You’re walking down the street, and suddenly, you start hearing French, spoken quickly and casually, somewhere nearby.
You turn, curious, to see two people having a lively conversation behind you.
You’re excited to hear the language you’ve been working to master, so you tune in.
Wouldn’t you love to understand every word?
How can you get to the point where you’ll no longer wish that real life could be subtitled?
Being able to read French and comprehend it and being able to listen to French and comprehend it are two completely different skills.
You’ll notice that when children are learning their native language, they do so orally—meaning their listening comprehension comes many years before their reading comprehension.
They must take time to learn how to read and write. The way many adults learn a language, though, is the opposite—being able to read and write before the listening comprehension kicks in.
So if you’re new to speaking and listening to French, here are five ways to start moving from “Please speak slower” to “You could actually speak faster, if you’d like—I understand!”
Additional Benefits of Stellar French Listening Comprehension Skills
Besides the obvious benefit of being able to speak and listen to French without any trouble, there are some less obvious benefits that come along with honed listening comprehension skills.
Your accent sounds more French
The more you listen to native speakers talk, the more your brain processes the correct pronunciations and mimics them as you speak yourself. The important takeaway here is to listen to the same accent as often as possible at the beginning (this is when spending a significant time immersing yourself in a city is valuable) to get your ear accustomed to certain sounds and inflections.
You’ll find yourself mimicking that accent and slowly sounding more French. This video gives you an idea of how many accents exist just in France—so that’s not including the many dialects and accents in Francophone countries around the world.
Learning new vocabulary happens almost by osmosis
As you listen, you’ll pick up new vocabulary all the time. Some of it will stick, and some won’t, but you’ll be surprised how much you retain. Many of the words you learn might show up in something you read and you’ll know what it means without thinking about it.
Or, in other cases, you’ll recognize the word and be able to look it up without trouble. What’s also great about learning new vocabulary by hearing it is that you learn the pronunciation in tandem with the definition—bringing us back to the very nice perk of having a great accent.
You learn how to speak both informally and formally
When you’re learning grammar and vocabulary, you don’t typically learn the difference between informal and formal French right off the bat. What’s great about having spectacular listening comprehension is that you begin to understand the difference, and the wider net variety of people you listen to and resources you tap into, the better you’ll understand the difference.
How do you get these perks? Keep listening.
5 Easy Ways to Rapidly Improve Your French Listening Comprehension
1. Speak as often as possible—even if you make mistakes
In my experience, this is much easier said than done. Speaking even though you know you may continually make mistakes is daunting and often frustrating. But there are some ways to do this without feeling embarrassed and discouraged at every turn. When you speak what you hear, it cements your understanding of the spoken word in a way that doesn’t happen when you simply just listen.
Find a language partner or join a language exchange
It’s important to find a language partner to practice your conversation skills, but it’s also crucial to establishing strong listening comprehension. When you’re speaking with your partner, practice listening to what they say, and then ask questions—in French—if you don’t understand. Then repeat back what they say.
Try answering your partner, double checking with them that you fully understood and that you provided an acceptable response. For example, your speaking partner might make a comment using a vocabulary word you don’t yet know. Tell them: “Je ne comprends pas. Pouvez-vous expliquer?” (I don’t understand. Can you explain?)
When they clarify the meaning, repeat what they said. Confirm that you said it correctly. Then respond with a follow-up comment or question to continue the conversation.
Practice pronouncing unfamiliar words and phrases on your own
When you encounter particularly difficult words or phrases, take a note and say them out loud at home. Specifically note why it’s difficult for you: Is it the accent, the grammar, the usage?
Once you feel comfortable with it, go back to your language partner or use it in a conversation with a friend. Then you’ll find that you’ve nailed it and will understand it clearly when other people use it.
2. Watch movies with French subtitles
Watching dubbed and subtitled movies is a great way to connect the words you hear to the written word that you have already learned. Especially when you’re starting the process of improving your listening, it’s hard to even grasp what the characters might be saying, leaving only the visual as a clue.
To avoid struggling through a 2-hour film and feeling frustrated at the end, turn on the French subtitles. If you don’t feel comfortable reading that quickly in French, try this process to work up to it:
1. Pick an American movie you’ve seen before.
2. Turn on the French dubbed version so that the characters are speaking French rather than English.
3. Turn on the English subtitles first, then listen carefully to the words the characters are saying. Take notes about the words and turns of phrases that may not be familiar to you.
4. When you feel more confident, switch the subtitles to French. Now connect those same sentences you hear to the French words themselves. Again, write down aspects of the language you’re not understanding. Ask a friend or your language partner about them.
5. Watch one more time without any French subtitles. Can you pull out certain words from the conversation? Do you understand the dialogue? What do you miss? What do you know you understand 100%?
Consider doing this with a friend, too, who you can text or call and ask, “Did you understand that one scene…?”
You may be able to do this with movies you rent online or at a video store, and may have the ability to change subtitles on Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services, as well. Do note that since this option is still rather limited, confirm that any DVDs you may rent or buy do indeed have a French audio and subtitle options.
In addition to full-length movies, FluentU is a fantastic video-based immersion platform that provides a huge library of clips.
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:
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.
For example, if you tap on the word "crois," you'll see this:
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."
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.
3. Listen to French radio programs
Listening to French radio programs can be a serious challenge, since watching movies and having a conversation both give you a chance to watch someone speak and match their body language to their words. You have no such luxury with the radio. Is it truly a test of how much you know and don’t know.
In order to improve your comprehension with this method, find a radio program with a written transcript. RFI Savoirs is one of the best resources for this, as it provides current radio programs and newscasts with the transcription in French underneath so you can follow along. This includes easy newscasts, which to me is the most useful for both keeping up with French news and improving my comprehension.
I would recommend following a similar step-by-step process with the radio as you might approach with movies:
- Select a recorded radio program with a provided transcript. Pause the program when you’re having difficulty following or need to look up a word. Make a note.
- After you’ve listened once through while stopping, listen again while reading the transcript—but don’t let yourself stop the podcast. See how much you understand the second time around.
- Take the transcript away and listen to the program on its own. Note what you understand without looking at the written words, and mark what doesn’t make sense to you without reading the transcript.
- Go back and find that section and determine why you don’t understand it. Practice saying it out loud and using it in different contexts.
4. Take advantage of online listening resources
Le plaisir d’apprendre. Though this is mainly a beginner site—and completely in French—it’s filled with effective exercises for sharpening your listening comprehension. The comprehension orale (oral comprehension) section is divided into different parts: Rencontres (Greetings), Loisirs (Leisure Activities), Descriptions (Descriptions), Chiffres et nombres (Letters and Numbers), Dates et heures (Dates and times), and Activités quotidiennes (Daily activities).
The last one—Daily activities—is a great section to focus on as a daily practice, for 15 minutes or so, to keep up a pattern of improving your comprehension. You could focus on the other sections when you have a specific reason to work on an aspect of the language–which you should discover as you identify words and phrases you often have difficulty with.
Ciel Bretagne. Though geared towards students preparing for exams, this website has a great selection of listening comprehension exercises. Exercises exist for many levels and includes a short portion of a radio segment or something similar with a list of questions directly following. You can then check your answers to see how much you did—or did not—understand.
5. Keep learning vocab and grammar
As you continue to watch movies, speak constantly and listen to the radio, you may forget the skill that started you on this journey in the first place: reading comprehension and writing. Remember that as you continue to hone your ears, it’s crucial to solidify your understanding of French grammar and keep learning new vocabulary.
What improves your listening skills is the continuous practice of the language and how it works, and the more you understand about written French, the quicker your ears will be able to put two and two together and connect the written with the spoken.
I would recommend that, as you learn new vocabulary, you pair that vocabulary set to a movie, TV show or radio program that you know will use a lot of those words. For example, if you are focusing on literary vocabulary (words that describe books and writing), choose a literary podcast to listen to and see how many of those new words you can pick out. If you’re learning kitchen vocabulary, watch a cooking show and practice pointing out new words that you hear as you watch.
At the end of the day, developing your listening comprehension is a process of putting many different skills together and being persistent about your practice.
Maybe most of all, it’s about asking questions and being willing to make mistakes. So go out there and listen!
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