Recently, a friend asked me the best thing to watch to practice his English listening skills. He was surprised when I suggested Peppa Pig.
We don’t tend to take cartoons very seriously, especially ones made for younger kids. But when you’re learning a language or trying to maintain your listening skills, they can be a truly useful resource.
Cartoons are a way to hear many different kinds of voices, but with everyone usually speaking relatively clearly -- none of the gritty mumbling you might find on adult shows. Often, they also give insights into a particular culture.
I love Peppa Pig’s very British sense of humor and sly observations about things like Brits traveling abroad for vacation.
So, what about French cartoons? Many cartoons have helped me practice my French, and the ones my son watches today still teach me new words and expressions, or even things about French culture.
What’s the best French cartoon to watch if you want to learn or perfect your French, and maybe get some insights into French culture as well? This is a tough question because, as with many other aspects of language learning, a lot of it depends on what works best for you as an individual.
Luckily, there are a lot of French cartoons to choose from.
Here are some that I think are especially interesting and useful for French listening practice. I’ve organized them by themes, so that you can find one or a few that best match your tastes – although watching at least a little bit of each could make for great practice, too.
Classic French comic book adaptations
If you want to learn about French humor and cultural touchstones, you can’t go wrong with these cartoon versions of classic French comic books.
Check them out to gain insight into what the French find funny and entertaining, as well as observations about the French way of life, versus that of foreigners.:
The Asterix animated movies
The humorous adventures of Asterix, a Gaul, and his oddball group of friends, enemies, and neighbors are a series of films, rather than a TV series, but there are a lot of them, and, most importantly, they’re beloved by French people of all generations.
In my French classes in America, we studied Asterix comics as an allegory for France fighting to keep its identity in the midst of post-World War II globalization (and, today, globalization in general).
When I tell French people that, most don’t seem to care – they just genuinely find this fictionalized ancient world funny.
Les nouvelles aventures de Lucky Luke and Les Dalton
These series, about cowboy hero Lucky Luke and his nemeses The Dalton family’s adventures and misadventures in the Wild West, give some insight into the French perception of things like America (at least, the Hollywood, Western movie version of it), as well as archetypes like cowboys good and bad.
Les aventures de Tintin
Okay, the Tintin and its titular character are actually Belgian, but the cartoon adaptation is a French coproduction, and the voice actors are French.
And regardless of its origins, Tintin’s characters are as familiar to French people as, say, Harry Potter’s are to most Americans.
If you like adventure of the Indiana Jones, retro variety, this could be a great show to enjoy while you practice your French listening skills.
The old school French cartoons
Many of the cartoons on this list date to the ‘80’s or later. These two are slightly older, but they’re still beloved by many French people today.
They can be a good place to start practicing your French listening skills, since their pacing and dialogue/narration speeds tend to be slower.
In the case of the Il était une fois… cartoons, you’ll sometimes feel like you’re watching a somewhat slow documentary, which is pretty surprising for a cartoon, but really nice for French learners!
You might recognize the Barbapapa characters from all sorts of things you’ll find in France, from t-shirts, to backpacks, to mugs and figurines.
The iconic colorful blobs were created by a Franco-American couple in the 1970’s, and originally appeared in a series of books.
The cartoon version soon followed. Like many older French cartoons, this one’s pace and dialogue/narration are slow, so it’s great practice. Plus, the aesthetic is pretty retro and nifty.
Il était une fois…
This series started in 1978, with Il était une fois…l’homme, which covers a lot of human history.
A few years later came Il était une fois…la vie, with an opening credits scene that seems to harken back to the days of free love (you probably won’t see any modern-day kids’ cartoons that start with a sexy naked couple embracing and then floating into the sky).
If you’re familiar with American cartoons, the show is, essentially, in the vein of Schoolhouse Rock or The Magic School Bus, but less joyful (and with no singing that I’ve ever seen).
It’s sort of like if a documentary had bits of physical comedy in it. The show doesn’t pander to kids, which may be why it’s still held in such high regard and continues to be shown on TV today. You can watch some episodes of Il était une fois…l’homme here, and some episodes of Il était une fois…la vie here.
Cartoons for young French children
French cartoons for preschoolers are often full of imagination, but also grounded in kids’ everyday experiences.
There are many of them out there, but these two are my personal favorites.:
Trotro is the animated version of a series of books based on the everyday life of a four- or five-year-old kid – well, donkey.
Although Trotro is energetic and often laughing at something or other, the show itself has a calm, soothing vibe.
If you want to increase your vocabulary in addition to brushing up on your listening skills, this is a great option, since you’ll learn some childish expressions and just generally hear people speak the way they do in everyday life.
The voice acting is excellent, to boot – Trotro sounds just like lots of French kids I know. You can watch some episodes of Trotro here.
Petit Ours Brun
Let me start by saying that this is my favorite French cartoon. It’s nowhere near as funny as Peppa Pig, but I think it’s utterly charming and I often find myself caught up in the storylines. Also, Maman and Papa Ours are parenting and relationship goals.
The Petit Ours Brun stories and books first came out in the ‘70’s, and it’s been a French children’s classic ever since. The cartoon was aired in the late 1980’s, so my husband watched it a bit as a kid. It was rebooted in the early 2000’s in a style that’s more flattering to its pretty illustrations, although I sort of wish they’d kept the original’s delightful staccato theme song (which you can hear here) – not that the new one isn’t catchy.
Like Trotro, Petit Ours Brun follows the daily life of a toddler, this time a bear. Unlike Trotro, Petit Ours Brun isn’t always easygoing. He sometimes gets into trouble, throws tantrums, or is angry – just like a real-life toddler.
If you want to learn about French culture, this show to me is the epitome of what most French people consider an ideal childhood: living in the country, doing lots of activities, going to school, learning manners, etc.
Even the little touches, like the slippers Petit Ours Brun wears, or the pastries his family eats, are distinctly and charmingly French.
Like Trotro, Petit Ours Brun features excellent voice acting (not so for its English version, which I find insipid). Petit Ours’s voice is just the right amount of cheeky, and Papa Ours’s slow, deliberate way of speaking has actually helped me with my French intonation.
If you like these fairly soothing kinds of cartoons, there are several other French ones like them to choose from. You can find a good list here.
Cartoons for older French kids
Le Petit Nicolas
Like many of you reading this, Le Petit Nicolas is one of the first longer French books I studied in school.
If that’s the same for you, get ready to be utterly delighted by seeing your favorite characters in 3-D animation!
If you don’t know Le Petit Nicolas, it’s a series of stories about Nicolas and his friends, which often take place in their French elementary school. The series is set in the early to mid- 1960’s, but the situations Nicolas, his friends, and the adults around them find themselves in are still relatable and funny today.
The stories are also a great way to learn some typical school- and childhood -related French vocabulary. As far as listening goes, the series is highly recommended by a number of French learners, as you can see in this Duolingo forum thread, for example.
Les malheurs de Sophie
If you like your cartoons a bit sad, historical, and with pretty dresses (I know I do!), this 1990’s classic, a cartoon adaptation of a 19th century trilogy of books by La Comtesse de Ségur, is for you!
Based on the 1990’s (and ongoing) comic, Titeuf is very different from many of the other kids’ worlds portrayed on this list.
The titular preteen is known for experiencing and exploring issues with his body, sexuality, and romance.
Like the drawing style, the humor can be a bit crude, but the voices are great and it’s an excellent way to hear the way many French people speak today, slang and all.
Watching non-French cartoons in French
If you’ve ever visited or lived in France, you might be surprised by how many shows aren’t on my list. That’s because many of the most popular cartoons in France are actually from other countries, including Japan and the United States – not to mention Russia (Masha and the Bear – Masha et Michka in French -- is really big here right now).
This has been the case for a long time. After all, French people grew up with Disney movies and Bugs Bunny cartoons, and, starting in the late ‘70’s, anime.
Anime (and its print version, manga) is immensely popular in France. Shows like Les chevaliers du Zodiaque, Albator, Dragonball-Z, Pokémon, and the early 1980’s anime adaptations of Tom Sawyer and Little Women (Les quatre filles du docteur March) spark nostalgia in the hearts of many French adults.
If you have a favorite anime, watching it in French could be a great idea. Or, if you want to become familiar with some French pop culture references, choose one of the shows I mentioned a few sentences earlier.
Choosing to watch a cartoon you know and love is also, of course, an option regardless of whether it’s anime. The only thing I would warn is, make sure you know what kind of French accent you’re listening to, since you might end up with, for example, a French-Canadian version. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course; it’s just a problem if that’s not the accent you want to master.
Some versions of cartoons in French are better than others, as you might expect. My personal favorite is The Simpsons – French voice actors embrace the weirdness and verbal ticks of the characters, rather than smoothing them out, which is done with far too many other cartoons (Paw Patrol (La Pat’Patrouille), I’m looking at you). Teen Titans Go! is great if you’ve got a slightly more advanced level of French and are interested in listening skills but also translation – it’s intriguing to see how the French translators adapt so many hard-to-capture American expressions and bits of humor into French.
Hybrid French cartoons
You probably won’t be surprised to find out that some cartoons are hybrids, collaborations between French creators and/or artists and writers, directors, etc., of other nationalities. Some of these shows are very popular in France. Here are two that immediately come to mind:
Les Mystérieuses Cités d’or
I know about this show because my French husband, who watched it as a kid in the ‘80’s, idealizes it, just like a lot of other French people of our generation.
Based on a Scott O’Dell novel, it’s about the exploring and discovering The New World, the show is a French and Japanese coproduction that came about shortly after the French had fallen in love with anime.
Miraculous, les aventures de Ladybug et Chat Noir
If you have kids, you may be very familiar with this French-Korean-Japanese coproduction, whose Ladybug character seems to be everywhere.
The show is about a teen girl and boy who transform from art students in the Marais to beautifully-costumed superheroes thanks to little bug-like figures (miraculouses), but its depiction of Paris is what caught my attention.
Although the layout of the city isn’t always accurate, details like the appearance of municipal buses and garbage trucks, and somewhat lesser-known spots like the Place des Vosges and the Grand Palais are surprisingly realistic for an animated show.
While it can be slightly insipid, Miraculous is well-made and fast-paced, with good action sequences. Bonus for the fact that the female superhero is portrayed just as attractively in her uniform as her male counterpart (equality!).
If you’ve ever dreamt of visiting or studying in Paris, or of being both a fashion student and a fashionable superhero in times of trouble, there is a real magic to this series.
You can watch episodes of Miraculous, les aventures de Ladybug et Chat Noir…only on the channel/streaming service/DVD’s it’s officially licensed to…but here’s an interview with its French creators.
If none of these French cartoons has caught your fancy, here’s a great list of both French and foreign cartoons in French that might help you find one to watch.
Where to watch French cartoons
Hopefully I’ve convinced you to give watching French cartoons (or cartoons in French) a try. But you might be wondering how to do that.
Luckily, it’s pretty easy. You can find at least a few episodes of most of the cartoons I’ve listed here on YouTube or watch them directly on French TV.
Other options include streaming services (Netflix, for example, should have audio options for cartoons that include French – not to mention French subtitles, for beginners) or DVD’s (you can buy these, get them from a library or rental service, or you may even have some already that you never realized had a French audio option). And of course, if you ever find yourself in a French-speaking country, or staying with a French-speaking family, see if there are any French cartoons you can watch there.
Despite being helpful for language-learning, you may still think cartoons are just for kids. If I agreed with you, I’d have to stop watching Petit Ours Brun, so how about this: why not give in and be a kid again? Watching some of these shows is a fun break from everyday grownup life. And more importantly, as Benjamin pointed out in one of my favorite articles about language learning ever (really – not because he’s my boss), a childlike mindset is actually a great one to have when it comes to learning a language.
Instead of dwelling on failures or challenges, or worrying about the next test or hardship you might face, take a wide-eyed, innocent view of the world and look at practicing your French listening skills as an adventure, full of surprises and, hopefully, some laughs along the way!