Fine Tune Your French Ear: The 5 Best Listening Tools, Plus Expert Practice Tips
You’re in the café, waiting for your French language partner to show up.
Might as well eavesdrop on the table next to you.
But as you listen in, you notice something peculiar.
Neither person is responding to what the other is actually saying. Each is simply speaking their own mind, not understanding or even paying attention to what’s being said.
That’s not a conversation! It’s two monologues happening at once.
It’s not the kind of exchange you hope to have when your language partner arrives. It’s not a fun experience in your native language, and definitely won’t be any better in French.
The thing is, if your listening skills aren’t up to snuff, you won’t get very far in your French studies, conversations or travels to French-speaking regions. But it can be easy to overlook these facts when practicing French.
We often gravitate towards skills like reading or vocabulary building. We can control our own pace instead of being overwhelmed by a swift-speaking French native. Nevertheless, the only way to improve our listening skills is to simply practice.
In this post, we’ll show you some great places to go to strengthen your listening skills, no matter what your proficiency level is or what interests you. From French music to Francophone news and more, they’ll help you actively improve your listening comprehension without getting bored or overwhelmed.
Why Is Listening Practice So Important?
Have you ever noticed that people usually ask “Do you speak French?” not “Do you read French?” or “Do you write French?”
When people talk about language learning, their goal is usually to be able to converse in that language. And there’s no way to have a conversation with someone if you have no idea what they’re saying.
A conversation is a dialogue. Both people need to understand what they’re listening to for it to work. So if you truly want to get fluent and communicate about anything with French speakers, you can’t neglect listening practice.
Not only is listening central to partaking in conversation, but it’s also crucial to day-to-day life in a French-speaking region—listening to announcements on a plane or at a train station, for instance.
Finally, listening practice isn’t just about your ears. It’ll also help you absorb native sounding pronunciations so your accent doesn’t scream étranger! (foreigner!).
Psst! Check Out These 5 Uniquely Useful French Listening Practice Tools
Listening comprehension is central to improving or perfecting your French. The good news is that there’s a wide variety of online resources available, many of which are free.
Here are five engaging ways for you to take your French listening to the next level, plus tips on how to get the most effective practice out of them.
Don’t live in France or have a French-speaking roommate? French dialogues are the next best thing.
These dialogues typically demonstrate the types of conversations you might have if you went to a grocery store in France or talked to a French friend about your day. It’s also a great way to pick up quirks of the French language in context.
Where to Find French Dialogues
Ah, the joys of YouTube. Although it’s easy to waste countless hours on YouTube, the great news is that it can also be a powerful French learning tool.
239 Dialogues en Français (239 Dialogues in French)
The number of dialogues might seem hopelessly overwhelming at first, but don’t worry. You’re not expected to listen to them all at once!
Each individual dialogue is only a few minutes long, and this video caters to a wide variety of learners. The beginning dialogues tend to be more basic and increase in difficulty as the video goes on.
This resource is especially helpful to prepare for travel to a French-speaking country because the dialogues are so practical, covering such everyday tasks as ordering at a bakery, going to a post office, talking about your day, etc.
Furthermore, each dialogue has an on-screen transcript of the conversation, which is immensely helpful to double check what you heard or look up something you don’t know.
This YouTube channel offers listening practice geared specifically to French learners. You’ll be given a question that the conversation will answer, then you’ll listen to that conversation.
Afterwards, you’ll be shown the question again and pick your answer. Finally, the video plays the dialogue again with French subtitles, ruling out the wrong answers as it goes along.
FrenchPod101 has a playlist of listening comprehension videos for every learning level, each with about 10 to 20 videos.
If you enjoy the FrenchPod101 YouTube channel, there’s more where it came from! FrenchPod101 has a video and audio podcast with more than 1,000 lessons for you to explore.
These lessons are designed by pros but specifically created to be entertaining and culturally relevant. They’re also supported by additional resources such as PDF lesson notes and a community language forum.
How to Practice with French Dialogues
Always try listening to the dialogue all the way through without looking at a transcript to see what you can get with just your ears. Unfortunately, real conversations don’t come with transcripts—so it’s important to get comfortable listening to French without one.
Don’t be concerned if you don’t understand everything at first. Just get a feel for what you’re able to grasp.
Next, read the transcript along with the conversation, paying attention to pronunciation and accent. Look up any words that trip you up. (The good news is that FrenchPod101 replays the dialogue for you with subtitles, and asks a question to test your comprehension.)
Finally, listen once more without subtitles so that you can connect the words you didn’t get the first time around.
You can even take it a step further and create your own dialogue. This usually isn’t difficult, since most of the dialogues here follow a basic question-and-answer format. For instance, if the dialogue is about a student staying with his uncle in the country for spring break, write a dialogue in which he spends it with friends in Marseille.
Finally, read your conversation aloud to reinforce the sounds of the language.
I don’t know about you, but I love music. I listen to it whenever I can: when I do my schoolwork, when I exercise, when I walk down the street. And I am so glad that I can exercise my French at the same time.
Learning French with music is engaging and effective. We always seem to remember things far more easily when they’re put in song or at least set to a tune. That’s why it’s so common for a song to get stuck in our heads. That’s why marketing companies make a point of ending their commercials with a catchy jingle. Why not take advantage to cement French vocabulary and pronunciations in your memory?
One thing to note is that, in French, songs and poetry are pronounced differently than spoken French. When French is spoken, the last syllable is usually silent, whereas every syllable is pronounced when French is sung. For example, one would pronounce the “e” in souffrance (suffering) only when it’s sung.
Getting to know major French music artists is also a great way to become more familiar with French culture. We’ll point you to several popular hits below.
Where to Find French Music
YouTube, once again, can be a powerful learning tool. You can find dozens of French music videos, many of them with lyrics on-screen.
A couple of my favorite French songs are “Dernière Danse” (“Last Dance”) and “On Dirait” (“It Seems”). I also adore hearing Disney characters sing in their native languages. For instance, listen to Quasimodo sing “Rien Qu’un Jour” (English equivalent: “Out There”) or the opening song of “La Belle et La Bête” (“Beauty and the Beast”).
Those can give you some good starting points, but if you want to go in depth on French music, check out French Music Blog, which covers in detail some of the most popular music artists in France right now.
How to Practice with French Music
The way to practice French with music is similar to working with dialogues. Once you’ve found a song you like, listen to it once all the way through without looking at the lyrics. Notice or jot down key words, phrases or main ideas you recognize.
Then, listen again and follow along with the lyrics. Better yet, sing along with them! This will make the words and sounds more memorable.
Look up any new words, and listen once more to make sure you absorb them.
If you don’t have time to go through this entire process, you can listen to French music in the background as you work, travel or simply go about your day. Don’t be bothered if you don’t understand every word. It takes time.
I find that, even if I listen to French songs without giving it my full attention, I comprehend more and more each time.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
But better yet, these videos come with innovative features that transform them into a language learning experience. It’s an awesome way to build your skills while discovering French culture and having fun.
How Does FluentU Work?
FluentU takes authentic videos and guides you through them with interactive subtitles. You can click any word you’re not familiar with for a definition and examples in context. Use FluentU’s “Learn Mode” to practice with flashcards containing key vocabulary for the videos.
FluentU gives you access to the way French is really spoken. You’ll learn with the same videos that native speakers are exposed to regularly, keeping you in touch with modern, real-world French. As you progress in your knowledge, FluentU keeps track of your watched videos and completed lessons to recommend the most relevant content.
It’s a great tool for any French level, with content tailormade for beginners, intermediate and advanced learners.
Plus, you can take your learning on the go with the FluentU mobile app for iOS or for Android! That makes it easy to find time for French learning, even if you only have a few spare minutes between meetings or in line at the grocery store.
News in French
Unfortunately, many people aren’t really aware of what’s going on in their own backyard, let alone in other countries. Nevertheless, being aware of what’s happening in the world is so important. Luckily, you can polish your French listening at the same time!
Not only will listening to French news outlets introduce you to some of the issues of concern to people in France and other Francophone countries, but it’ll also give you a different cultural perspective on American and international events.
Furthermore, since news reporting tends to employ a more formal tone, you get to practice more formal French, as well as specialized vocabulary (e.g. political or legal terms).
Where to Find the News in French
RFI Savoirs (RFI Knowledge) is part of Radio France Internationale (French International Radio) and has hundreds of free online audio clips, spanning a wide variety of topics, such as technology and economics.
Many of the clips are also downloadable for convenient and portable listening. Since the website is designed for learners, many clips come with comprehension exercises as well.
This is another popular French news service that has many (usually) brief news clips accessible online. They cover significant developments in France as well as from around the world.
If you’re not sure which clip to watch, or just want to jump in, France 24 is also live on YouTube 24/7 (it is France 24, after all!)
TV 5 Monde
TV 5 Monde (TV 5 World) offers both news articles and audio reports. They also cover many topics and have specific pages for sports, African news, etc.
They have a section of clips and videos specifically designed for learners. Similar to RFI Savoirs, these clips are accompanied by transcripts and exercises.
How to Practice with French News
These sites should cover a variety of subject areas, so pick something you think you’ll enjoy listening to. It’ll help practice time feel less like work and you’ll be more eager to understand what’s being said.
Then, listen through once. Again, don’t worry if you don’t catch each and every word. Just try to get some of the main ideas.
After your initial listen, go back and play the clip again, taking notes if you wish. Don’t hesitate to pause the clip or replay certain parts to help you understand more.
If possible, look at the transcript and see how much you got. If you’re using a website such as TV 5 Monde or RFI Savoirs, by all means do the provided comprehension exercises or quizzes.
Finally, you can take your learning experience a step further by taking a closer look at the topic you chose. If you heard about a specific current event, try typing those keywords into the search box for the site or for another French news service.
Many sites make this even easier for you by recommending similar content at the bottom of the page.
Radio has stood the test of time. Although we have far more options for entertainment and information than in radio’s early days, radio has managed to adapt itself and remain relevant. Many listen to the radio in their car on their way to work, or follow a radio series via the internet.
Radio is also prominent in the Francophone world, allowing us wide access to a rich array of broadcasts in French.
There are radio shows and specials on so many topics, you’re sure to find something that piques your interest, whether you want to discover the latest scientific advancements, enrich your understanding of literature or anything else.
In addition to radio shows, you should also check out French podcasts. These include many of the elements of French radio shows with all the same benefits!
In fact, as explained in this video on FluentU’s French YouTube Channel, there are many podcasts available for advanced learners.
Podcasts can be aimed at learners themselves, offering new vocabulary and grammatical information in a lesson-style environment. Podcasts can even be aimed at native French speakers, and completely in French! These podcasts in particular are a great way to train your ear and hear the French that real French speakers use.
For more videos like this one to improve your French listening, check out FluentU’s YouTube Channel.
Where to Find French Radio
Radio France is France’s main national radio station (like NPR in the U.S.). On their website, you can find a wide variety of French radio shows and podcasts.
This one is a French-speaking Canadian radio station, so it’s great if you’re looking to learn that accent or some of the unique French Canadian vocabulary.
Africa 1 offers similar material from an African perspective (African news, African music, etc). You can also familiarize yourself with French in an African accent.
How to Practice with French Radio
While it’s a powerful French learning tool, radio is probably best for intermediate or advanced learners. Many sites don’t have transcripts and you can generally expect quick, sometimes casual speech, making it difficult to understand without a solid French foundation.
If you do decide to practice this way, the process is similar to other listening exercises. Listen to the clip all the way through once (if the clip is longer than five minutes, unless you’re an advanced learner, you may want to break it up to avoid becoming overwhelmed).
Then, listen again, pausing and replaying parts as necessary. Take your time and try to get as much as you can. Take notes if you find it helpful.
If the clip has a transcript or is accompanied by an article, by all means read it and compare it to what you think you heard.
Now you’ve got the tools to fine tune your ears for any French conversation you’re in (or eavesdropping on!).