Listen to the audio version in Episode 35 of French Your Way Podcast.
Many of you find it difficult to understand spoken French. You find it too fast, daunting, overwhelming sometimes:
I struggle with understanding the response. It would seem that my ear is still not ‘tuned-in’ to native speakers. I can usually get the drift if something is written down but quite often not if it is spoken.
I struggle with holding a conversation in French ( everyone seems to speak so fast).
Si vous pouvez me donner quelques conseils pour améliorer ma compréhension orale?
Selon moi, la plupart du francophones parle français très rapidement. De ce fait, il me paraît difficilement concevable que je puisse comprendre tout ce qu’ils disent.
First, let me reassure you: this is perfectly normal. Among the 4 language skills (listening, speaking, writing and reading), listening has to be by far the most difficult skill – or at least the one that takes the most time to master. I still struggle sometimes with English myself, when there’s a lot of background noise or with some movies (maybe the accent).
- Reading and writing are in my opinion the easiest of the 4 skills, because they are not what I call immediate skills. You can take the time to decipher the information, to go back and forth, to use a dictionary, etc.
- Speaking requires you to form sentences in your head. It’s more immediate as you generally need to be a bit quicker (than in you had all the time in the world to write a letter, for example), but at least you can only use structures and words that you already know, so you are still in control.
- Listening is the immediate skill by excellence. The information needs to be processed as you go; unless you’re listening to a podcast for example, there’s no rewinding or pausing in a conversation. You more often than not can’t control the speed. The separation between the different words is not obvious – the language will sound like a continuous flow of speech/syllables, which you will need to split into units that make sense: words. And I’m not even talking about the different accents, colloquialisms, slang words, nor about some characteristics of spoken French (such as dropping the “ne” in the negation, for example).
Note: I am currently writing a conversation eBook in which I will go through the main characteristics of spoken French – I hope that will help you!
This is why you may be a good speaker or have no trouble reading a book in French and still be struggling to follow a conversation in French.
To improve your French listening skills, you will need:
My best tips of what you can do to improve your French listening skills.
I’ll start by giving you two types of exercises you can do on a regular basis to help you tune your ear to French and focus on the important information.
Keep reading and I’ll also share 9 creative ideas to improve your French listening skills and have fun at the same time.
Objective: tuning your ear to the French language
Use my podcast, French Voices, to tune your ear even if you’re still at a beginner stage:
- Use the transcript to help you while you are listening and focus intently on the pronunciation and rhythm of the voices. Don’t hesitate to play a same portion multiple times until you feel that your ear “tunes” to the accent you hear.
- Don’t try to understand everything! See what keywords you recognize or which ones could be a useful addition to your vocabulary.
Notes: In French Voices podcast, I’ve designed comprehension questions with two sets of difficulty to help improve and sharpen your listening skills by focusing on specific information. (These can also be used as a reading comprehension practice). The interviews are authentic and at normal speed ; they are not artificial and over-articulated.
What’s more, each episode is broken down into 3 to 5 parts to make it easier to chew on – you don’t have to listen to the whole episode in one go!
Click here for more information about French Voices and how to make the best use of this podcast.
Did you know that most podcast apps allow you to change the playing speed? Set the speed up to x0.5 and see whether slower makes it better for you!
Objective: Selecting relevant information from an audio text
Practice on short French audio texts, no more than 2 minute-long to start with. It can be a piece of news, a passage in a movie, a video you like on Youtube, etc. You will need access to a transcript, subtitles or the help of a tutor for correction.
Example: These short dialogues are a good way to start brushing up your basics:
- For your first (and maybe second) listening, only try to get the overall picture.
- Try to identify the key words which will allow you to grasp the context/the main information (They usually are the nouns, verbs and numbers.) If necessary, jot down notes as you listen (eg. key information such as a date, a time, a phone number, any information you could easily forget).
- Can you tell in which tenses (and moods) are the verbs conjugated?
This is an exercise of selective information in itself, but also allows you to understand and situate the story. For example, are facts related in the past, present or future tenses? Is the person giving an order (imperative may have been used), reporting facts that haven’t been confirmed (a possible function for the use the of conditional)? Is the person relating a one-off event (passé composé) or bringing up memories of things they used to do often (imparfait)?
- Remember, don’t try to understand everything. If this can be of any comfort to you, although I am fluent in English (I’ve studied in in uni, have been living in Australia for several years now and I wrote myself the book you’re reading now), I still do miss words occasionally when I watch a movie or take part in a conversation.
- Summarise in your own words what you’ve heard and understood about the situation. (Who? What? Why? When? Etc.)
- Check the transcript to validate your comprehension of what you’ve heard. Listen again, several times if necessary until the passage makes senses.
9 fun activity ideas to improve your French listening skills
“Studying” doesn’t need to rhyme with “boring”! Since you need to expose your ear to French language as much as possible, here are a few creative ways you can do so as part as your everyday life.
- News in Slow French (website and podcast)
Listening to the news on TV/radio can be hard and discouraging because it is usually very fast. This is a good way to listen to the news at a slower speed and with a transcript to follow. However, you can only get a restricted access for free: full audio and premium content require a paying subscription.
2. Rhino Spike
I haven’t personally tested Rhino Spike but immediately loved the concept! You can submit a sentence or a text in the language of your choice (let’s say in French!) and a native speaker of that language will read it for you! You can then download the recording on your MP3 device and play it as much as you want to tune in to the right pronunciation. And it’s free! (you can already listen to examples that are on the site). How does it work? People around the world contribute to it and get higher priority for having their sentences recorded when they have helped other people by recording for them.
3. Watch French movies… in French, French videos with captions, French television with subtitles for the hearing-impaired.
4. Watch French game shows on Youtube!
The first few minutes usually consist of the candidates introducing themselves: listen to their names, if they are married, have children, their age, where they come from, what they do for a living and what they like.
Some of the French games I like to watch are: Slam, Tout le Monde Veut Prendre sa Place, Qui veut Gagner des Millions, Questions pour un Champion.
5. Listen to French songs on Youtube.
Type in “paroles” to get the lyrics. Sing along to work on pronunciation and tempo!
There are so many great French artists to listen to, it really depends on your tastes! Some singers and songs I particularly like include : Stromae, Joyce Jonathan, Coeur de Pirate, Laurent Voulzy (”La fille d’avril”), Francis Cabrel, Renaud, Yannick Noah (”Aux arbres citoyens”), Florent Pagny (”Savoir Aimer”, “N’importe quoi”), Corneille (”Parce qu’on vient de loin”), Calogero (”Face à la mer”, “En apesanteur”), etc.
6. Listen to audiobooks (follow with the written version if needed)
I would recommend you start by listening to “Le Petit Prince”, a classic in French literature which is easily accessible to foreign students. You will find many versions on Youtube. There’s a very good recording of it here (it’s better if you can get the book to follow). Or a more fancy version there (which already includes the text).
The collection “Lire et s’entraîner” offers books for young adults that have specifically been adapted to learners of French. There are 4 levels of difficulty available. Each book comes with the audio CD to follow and exercises.
To work on and improve your French listening skills AND speaking skills, use this free website to find a conversation partner in your area or online (Skype, etc.). One of my friends and students has five different conversation partners so she can practice regularly, get used to different voices, and even different accents as some of her partners are from Canada! Smart!
This site is a great resource for French teachers and students alike. Teachers share activitities they have designed for the classroom. You will find listening comprehensions activities (built around dialogs or songs), among a thousand other useful exercises.
And of course…
9. Listen to my podcast, French Voices!
(just a friendly reminder!)
Bonus: What you can do if you don’t understand something that’s being said to you
Tip #1: Ask for rewording
When having a conversation with French speakers, many students of French tend to stick to the traditional
“Répétez s’il vous plait” (= Say it again, please) or “Parlez plus lentement s’il vous plait” (= Speak more slowly please.).
These are only useful if you do think that you will eventually understand after hearing the sentence again or more slowly.
If you really can’t pick up the words, or if the structure of the sentence seems too complicated for you, try:
“Je ne comprends pas, vous pouvez expliquer autrement, s’il vous plait?” (= I don’t understand, can you explain some other way, please?)
It may simply not have crossed the other person’s mind that they could try to explain things differently!
Tip #2 : Ask for the spelling
If you are really stuck with a word that is key to your comprehension, think about asking the other person how to spell it:
“[xxx], comment ça s’écrit ?” (= How is [xxx] written ?)
“Vous pouvez épeler [xxx]?” (= Can you spell [xxx] ?)
This is an excellent way to practice your knowledge of the alphabet, look a word up in your dictionary and learn some new vocabulary! Use with moderation, as a conversation that is interspersed with dictionary checks quickly becomes annoying!
I hope this helps! You can also listen to these tips through my podcast. Use the comment section below to share your own tips with other students: How do you improve your French listening skills?
Last but not least, all these tips and more will be included in my upcoming eBook “How to Improve your French Conversation Skills”. If you would like to be notified when it’s ready, please sign up to my newsletter!