is likely to make your first year much more enjoyable and successful since the Cambridge workload is demanding.

French language

You will need to make sure, before you start your course, that your grammatical knowledge has reached a very good level. Please use one or more grammar books to consolidate what you have covered at school/college, and to learn other major grammar points with which you may have little or no familiarity. You will find recent, helpful, and even enjoyable grammar books listed at (see Section 2 'Grammars'). Ideally, you should purchase at least one of these grammar books, since it will help you throughout your course as well as before it: we'd suggest the Price. Another good grammar book is the Hawkins and Towell (which also has a companion book full of exercises - doing such exercises, in conjunction with studying a grammar book, is a better way to learn grammar than simply to stare at a grammar book). It will also be important for you to buy, if at all possible, two dictionaries, one bilingual (English/French) and one monolingual (French/French). For a list of the ones we suggest you buy, see the same web-page, this time Sections 1 and 3.

From October 2010, all Use of French classes will be using Rouxeville and Jubb, French Grammar in Context (new edition.). Make sure you acquire this book before you arrive in Cambridge. It will become the core textbook for grammar practice and acquisition throughout your studies, but you will need to complement it with a more substantial grammar, such as Hawkins and Towell, Price, etc. For vocabulary, we recommend Mot à Mot and Jean Duffy, Using French Vocabulary (CUP, new edition); the latter will become more useful in your second and final year.

To get an idea of the first-year (Part IA) French-language courses ('papers'), see

French literature, thought, film and linguistics

In their first year, students of French also do a paper (that means a course) that serves as an introduction to the entire program and to French cultural production, thought and linguistics. Don't be put off if you have done little or no linguistics or literature before; neither section of the paper assumes any prior knowledge and both have been designed specifically to be introductory and stimulating.

This paper will give you an excellent grounding in French culture. Since it covers texts from the Middle Ages to the present, it will also give you the basis for an informed choice when you come to select the French courses which you'll take in your second and final years (Parts IB and II). It will be taught through lectures in the Faculty and supervisions in the Colleges, and through it you will be introduced to a large number of lecturers who will cover their periods as the lectures proceed.

For a fuller description of the literature paper, see There are 6 set texts for this paper; they are listed on a different web-page, i.e. at Please buy all of these, in the prescribed editions, and read at least three of them before arriving at Cambridge. It is very important that you do this first reading of the books in advance, since you won't have time to do it all once the course starts and will likely struggle to keep afloat. All six of the works will be lectured on in the very first term (Michaelmas). It is also important that you buy each of these books in the edition specified on the list. If you do read them in another edition, please be aware that you might have to go back to read them again before the exam in May in the edition we have recommended.

You should be able to buy or order books by visiting, telephoning, emailing, or writing to bookshops in university cities, such as:

  • Grant & Cutler, 55-57 Great Marlborough Street, London W1V 2AY, tel. (0207) 734 8766; e-mail
  • Heffers, 20 Trinity Street, Cambridge CB2 3NG, tel. (01223) 568568;
  • also

French books can now be purchased easily over the Internet from sites such as:

The Linguistics lectures will aim to show you that French is far more than just a tool for communication. Language is central to thought and to cultural identity, and these lectures will help you to develop an understanding of what the French language is and how it works. There are no set texts for the Linguistics section, so no books are required for purchase. However, it is very important that you do some advance preparation before you come up to Cambridge. A good way to prepare would be to try and gain some familiarity with different varieties of French. For example, read French newspapers and listen to the radio, or watch satellite or cable TV if you have access to it. Start to think about the ways in which the language used in these contexts differs from that of any literary works you have read. You will also find it helpful to have looked at one or more of the following:

  • A. Battye, M. A. Hintze and P. Rowlett: The French Language Today (Routledge)

  • H. Walter: Le Français dans tous les sens (Laffont)

You will also find it helpful to have familiarized yourself with the International Phonetic Alphabet; see, for example, G. Price, An Introduction to French Pronunciation (Blackwell).

Don't be put off by any technical vocabulary you may encounter at this stage - just skip over these parts for now! You will be introduced to any terminology that is necessary as part of the course.

How to read the literature set texts

The important thing is to relax and enjoy reading these books! If you find some of them slow at first, then you should try reading a few pages regularly, say, a few in the morning and a few in the afternoon, rather than trying to read huge chunks at one go.

Use a dictionary for help with the occasional difficult word which seems very important, or which stops you understanding a whole passage; but don't look up in a dictionary every word which you don't understand, since this would be extremely laborious and would interrupt your reading rhythm too severely, especially with the texts from earlier centuries, where you'll come across many unfamiliar words. You'll soon find that the various set texts need to be read in very different ways in order to be enjoyed. Here are some suggestions for ways of approaching the set texts.

The Varda film can be purchased on DVD if you want to have a pre-arrival viewing but it will also be shown in colleges and through the various film societies over the course of the year. Watching the film several times can be very helpful to understanding the subtlety of Varda's work. 

The Zola novel is long and quite descriptive, so it would help enormously if you had read this before arriving. Remember: there is no need to look up every unfamiliar word, but when the word reappears a second or third time then it is time to reach for a dictionary. It is also a hair-raising read, a study of claustrophobia and murder that is still being adapted for stage and screen.

Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses is an 'epistolary novel': a series of letters exchanged between fictional people, which end up telling a tragic story about trickery, deception and self-interest. The society described is one in which reality and appearance are under constant negotiation and in which strict regulatory codes allow for the manipulation of others. This is a long novel but a gripping one and should be quite readable once you have adjusted to the elegant and exaggeratedly polite language of the late eighteenth century.

You might then go on to Renaud de Beaujeau's Le Bel Inconnu, a twelfth/thirteenth-century verse romance, set in the world of King Arthur and the Round Table but juxtaposing with that hierarchical and orderly world of values another world of chaos, unreason and the 'merveilleux' (or supernatural). As the young knight journeys toward the discovery of his name and family background, the author plays out his own story of love and suffering. You will notice immediately that this is a bilingual edition, with the text in Old French and Modern French on facing pages. Start by reading the modern French translation which is included in the prescribed edition, then read the original later on as the term progresses, referring back always to the modern translation where you need to. If you do this several times before May, you should become more comfortable with the conventions of Old French and become more comfortable with understanding the importance of the verse form in which the story is rendered.

Next, go on to Racine's play Phèdre: you will probably have to read this more slowly, since it, too, is in verse, but you'll soon get used to this. Try reading aloud as well (same for Le Bel inconnu) to appreciate the poetry as well as the content. Phèdre introduces notions of tragedy as a stepmother confesses her love of her stepson and ensures in the process the anguish of her entire family. It also introduces questions about genre and how we bring to the works we read certain expectations based on how the works are identified (comedy, tragedy, satire, etc.).

Ronsard's Amours is the final text, and please note that it is extremely important that for this text you use the recommended edition (Pierre Ronsard, Les Amours [1552-1584], ed. Marc Bensimon and James L. Martin [Paris: GF Flammarion, 1981]). The poems that have been selected are given by number on the webpage under the scheduled paper Introduction to French literature, linguistics, film and thought' and these numbers relate only to this edition. Though this is poetry from the sixteenth century, you will note that the language is, for the most part, quite comprehensible, and the beautiful love poetry quite accessible. There are peculiarities of Early Modern French that you will discover, but just check the notes in the edition periodically, and there will be lectures on the French from this period over the course of the year.

Reading texts becomes much easier with practice. We are sure you will enjoy them more as you become more familiar with them and urge you to start your reading as soon as possible.