Learning To Understand French

Before you can speak French fluently, you have to be able to understand what is being said. This can be very challenging because spoken French is very different from the written language.

It’s important here to make the distinction between scripted and unscripted speech. Students usually start out listening to speeches, movies, radio and television programs like newscasts or soap operas. This is a good idea, but in most cases this is scripted language read by professional actors or trained voices.

On the other hand, real unscripted spontaneous language can be quite different. There are lots of things to contend with; regional accents, different rates of speaking, voices that may be hard to understand, incomplete sentences, mistakes, cryptic local or cultural references and all kinds of extraneous elements.

Telephone conversations can be particularly challenging because the sound is distorted, and there are no visual or non-verbal clues.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that that stream of sounds is actually quite simple  in terms of grammar and vocabulary. Generally speaking, the spoken language is much simpler than the written form. No spelling to worry about, simple grammar, short simple sentences and  limited vocabulary.

How to work with recordings
One commonly recommended method is to work with recordings 2-5 minutes long. If possible, obtain a wide variety of recordings illustrating different accents, ages and situations.

An extremely valuable tool here is an accurate transcription of the recording. This will save a lot of time and effort because a big problem with many recordings is making out exactly what was said.

If you don’t have a transcript, you should at least have access to a native speaker for those times when you get stuck and can’t figure something out. A translation of the transcript would be really useful,

What to listen for?
The first step is to listen to the recording a couple of times to see what you can make out. The most common problem here is trouble figuring out some words. This is where the transcript is invaluable. Without it, you can easily get stuck on a little detail that you listen to endlessly but never figure out until you ask a native speaker.

As you listen to the sentences, pay particular attention to the verbs. They are the key to understanding. You’ll notice that a lot of  different verbs  forms sound the same. For example,  pouvais, pouvait, pouvaient sound alike.

Listen to how the words are related to each other in terms of form. This is where French differs a lot from English. Pay special attention to gender agreement (e.g. blanc / blanche)  and plural forms in articles, prepositions and the ending of nouns.

You’ll also pay attention to how the words glide into each other by way of the liaison. For example, de plus en plus is pronounced de plus-z-en plus. Listen to the general intonation of the phrase and especially the endings where the voice may rise or fall.

If you are listening to unscripted conversations, you will hear words like eh bien, bien, ben, écoute, écoutez, alors, donc, si vous voulez, en effet, enfin, effectivement used as fillers or place markers in the conversation. In other words, they may not have any real meaning other than just helping to keep the conversation going.

Also in unscripted conversation, you will notice that sentences may be incomplete and that speakers will change their mind, jump around, make mistakes then correct themselves.

One complication is the presence of idiomatic expressions.  Just like English, French has many multiple word expressions that cannot be understood literally. If you hear something like, ce n’est pas la mer à boire, you may not know that this is simply a way of saying that something is not a big problem.

Another major problem is cultural or historical references. You might hear references to people, places, events, institutions and abbreviations that are meaningless to you.

As you can see, a native speaker or a tutor is essential in these situations.

After you’ve done all that work, you should listen to those recordings regularly until you feel you understand them totally and know them by heart.  Understanding French will get easier and easier.

The next big step is to start imitating these recordings in your own speech. And you’ll be on your way to total fluency.

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