How to Quickly Improve Your Understanding of Spoken French

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 course.

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. Learn more vocabulary. (read  the Ultimate Guide to Learning Vocabulary if you don’t know where to start).
  2. Train your brain to recognise French sounds with a pronunciation course.
  3. 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 Hide My Ass 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, or discover hilarious French commercials. 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.

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!

 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?

32 thoughts on “How to Quickly Improve Your Understanding of Spoken French”

  1. Merci pour les conseils. Il y aura 2 jours, j’irai à Paris avec ma mère et mes amis. Je suis anglais, et ça pourrait dûr de comprendre ce qu’une personne française dit. Parfois, c’est plus facile de comprendre, mais la plupart de temps, c’est si dûr! Je devrai le parler quand j’irai, pendant 4 jours. Aujourd’hui, je regardai le journal en français, et je reussis à comprendre quelques faites qui étaient mentionné, et pendant les derniers jours, j’ai parlé avec mes amis canadiens, de Quebec. Ce m’a donné assez d’exercise pour les vacances en France, et à l’avenir, j’utiliserai ces conseils pour élargir mes horizons. Merci 🙂

    Reply
  2. J’aime la lecon et votre aide. Je suis avec Yabla French et Frantastique et J’ai une classe à la bibliothèqu et le professeur est de Toulouse.. C’est incroyable les choses pour aprendre Français qui sont disponibles dans l’ordinateur. J’ai les “pen pals” (correspondents) aussi et elles sont mes amis aussi. C’est le meilleur aide de tous!

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  3. i am learning french . i am good at reading and writing . but i can’t talk ; i’m searching for fun french series and movies with french subtitles

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  4. I am looking for a YouTube videos with spoken French with French subtitles. I learned French via junior high and high school and I have good conversational and written French but I would like to increase my proficiency. Any suggestions?

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  5. I suggest using filmon.com,there you can watch tv channels in the language you want,by the way I’ve learnt five languages with this tool,I mean the listening part of them,but the rest,only depends on hard-working.

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    • Congrats on learning five languages :). How did you use Filmon to learn them?

      It looks like a cool resource, thanks for sharing 🙂

      Reply
      • I’ve learnt french,spanish,russian by books of grammar and reading stories and novels,listening comprehension was the part where I needed filmon.com,but before that I started with reading articles of French news online,and listening to the video of these articles,and I’ve also read audio books,only after when my listening was strong enough,I started watching french,spanish,russian channels online by filmon.com.I know armenian and english like my maternal languages,since I’m used to listening the abovementioned languages,I didn’t need listening comprehension for the abovementioned languages.I am an armenian,by the way,and knowing at least three languages is obligatory in my country,even at school,we study three languages,armenian,english,russian.

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  6. Bonjour, vous désirez parler français ? Les français, eux-même, sont incapable de parler correctement leur langue après vingt ans d’étude. Bon courage.

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  7. I discovered a way to get all the French movies and TV I could ask for. I order DVD’s from amazon.fr and play them on my second DVD player on my computer that I changed to region 2 and labeled French.

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    • Netflix is a great option too if you use it with a French proxy or VPN. They have lots of nice movies, although way less than Amazon of course.

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  8. Hello, I am a French student, but my french is not so good, I have been looking for sites where I can learn French and become fluent at it. Not only through reading but also listening and speaking. Can you help me.

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    • Hi Marsha

      Lingq and Bliubliu sound perfect for you. They both give you the opportunity to practice listening and reading.

      For speaking, you can check Italki.

      Reply
    • Bonjour, Marsha. I recommend that you use Frenchpod101.com. You can download their app Innovative Languages 101 and download lessons for free. They have about 31 languages. My progress has really been rapid and now I can speak French more or less fluently. It took me about less than a year, so I suggest that you listen to at least one lesson each day and make flashcards (I use Quizlet) to review your vocabulary and the grammar points. Bonne chance mon amie et j’espére que ton voyage à apprendre le français sera magnifique. Au revoir.

      Reply
  9. You can also sign up for an account over at MeetUp.com. Search for a Francophone group around your area and organize (or attend) an RDV. For instance, I joined a group in my city that meets up every Saturday at a cafe and we talk in French for two hours. On average, there are 15 people that attend.

    The members are of various levels of comfort in speaking French (I’m upper intermediate), so it’s not the ideal setting for someone who had just started learning (because it would be difficult to follow even a simple conversation), but if you want to build up your confidence in speaking, in a non-intimidating environment, it’s unmatched.

    You also get to realize that you don’t have to hear every single word in a sentence in order to understand what the other person is trying to say. You just have to be alert for certain ones (la négation, par exemple) and figure out the rest.

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      • It depends largely on who signs up. My group in particular has seven native speakers that I know of: Three French, one Swiss, two Quebecois, and one Belgian. A typical meetup would have about three or four of them in attendance.

        For the most part, I’ve noticed that the native speakers do not talk much, they usually let the mid-level French learners do most of the conversation so they get good practice, offering a polite correction of grammar only when it’s glaring (like saying “J’ai froid” instead of “Je suis froid”).

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  10. bonjour benjamin, listen to songs is also a good way to learn. I love celine dion so i listen her songs, check out the lyrics and go to google translate to see the meaning. it works great.

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  11. When I became able to listen to conversations with a higher comprehension of the sounds of the words pronounced – I don’t mean I knew all the words – and to hold on for longer periods, then I realised that this was becoming true also for attempting to listen to other languages. it was as if the wax was melting out of my ears. But the reality is that my brain started to be ready for this task.

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    • Our brain is amazing, the more we learn, the easier it gets to learn.When you learn a foreign language, your brain gets used to new sounds you couldn’t distinguish before. Which then makes learning other languages even easier.

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      • It happens to me to think about this question: do polyglots need less exposure the more languages they acquire when they add any new language? I mean: it takes time, repetition to get to an upper intermediate level and stick in memory expressions, words, pronunciation in a new language – particularly if the new added language doesn’t come from the same family of languages. So I wonder how – even using at best their time – polyglots can afford to make enough time to go in deep and then expand any new language they add.

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        • Polyglots tend to forget the languages they learn if they don’t use them.

          But it must still be easier for them to learn new languages because they know how to best learn a language, are used to it and can easily compare different languages which allow them to learn new ones faster.

          Reply
  12. Merci Benjamin, pour le lien internet a “oh la la, I speak French” Je l’adore, c’est vraiment amusant. 🙂

    Reply
  13. I like to watch my DVD/Bluray collection with French audio and or caption. read “Paris Match” magazine, use Rosetta Stone, (almost finished) Pronunciator app. watch “French in action” and “Soda”. finally, I also subscribe too “French Together”. Je veux de parler français bien. 🙂

    Reply

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