french listening

Listen Up! The Complete Guide to Improving French Listening Skills at All Levels

Have you ever listened to something in French, and it was like all the sounds ran together, and you had no idea where one word ended and the other began?

Lucky for you, French isn’t known for obscenely long words (I’m looking at you, German).

Then why does this happen?

Between the inexperience of parsing French words, the warp-speed intonation and other complications like silent letters and liaison, French isn’t always what it seems!

But what can you do about it?

Well, as the French say, c’est en forgeant qu’on devient forgeron (it’s by forging that one becomes a blacksmith).

In other words, you need to practice listening to become a good listener. But don’t just practice any old way: you need to practice the smart way.

And here’s how!

Why Is French Listening Important?

Let’s say you’re at a good level of French. You understand most of what you read. You can write a couple of paragraphs about yourself, your life and your surroundings. Maybe you’ve even spoken to a real French speaker, and you made yourself understood. Who cares if you struggle understanding French when it’s not spoken clearly and slowly, right?

Wrong! Improving French listening is crucial for improving your French level as a whole.

Why is that? Well, listening is one of the core four language learning competencies along with speaking, reading and writing. This means that even if the other three skills are strong, you’re missing a piece of the puzzle without listening, and your French won’t be as strong as it could be with better French listening skills. Improving listening contributes to a well-rounded level of French.

Further, since listening is part of the four main competencies of language learning, it’s therefore a skill that’s tested in French language proficiency tests such as the Diplôme d’Etudes en Langue Française (Diploma of Studies in the French Language) or DELF and the Diplôme Approfondi de Langue Française (Advanced Diploma in the French Language) or DALF. In order to do well on those tests, you will need to learn French audio.

Additionally, listening skills are particularly important for growing speaking skills. The two skills are different sides of the same coin. To speak French well, you need to listen to French.

Practicing listening helps you understand native speakers at their natural speed. While native speakers of French may slow down their speech when talking to learners, real French is spoken very quickly. To keep up, you will need a high level of listening skills.

And that doesn’t just count for understanding native speakers! Growing your listening skills helps you understand native media such as French movies, TV shows, radio, music and online media.

Lastly, French listening practice also allows you to remember words better and understand grammar constructions and use them more naturally in your speech and writing. Even passive listening has its perks for mastering the French accent and intonation.

How to Improve Your French Listening Skills

So, we’ve established that you need to improve your French listening skills to disassemble French word salad, but how? Check out the following tips for improving your French listening quickly and effectively!

Listen to the Same Thing Repeatedly

french listening

Do you ever hear a song on the radio, get addicted right away and listen to it over and over again? Do you then notice that the song gets stuck in your head, lyrics and all?

This same phenomenon can be used for French listening practice at large.

In fact, listening to something multiple times is crucial for developing understanding. Each time you listen, you get a more complete picture of the entire audio as you learn more words and your understanding moves from the surface level to a deeper level.

Listening multiple times also helps improve your accent and get accustomed to sentence structure. It effectively trains your ear to the flow of the French language and its sounds so that you can produce them better when speaking.

Repetition is also crucial to you learning new vocabulary. With each time you hear a newly-learned word, it gets transferred from your short-term to your long-term memory. I suggest that you keep a list of new words that you review prior to each listening session and that you add to as you encounter new words.

You could also do this same repetition with YouTube videos or French movies to learn French.

Listen with Subtitles

In addition to listening to something multiple times, subtitles are also a great help with understanding. Subtitles allow for a side-by-side (or underneath) transcription in French or translation into English of what you’re hearing. This is invaluable for being able to separate the words from one another and read along as you listen.

Subtitles can also help you to mine for new words, idioms and phrases. As you listen along with subtitles, you can isolate words you don’t know. This allows you to write them down (with proper spelling) and then revisit them later for subsequent activities such as flashcards, writing or speaking practice.

To get the most out of subtitles, I suggest this three-step process. First, listen to your clip using English subtitles. This is essential if at a beginner level so that you can understand what’s being said.

However, don’t use English subtitles for long! On a second listen, use French subtitles and look up words you don’t know. After a few more listens with French subtitles, listen to the audio without subtitles and see how much of it you can understand. The answer will surprise you!

For French listening practice, don’t just settle for any subtitles: aim to get interactive subtitles, ones that are completely clickable.

For that, I recommend FluentU French!

french listening

FluentU uses real-world videos to support your French listening practice.

You can hover over any word in the subtitles of all French videos and get a full translation. Not only that, but you can click on the word for more detailed grammatical information, audio clips and example sentences. Each word can also be turned into a flashcard for later review. As you review the flashcards more and more, your progress bar grows, indicating how well you know a French word.

Now, that’s what I call subtitles that work for you!

We’ll talk more about what FluentU has to offer later in this post, so stay tuned for more information how FluentU can work for you.

Record Yourself and Listen Back

french listening

While it may seem counter-intuitive, a great way to improve your French listening skills is to record yourself speaking French.

After listening to something in French, I recommend repeating new words—or even whole sentences and paragraphs—from what you listened to and recording them. Recording software is easily available for your computer, your tablet or your smartphone.

You can repeat the new French words exactly as you hear them in their sentences or you can try to make your own sentences using the new words. Make sure to speak loudly and clearly, and use your best French accent to practice how the words should sound.

Once recorded, listen back and compare your accent to a native French accent. What do you notice? What needs to be improved? By figuring out what you need to work on, you can make a plan.

Over time, you’ll notice that you will be able to fine tune your accent and sound more French as you record yourself and practice with advanced French audio.

Don’t Try to Understand Everything

french listening

Let me be clear: When listening to something in French, you won’t understand everything you hear. Period.

It isn’t what you want to hear, but it’s the truth. Besides, there are occasionally times when you’re listening to something in your native language and you don’t understand a word, so this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Instead of knowing every single word in French, aim to understand the main idea of a French audio, especially on a first listen. In fact, you should aim to understand the gist of it, so you can home in later.

As you listen to something the second, third and fourth times, write down and translate important words and phrases you don’t understand. Review these often, and refer back to this list as you listen to the French audio subsequent times.

Even if something is challenging, it’s crucial to listen to it all the way through. I strongly recommend that you don’t stop listening to look up a word every time you don’t understand. That breaks the flow of your listening practice and stops you from understanding the audio as a whole. Listening the whole way through is particularly important as you advance from beginner to intermediate French audio resources.

Repeat What You Hear

As we’ve previously mentioned, listening is linked to speaking. That means that when listening to something, you should repeat sentences and words you hear, especially new words that you don’t know yet or the ones you’re in the process of learning.

This can be done in two ways. The first is sporadic, meaning you repeat an unknown word or phrase whenever one comes up. Secondly, you can do a line-by-line repetition where you’re shadowing French.

A line-by-line includes listening to something one line at a time, repeating each line out loud and checking for understanding and pronunciation. This means you listen to a sentence in its entirety, and then you repeat the whole thing in French. You may need to repeat the sentence multiple times to get it right.

This repetition of the native content will improve your accent and your ability to understand and speak French. In fact, you can learn French words quicker by repeating them out loud and using them in the context of real French sentences such as with a French language exchange partner.

Write Summaries of What You Listen To

french listening

Whether you watch a movie, listen to a podcast or follow a radio show, write a summary of what you’re listening to after you’ve listened to it or after every natural section. This is a fantastic way to test French listening comprehension.

These summaries could be short or long—even a sentence or two with main ideas included can be an effective summary. You should use vocabulary and sentence structures that were in the audio you listened to. Make sure also to incorporate new vocabulary. You don’t need to include all new vocabulary, but you definitely should include new words that are critical to the main ideas of whatever you’ve listened to.

Writing a summary will help you understand the audio the next time you listen and to be on the lookout for key words. It will also reinforce new vocabulary, grammatical rules and sentence structures.

For added practice, try reading out loud or recording your summary.

Memorize Song Lyrics

french listening

Other than French immersion with TV or movies, the most common—and perhaps the most portable—form of audio is music. Why not use this to your advantage and really delve into some great French tunes?

In fact, don’t just passively listen to music: find the lyrics and print them out. You can find the lyrics to many of the most well-known French songs on the internet, and it’s also not uncommon for smaller indie French musicians to post their song lyrics on social media.

While you listen to French songs, follow along with the printed out lyrics to the song. This will allow you to see exactly what’s being said. I also recommend highlighting new words, looking them up in a dictionary and writing their translations in the margins of the lyrics.

After some time of reading—and singing—along, you’ll have memorized the song lyrics! This will allow you to internalize the lyrics’ meaning to learn new words and sentence structure. It can even help to improve your accent as you sing the song out loud with or without the accompanying music.

Read Out Loud

french listening

Believe it or not, reading can also be a beginner or intermediate French listening exercise! Simply say out loud what it is you’re seeing on the page or screen while you’re reading, and you’ve got French audio as well as valuable French pronunciation practice at your fingertips.

Reading out loud does two things for listening practice. Firstly, it will aid in the comprehension of the reading as a whole and help you learn new words. Using words actively is a great way to move new vocabulary into your long-term memory, so saying them out loud could speed up this process. You will be more apt to recognize the new words you read out loud the next time you hear them.

Reading out also helps you improve your accent. Your mouth will get used to making tricky French sounds as well as determine which words you need to practice saying more.

Best Resources for Practicing Your French Listening Skills

french listening

In the age of the internet, there are many ways to access French listening resources. I recommend using them all! However, you should know what each has to offer and how to use each resource best.

YouTube

While primarily a video sharing service turned alternative for television, YouTube is great for listening and learning French on YouTube. This is because it provides a wealth of French material in terms of level of difficulty, topics and French accent.

You can find beginner, intermediate and advanced French listening materials as well as videos in French from France, from Canada and from around the world making it easy to learn French on YouTube.

Further, YouTube also shows both formal and informal French. For example, you can access the news in French on YouTube, TED Talks in French as well as informal French vloggers who use a lot of slang.

YouTube has a lot of great features that can help with listening. This includes the ability to adjust the playback speed, pausing and being able to watch French YouTube videos with subtitles. There are even entire French YouTube channels with subtitles to aid in your listening practice.

One example of a superb YouTube channel to learn French is the FluentU French YouTube channel! With this resource, you’ll be able to keep up to date with all the latest French content as well as enjoy educational breakdowns and insider tips from dedicated French speakers.

For instance, the following video will teach you how to transform French media into powerful language lessons:

And this analysis of the trailer of “Jurassic World” will turn a two-minute video into a captivating vocabulary learning experience:

If you’re after the perfect accompaniment to your FluentU account, then subscribe to the FluentU YouTube channel for heaps of great French learning and entertainment videos.

FluentU

An important part of French listening practice is ensuring that what you’re hearing is authentic French audio, and with FluentU, you never have to worry.

FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

Other sites use scripted content. FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the French language and culture over time. You’ll learn French as it’s actually spoken by real people.

FluentU has a wide variety of great content, like interviews and web series, as you can see here:

learn-french-with-videos

FluentU brings native videos within reach with interactive subtitles.

You can tap on any word to look it up instantly. Every definition has examples that have been written to help you understand how the word is used.

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For example, if you tap on the word "crois," you'll see this:

learn-french-with-movie-trailers

Practice and reinforce all the vocabulary you've learned in a given video with FluentU's adaptive quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning and play the mini-games found in the dynamic flashcards, like "fill in the blank."

practice-french-with-adaptive-quizzes

As you study, FluentU tracks the vocabulary that you’re learning and uses this information to give you a 100% personalized experience.

It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned.

Start using FluentU on the website with your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play stores.

Podcasts

French podcasts are crucial for listening for two reasons. The first: they’re completely portable. Simply download them or save them to your favorite podcast feed, and they can be taken wherever you go.

Secondly, you can find podcasts that meet all your needs. For example, you can find podcasts that are specifically for learners such as an intermediate French podcast or an advanced French podcast. In fact, you can completely learn French by podcast.

Conversely, you can find native-language French podcasts on a variety of topics. There are podcasts on pretty much everything in French including politics, history, travel and pop culture.

Some podcasts—especially those aimed at French learners—come with transcripts, and some even come with comprehension exercises. These additions are a great way to turn your French podcasts into a well-rounded French learning experience for any level.

Movies and TV Shows

Movies and TV shows can be the most entertaining listening activities. Whether you want to watch cartoons in French, indulge in French classic movies or check out some thought-provoking French cult films, you can always find something to watch that makes your French listening practice fun.

There are two options here. Firstly, you can watch native French movies and TV shows. This includes movies and TV shows that are originally in various French dialects such as the best French Canadian TV shows. Secondly, you can check out media that has been overdubbed in French from other languages. These include a plethora of French dubbed movies that are available on most streaming services.

Many movies and TV shows come with subtitles in French and other languages, especially those on streaming services. That means that you can watch French movies with English subtitles as well as French movies with French subtitles to really maximize the learning process.

Homing in on a type of movie or TV show can help you grow your vocabulary in a specific area of French.

For example, a French TV show such as Dix pour cent (Ten Percent) or “Call My Agent!” as it’s known in English, is a great way to learn vocabulary related to the business world and the arts industry.

It’s also fantastic for hearing French as it’s actually spoken, quick speed and all, as pointed out by this video from FluentU French’s YouTube channel.

 

Further, French animated movies are a great way to use French cartoons to learn French since they’re aimed at children. These will include French spoken slowly and clearly with easy vocabulary.

You can also learn slang and informal French with French drama series and French games shows as well as love and romance vocabulary with French romantic movies. Even French sci-fi movies can help you learn scientific vocabulary if that’s the area you want to improve.

Further, you can learn vocabulary related to a topic with movies and TV shows. For instance, French Christmas cartoons and French Christmas movies can help you learn vocabulary related to this popular holiday.

French documentaries with subtitles can be interesting as well as give you the words you need to talk about the subject of the documentary.

The best part of movies and TV shows is that finding them in French has never been easier. Namely, you can find the best French movies on Amazon Prime or the best French movies on Netflix. You can maximize your French movies on Netflix by using the French subtitles on Netflix.

You can also use French TV live streaming to see the news as well as French TV series to learn French from major television networks.

Videos

Viral videos have made the most impact on pop culture in the past 15 years, and this is true in French as well! Whether you’re looking for funny French videos or French videos of interesting factoids, viral videos make it easy to learn French with videos simply because there are so many to choose from.

Additionally, there are also targeted videos that can be instructional. In fact, you can learn French with videos by watching French conversational videos, French dialogues or French dialogues between friends so that you can apply these words and phrases to your own French conversations.

While these videos can be for the purpose of learning French, they can be for the purpose of learning another skill such as cooking videos in French.

Of course, many viral videos are related to media of a higher production value. This means you can literally learn French by watching movies and use French movie trailers to your advantage. You can also access a French music video or two to enhance listening skills as the videos often reflect the song’s content.

Songs and Music

As previously mentioned, music and lyrics have a unique power when it comes to helping you learn French.

In fact, you can easily learn French with songs and find French music on Spotify. In addition to the dynamic French music scene, you can even find French songs to learn French such as vocabulary tunes aimed at students.

French music itself is available in a variety of genres as well as accents. You can easily access classic French songs, French Christmas songs, French love songs and even learn French with rap music and funny French songs. In fact, French music culture is so prevailing that there are a number of well-known famous French singers to learn French songs with that even English speakers know, such as Edith Piaf.

After you download French songs, you can look up the French song lyrics in English to learn their meanings and to learn new words. Some English songs even have equivalents in French such as Disney songs with French lyrics.

News and Radio

French news and radio is a great way to listen to French, whether actively or passively. It’s also useful to learn different levels of French formality as well as a large amount of vocabulary related to specific topics.

Those looking to learn French news will notice that the media often uses formal French. This is the highest register of French, so to speak, and even though it may be uncommon in day-to-day French, learning it’s essential to understand and learn French news.

This level of formality is also common in French talk shows, but you may also notice useful informal French when you listen to French talk radio shows as well. In fact, it’s entirely possible to listen to French radio stations to learn French. You can access these talk shows through French radio online and even learn French with news via live streams from major news organizations.

When you learn French with news, you can also access a number of accents from around the world. Some news organizations even have resources for learners such as transcripts and comprehension exercises to help you learn French news more effectively.

Audiobooks

Along with reading physical and digital books, French audiobooks are great for at-home and on-the-go learners.

You can find French audiobooks for virtually all popular books, and they can be native French books as well as books translated from English or other languages. There are even French audiobooks on Spotify for those who don’t want to pay specifically for audio versions.

To get the most out of French audiobooks, I recommend listening to them alongside the book once or twice. This allows you to hear the way the words are pronounced as well as the flow of the sentences. Then try listening to the same section without the book multiple times to repeat the new vocabulary.

Don’t want to commit to a full audiobook? I also recommend checking out bite-sized French audio stories online.

French Listening for Beginners

french listening

Being a beginner is tough. It’s even tougher when you feel overwhelmed every time you listen to French. Check out these tips to listen to French for beginners.

Find Beginner Listening Resources

Finding listening resources at your level is crucial to not being overwhelmed and growing your French listening skills effectively. Therefore, you need to make sure to find listening resources that are actually for beginners. That means using French movies for beginners or French movies for kids as well as other French videos for beginners.

Further, many beginner listening resources come with slow, clear French on common topics that beginners encounter the most. They also often come with transcripts, translations and exercises for reinforcement.

Slow Down the Speed

If the listening resource allows, learn French audio more easily by turning the speed down. Streaming websites such as YouTube have this function but even more structured French audio courses allow you to adjust the speed so you can more clearly hear the French being used.

Slowing down the audio allows you to hear the words more clearly, and it can also aid with understanding and sentence parsing.

Listen a Lot and Multiple Times

As a beginner, you need as much listening practice as you can get.

That’s why you should listen to varied audio resources such as music, movies and TV show clips, YouTube videos and podcasts. You should even listen to audio not necessarily meant for beginners.

The key here is repetition. Choose the audio you like the most and listen to it multiple times to maximize its sticking power in your long-term memory.

Use Transcripts

Transcripts allow for a word-by-word script of what’s being said in a given French listening resource. These are useful for understanding and for hearing how words are actually pronounced.

Some resources have transcripts as part of their learning regimen: some even link to French audio dictionaries that allow you to explore the vocabulary further. Other resources have transcripts in a more subtle way, such as French movies with subtitles or French songs with lyrics.

I recommend mining for vocabulary you don’t know from the transcripts and when you learn French with subtitles.

Use New Words from Listening Actively

After listening to something in French, immediately use the new words you’ve learned.

This doesn’t have to take long, but you should keep them fresh in your memory. Writing them down, making sentences and recording yourself saying the words are easy and quick ways to review newly-learned words and phrases.

This revision transfers the French words from your short-term to long-term memory and thus makes them easier to recognize and understand when you hear them again.

 

Be overwhelmed by the French word salad no more. With this complete guide, you’re ready to become the best forgeron—er, I mean listener around!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.

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