How to Quickly Improve Your Understanding of Spoken French

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You have been learning French for a while, but you still can’t understand what French people say, frustrating, right?

You can change that, and I am going to show you exactly how.

But first, let’s discover why spoken French is so hard to understand!

Why Spoken French Is Hard to Understand

You don’t know enough vocabulary

This one is obvious. If you don’t know the words a person uses, you are unlikely to understand the sentence.

During a typical conversation, a person uses hundreds of different words. If you only know 10 French words, you will have a hard time understanding what a person says.

If you wonder how many French words you need to know to be fluent, here is the surprising answer.

The best way to solve this problem is simply to study with a French course that’ll naturally and gradually introduce you to  the most common French words and sentences.

For this, I recommend the French Together app.

Your brain doesn’t recognize French sounds

This is something very few people mention, and something I discovered in Fluent Forever.

When you were born, your brain could recognize the sounds of all languages, but you lost this ability at 11 months old.

This means that there are French sounds your brain can not distinguish properly, no matter how hard you try.

Luckily, you can train your brain to recognize these sounds with a pronunciation training course such as the Flow of French.

Read 7 French Pronunciation Tips to Avoid Sounding Like a Tourist to discover other tips.

You don’t know how to pronounce French words correctly

Many French courses lead you to believe that you can pronounce French words using a simplified writing like “bawnjour”.

As a result, you don’t understand what people say when they pronounce words with the right pronunciation, and people don’t understand you.

If you learnt French with this simplified pronunciation, you could actually hear a word you know but not recognize it because you learnt the wrong pronunciation.

That’s why I recommend you to always listen to the pronunciation of the words you learn and to spend most of your study time listening to French.

French people skip letters and words when they speak

In English you often say “you’re” instead of “you are” or ‘I’m’ instead of “I am”.

The French do the same when they speak.

Often “qu’est-ce que tu fais” will sound more like “qu’est-ce tu fais”, and “je sais pas” will sound more like “ché pas”.

This won’t be the case in formal French usually, but otherwise you will find such reductions everywhere (especially in French slang).

Read the 5 main differences between written and spoken French to learn more about this.

The three steps to improving your French listening skills

Okay so you now know why you don’t understand spoken French as well as you would like. Here are now the three steps to follow to improve your listening skills:

  1. Train your brain to recognise French sounds with the French Together app.
  2. Spend lots of time hearing French

11 fun ways to improve your understanding of spoken French

1. Watch French TV

understanding spoken French
nyul / 123RF

If you have a TV at home, you can probably access French TV channels via your cable company, otherwise you can find lots of French TV channels available online.

TV is a great way to better understand spoken French, because you can choose all kinds of programs. You can watch the news and learn rather formal French, or watch TV series and learn more casual French.

Depending on the TV channel, you may even have subtitles available.

Some TV channels can only be watched from France though, so you may need to use a software like Proton VPN that will provide you with a French ip address so it looks like you are in France.

2. Watch Youtube videos

Okay you probably already know you can watch French videos online.

What you may not know is how to find the perfect videos to improve your understanding of spoken French.

You could watch videos made by French comedians for example. But what if you want more?

I decided to do all the work for you and to create French Together’s youtube channel. It contains a regularly updated selection of awesome French videos with English subtitles.

Alternatively, you can also check out the 13 best Youtube channels to learn French.

3. Watch French movies and series

You have probably already watched at least one French movie in your life, but did you watch it in French?

You can easily find French movies with English subtitles on internet. And you feel more confident, why not watch it with French subtitles? Or without subtitles at all.

If you don’t find any movie to watch online, you could also go to your local library, they probably have French movies with subtitles available.

Or you could check if there is an institut français near you. There are a lot of them and they offer a wide range of movies, TV series and books in French as well as cultural activities. To find one, simply search for “institut français + city name” or “French institute + city name”.

4. Watch French videos with subtitles with FluentU and yabla

Have you ever watched a video and wished it had subtitles? I have. That’s why I love yabla and FluentU. These two websites allow you to watch videos with subtitles.

The difference between the two? yabla contains videos created specifically for French learners, while FluentU uses content from Youtube and adds subtitles.

With yabla, you can also slow down the video to make it easier to understand.

5. Watch Ohlala Hollywood Speaks French

Hollywood speaks French is a web series created specifically for French learners like you. It’s full of real spoken French and available with subtitles.

You can even get a workbook with transcripts both in French and in English and advice on how to make the most of the videos.

Here is the first episode. Enjoy.

YouTube video

6. Learn French with Lingq

Lingq is an online community of language learners. It gives you the opportunity to learn French using texts with audio. You read and listen to the audio version of text, select the vocabulary you don’t know, and then review it using a flashcard system.

Reading while listening at the same time is highly effective and you could quickly make progress if you regularly do it.

Oh and check out my list of French reading resources if you’re looking for French reading material!

YouTube video

 7. Find a conversation partner

When you speak to a native speaker, you get used to hearing real spoken French, you also have to make the effort to understand what your partner says, and in case you don’t understand, you can always ask him/her to repeat more slowly.

In addition to that, you will greatly improve your pronunciation, your confidence and you could even make friends.

8. Listen to French podcasts

Podcasts are incredibly useful, you can bring them everywhere with you and use them to study French while walking, going to work etc.

After reviewing  many of them, I find Frenchpod101 and CoffeeBreak French to be the best, because it teaches you real spoken without overwhelming you with information.

However, depending on your level, there may be a better alternative like Français Authentique. Be sure to check out my review of the best French podcasts to find the perfect podcast.

9. Use audiobooks

Audiobooks are books read out loud for you. They are not only highly addictive, but can also be awesome language learning tools.

If you are a beginner, you could start with children audiobooks and then listen to more advanced audiobooks.
You can also click here to get your first audiobook for free.

If you are the lucky owner of a Kindle Fire or an Android device, you can even listen to an audiobook and see the text highlighted in real-time with immersion reading.

10.Learn with Français Authentique

Français Authentique is a French course specifically designed for people who understand written French, but struggle to understand spoken French and would like to become more confident speakers.

Read my review to learn more about the Français Authentique method, or check out the official website!

Over to you

Do you struggle to understand spoken French? What do you do to improve your listening skills? What are your favorite French listening resources?

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Benjamin Houy

Benjamin Houy is a native French speaker and tea drinker with a BA degree in Applied Foreign Languages and a passion for languages. After teaching French and English in South Korea for 7 months as part of a French government program, he created French Together™ to help English speakers learn conversational French.