Many learners – like you – share the frustration of knowing quite a bit of French and yet feel discouraged when you cannot understand what’s said i.e. you have difficulties with your French listening comprehension.
You’re not alone in this and I see it with many students.
Quite often when this happens during a French lesson once they see the text written out they sigh and realise that they could actually understand all or most of the words in that sentence but could barely get the gist of what was said while listening to the exact same sentence.
Reading is always going to be easier than listening as adult learners anyway so let’s see how we can improve your listening comprehension in French.
Remember that Ears are just the gateway =
I’ll never forget this day … my husband and I were sitting in the audiologist office just a few days after finding out that our new-born daughter was profoundly deaf.
We were in shock … But one of the things she told us was that “the ears are only the gateway to the brain” and that it was in fact the brain that does all the heavy lifting when it comes to listening.
After multiple hearing tests, this was good news because we could carry out further tests and investigate options to ensure that sound could go straight to her brain and bypass her ears.
Subsequently when she was ten months old, we were able to get her implanted with cochlear implants which is an Australian invention coincidently! How lucky for her to be born in Australia and how incredible for us to live in a time when such inventions exist and have already proved helpful to so many born with hearing impairment.
Through years of spoken and listening therapy, the two main things that we had to focus on were:
- a very large input of language (for you as a language learner that could be listening to native speakers talk, reading out loud to themselves, watching movies, listening to podcasts…) and
- a big emphasis on sound production with feedback (for French learners that equates to working on your pronunciation as early as possible in your language learning journey).
Our daughter is now a very talkative little girl with a lot to say in both English and a bit of French who loves to sing and tell jokes.
My point here is that there was equal if not even more emphasis put on language production as there was on language input. and where I see most of French learners get stuck is that they focus efforts on passive listening with no strategy and not enough on their pronunciation.
This is a huge mistake because these two absolutely go hand in hand and if the production of French sounds and letters are overlooked your listening comprehension will undoubtably suffer.
Why Perfectionist is slowing you down =
Many times each week during my French lessons, as the teacher I say: ‘Vas-y!’. It means ‘go’ or ‘go ahead’ in French.
And the reason why I use it so much is that when teaching adults, I regularly notice their reluctance to have a go, to want to say it right, to give the right answer and overall to avoid making a mistake.
So, we could be role playing a written dialogue and when it’s the students turn to read they stop as they notice a new word and ask me : How do you say that?
To which I smile and reply ‘Vas-y, essaye’ because I want them to have a ‘go ahead and try’ first.
It’s important for them as a learner to try make guess the word’s pronunciation without any influence from me.
Does it look like another word they know?
What letters or letter combos can they already recognise?
The result is always better as they’ll invariable get it perfect or 80% right that way.
Of course, it’s also beneficial for me as the teacher to understand which part of the word they are finding difficult to decode and say.
That way we can discover where the limits of their understanding of pronunciation rules and we can plan to remedy or review that area in their study plan.
So, let’s imagine you come across the word IMMOBILIER
If you’re reading to yourself, you probably won’t try to work out how to say it properly.
It may be a new word so you might check it’s meaning (it means ‘real estate’ by the way) but you may not break it down into syllables and try to sound it out.
Therefore, you’re very unlikely to recognise it even if you hear someone use it in a simple sentence like ‘Je travaille dans l’immobilier.’ because you had no idea in the first place what the word actually sounded like.
Whenever you’re reading French try read out loud.
Of course you’ll come across some words that you won’t be sure how to pronounce (this will happen less as you progress I promise as there is a finite number of pronunciation rules in French which means you can actually master saying French words through learning and recognising these rules).
There’s an easy-to-use website called Forvo where you can type any word from any language and hear the word pronounced by a variety of voices.
So if during lesson with me, you see that word for the first time, you might ask me how to pronounce it and by letting you have a try first, I’ll be able to better understand where I can help them:
- Was it that you didn’t know how to split the start of the word: I-MMO or IMM-O
- Was it tricky to make a nasal sound like IM
- Was it that you pronounced the 2 letters I differently? No surprise when in English you can pronounce the letter I in so different ways (like, big, police, souvenir…)!
- Or was it the end of the word in -r or the -ier ending?
- Or all of the above?
The bottom line about French Listening Comprehension =
At the end of the day you need to be able to distinguish different sounds by identifying them and by practising how to say them (ideally also getting feedback from a native speaker and/or teacher) so that you can spot them when listening to fast spoken French.
For instance if you say ‘un, en, on’ incorrectly (you shouldn’t hear the letter ‘n’ at all) then you’re very unlikely to understand a whole sentence in French as most will contain at least one of these nasal vowel sounds.
The more you understand the intricacies of the French letters and sounds, the easier it will be for you to recognise them and spot the sometimes-subtle differences.
You’ll stop wondering did they say: It’s linen (lin)? It’s slow (lent)? or It’s long (long)?
It’s also essential to understand the rules around the silent letters in French the pronunciation or ignoring of the letter ‘e’ and which liaisons to say between which words. Here are some of my best tips about French pronunciation.
This cannot be learnt solely by reading because words on the page are written out in full letters (leading to a tendency to pronounce more letters than are actually needed) or say words individually (leading to more difficulty when you have to listen and understand spoken French with words and sounds merging together).
So how can you improve your French listening comprehension?
Now that you understand the importance of focusing on pronunciation as the key to better understanding, what are some ways you can do that?
Always read out loud as mentioned above. This not only helps get your mouth, jaw and tongue used to articulating French words but it also helps your brain hear French sounds, discover new words and get familiar with sentence structures.
Practise connected speech by finding texts where you have access to the audio too. There are lots of free podcasts which provide transcriptions these days. That way you’ll notice the liaisons, the letters that merge together, and those that disappear completely.
Listen and mimic French sounds without looking at the text. Don’t be afraid to exaggerate them. It’s OK if you don’t understand every word for this imitation activity, the focus is loosening your mouth to make the different French sounds and noticing the rhythm, emphasis and the intonation used.
Record yourself reading the text on your phone and after each sentence pause and listen to the authentic audio through your computer. This activity will help your brain notice the gap between how you said it vs. how a native speaker does. Everyone’s accent is different even within France so try to focus on clarity and not speed so that you are understood clearly when you speak.
Mix it up by varying your sources. To keep it fun and engaging, I highly recommend you find different resources so that you are exposed as early as possible to different French voices and accents. Aim for a source that’s at your level to get the maximum benefit of enjoying the activity because you can understand more as well as slowly building your word bank.
Jump into the French Speak Pronounce and Understand French Better self-study course. This is the best way to cover all aspects of French pronunciation and get you more confident with listening too. Each of the 12 weeks has a focus (vowels, nasal sounds, exceptions, verbs…) and two different trainings. The first teaches you the rules and mechanics of how to pronounce French correctly. The second helps you practice your French listening comprehension of each focus area.
Need a helping hand with French pronunciation and listening comprehension?
If pronunciation and improving your listening are something you want to dive in deeper with, take a look at the French Speak ‘Pronounce and Understand French better’ online course.
The course doors are now open and you can do the 12 modules in your own time.