Repeated listening and ear training for French
When you hear a familiar song being played, you can probably sing or recite some lines because you have heard the song many times in the past. When I travel in the Montreal métro, I hear the following announcement at least a couple of times a week:
Prochaine station: Lionel-Groulx. Correspondance des lignes verte et orange. Ouverture des portes de l’autre côté.
I’ve heard it so many times that I have a sort of mental image of the sounds, and I can do a fairly good imitation of the intonation and the rhythm. And when the métro has not been working, the following message is greatly appreciated.
Attention. Le service est rétabli sur la ligne orange entre les stations Henri-Bourassa et Côte-Vertu. La STM vous remercie de votre compréhension.
Attention, please. Service has been restored to the orange line between stations Henri-Bourassa and Côte-Vertu. The STM (Société de transports de Montréal) thanks you for your understanding.
These banal examples illustrate the power of repeated listening for training the ear to recognize certain sounds and for memorizing words and phrases that we can later use when speaking. This is the basic principle of what I call aural or listening repetition as a step towards actual speaking with fluency and accuracy.
Basically you listen over and over to recordings of spoken French until you feel you know the sounds well enough that you can reproduce them fairly easily. For this to work well, you will need three things: good quality recordings, accurate and detailed transcripts and analytic listening.
Finding authentic recordings
The Internet offers a vast selection of examples of every kind of spoken French in the form of podcasts, videos and streaming services. Dozens of websites and videos for learning French provide good recordings, many with transcripts. Since my main focus is spoken conversational French, I tend to look for recordings of conversations. Talk shows and interviews on television are good sources.
Scripted vs unscripted French
Many people like to watch movies and television programs in French, especially since these programs often come with subtitles or closed captions. Songs are also a fun way to learn French. This kind of language is generally excellent and clearly pronounced. This is good for learning of course but be aware that this kind of French is entirely scripted and is not the way people speak spontaneously.
As I have previously described the major differences between spoken and written French and between scripted and unscripted spoken French, I’ll just give a brief reminder. Spontaneous French is often quite messy. What I mean is that it often contains of all sorts of things that would be edited out from any scripted material. People may mumble and mispronounce words, often repeat themselves, change their mind in mid-sentence and leave the sentence unfinished, make mistakes that they may or may not correct, refer to all sorts of things that you may not know and use their voice for special effects.
This means that many recordings of unscripted French are difficult to completely understand. This is the reason I have included in this website a number of recordings that I think are good samples of spoken conversational French. Each recording comes with a detailed transcription. I should mention that for most of the transcriptions I had to consult other listeners because certain things were hard for me to figure out.
Making your own transcripts for repeated listening
You choose the kind of spoken language and voices you want to listen to or eventually imitate. Once you have found recordings that you like, you may want to make your own transcriptions. Be forewarned that this will take more time than you think. You will need a recording program that allows you to listen to snippets of the recording. I highly recommend a free program called Audacity. You’ll undoubtedly come across passages that you cannot decipher. The only there solution is to enlist the help of a native speaker.
Transcribing spoken French is also an excellent way to learn the relationship between French spelling and pronunciation. Although French spelling is not as illogical as English, there are many things to watch out for such as consonants at the end of words and the liaison between end of one word and the beginning of another.
Analytic repeated listening
The goal of repeated listening and reading the transcript is not to memorize the text but to develop an intuitive understanding of how the language works and a feel for how native speakers actually use the language. This in turn will lead us to model our own speech patterns on what we are hear. To do this you have to listen to the recording with what I call an analytic approach.
For this you have to combine the sounds of the recordings with the printed words of the transcript and a good knowledge of the grammar and the vocabulary in use.
This is the purpose of the technical commentary that I provide with the recordings on this site. I try to draw the listener’s attention to what I think are significant details that warrant some explanation. For example I pay a lot of attention to verb forms because they are governed by all sorts of complex rules.
Here for example is the beginning of a recent Radio-Canada radio interview of Canada’s current prime minister, Justin Trudeau:
(1) – Jouez-vous au golf, Monsieur Trudeau, Monsieur le premier ministre?
(2) – Non, bonjour, bonjour. Non, j’ai pas eu le temps encore dans ma vie d’apprendre à jouer au golf.
(3) – Vous avez pas eu le temps.
(4) – J’attends peut-être après, après la politique.
Every line is a little lesson in grammar. In line 1 we notice of course the inverted verb and pronoun that tells us that this is a question. But notice that the speaker says au golf. Prime minister Trudeau uses this same form in his answer at the end of line 2. This is an important detail because in French the verb jouer, used with sports requires the preposition à, as in jouer au football, jouer au tennis, jouer au baseball, jouer au hockey, etc. But when playing a musical instrument, jouer requires de, as in jouer du piano, jouer de la flute, jouer de la guitare.
Notice also that both the prime minister and the interviewer have completely dropped the ne particle with the negation j’ai pas eu and vous avez pas eu. This is typical of modern spoken French.
Notice how near the end of line 2, the speaker says d’apprendre à. The d’ is there because the preceding verb avoir in j’ai pas eu requires the preposition de when followed by another verb. On the other hand the verb apprendre takes the preposition à when followed by the verb jouer.
When you start analyzing all these little details, the whole thing may seem overwhelming but I want to emphasize that spontaneous spoken French is actually very simple and repetitive in terms of the grammar used. For example, the little snippet of the interview above uses very simple everyday French. The biggest problem is usually that everything goes by so quickly that it is difficult to figure out what words are actually being used.
All this means that after you have analytically listened to a few conversations, subsequent conversations become easy to understand because they all really contain so much in common. As I point out in my technical commentaries, you will hear lots of c’est…, il y a…, ça, fillers such as bien, bon, ben, alors, donc. The most common sentence form will be subject + verb + object. And, of course, we’ll see many uses of the power verbs: avoir, faire, être, aller, devoir, etc.
How many repetitions?
I’ve never given much thought to how many times one should listen to a recording. I should point out that it is important to listen to the recordings over days or weeks. You have to let your brain digest what you are hearing. This could mean listening to multiple recordings over the same period.
My rule of thumb is that you should listen until you feel that you know the recording by heart. Not that you can necessarily recite it by heart but you feel as if you can hear the words in your head when you look at the transcript. This could easily be 25 times or many more. You should also feel as if you could model your own speech on what you are hearing. That’s the next step when we will look at repetitive speaking.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician, language coach in French, English and Spanish, language workshop facilitator and organizer of French-English conversation meetups in Montreal, Canada. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Essential French Wall Chart Calendar. Reach him at email@example.com.