Why French Is Easy: How to Understand Spoken French
Learning French can be easy, fun, and fast. Though it took me a while to discover that.
French was the third language I tried to learn, after Spanish and Italian. You would think that by the time I got to French, things would have been easy and I’d breeze through the language in no time.
Unfortunately, that’s not how things worked out.
I moved to France for an entire year in 2005, with already two years of language learning experience under my belt. My plan was to get to the same stage in French as I was in Spanish within a couple of months, and then get to mastery stage by the end of the year.
Here’s what actually happened…
Seven entire months into my stay in Paris, I was still unable to do more than order lunch in French. Life got in the way, and even though I was living in France I was barely making any progress.
Thankfully, there’s a happy ending.
After a few more months in Paris, I moved to the south of France. Within three months of being there, my language skills in French had transformed from beginner level to upper intermediate, and I sat and passed the DELF B2 certificate exam. Now that’s what I call fast progress!
How did I do this? I’m not a language genius, nor a natural with languages.
If languages came “naturally” to me, then I would have aced French during my first three months in France. Not my final three months.
What changed? I stopped telling myself how hard French was and started focusing on the positive. Creating a positive filter made the language easy for me.
Yes, you read that right. Learning French can be easy.
This isn’t about fooling yourself with empty mantras or willing the universe to make it easy for you. There are lots of simple hacks you can use to simplify your French learning and make swift progress in the language.
I’ve decided to reveal these techniques in my in-depth guide Why French is Easy. I’ll be publishing this guide very soon. Sign up to be the first to know when I launch the guide at the end of this article
To create this guide, I took the “hardest” grammar and vocabulary points and presented them in a new way that shows you how you can learn French as quickly as possible.
Here’s a sneak peek of what’s inside…
Why is Spoken French so Hard to Understand?
One of the first thoughts you’ll likely have when you hear French spoken naturally is “Why are they speaking so fast?”
And even when they speak slowly… how on earth am I supposed to know when one word ends and another begins? It all just blurs together!
This was a big problem for me when I first got into French properly, especially because the French language uses the liason, which flows the sound of one word seamlessly into the next. My first seven months of at-home study had given me an edge in being able to read French. I even took a free copy of the Metro newspaper on the way to work and got better and better at reading. I was great at following the general gist of articles, but if someone were to speak aloud any sentence I could normally read, it would be a jumble of noise. What gives?
While I wish I had a magic cure for this problem, the truth is that you need to train your ear to associate French sounds with the written form, and this does take time. But it doesn’t have to take a lot of time, and you can get up to speed faster than you’d imagine. With just a few weeks of consistent practice, you can train your ear to adapt to the sounds of French.
First you’ll need to get used to the phonetic system and it’s connection to pronunciation, as well as the rules for how words flow together, which I’ll cover shortly. But what do you do to help associate those sounds with actual words? The trick is to ease yourself in through French content that is appropriate to your level.
Practice by Carefully Listening to How French Speakers Talk
One way I like to do this is to watch French video with French subtitles. Avoid using English subtitles, because then you’ll just read the text and get lost in the story.
If possible, try to get your favourite movie or TV series in French. I generally search for the series on Wikipedia, then click on the left to view the equivalent article in French. There you can find the series’ equivalent name in French, and you can try to get the box set on Amazon.
Alternatively, the original English version may come with a French audio option on the DVD (you should be able to find this information on the sales page). If you can’t find it, check out amazon.fr or amazon.ca since they are more likely to have media dubbed in French only. This may require international shipping, but it’s not as expensive as you would think.
For inspiration, check out this list of the 100 best French movies of all time.
Watching a movie or TV series in French that you already know well in English is excellent practice. You already know the story, and often you’ll remember what the characters are going to say. This means you don’t need to try to figure out what’s going on, and you can focus on the words being said in French. I learned a huge amount of French from watching Lost: Les Disparus on French TV thanks to enabling subtitles in French (not English!) so that I could learn to associate the written form with the spoken form.
If you make friends with native speakers, you should ask for suggestions on their favourite shows and consider watching them originally in French, rather than just watching dubbed versions of American or British shows. This will help you understand more of French culture as well.
You Can Start Using These Resources Now to Skyrocket Your Progress
Here are a few other ideas I’d highly recommend:
Listen to French music. Don’t underestimate how effective (and fun!) music is for language learning. You can find many stations in French on tunein.com or you can Google what songs are in the top 40 charts in your target country. Then find the lyrics (Google the song name with the word “paroles” for lyrics) and try to follow along. I find that love songs tend to be sung slower and are easier to follow. Some for inspiration:
- Ne me quitte pas – Jacques Brel
- L’Hymne à l’Amour – Edith Piaf
- Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais – Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin
- Après un rêve – Fauré
- Tous les Mêmes – Stromae
Use a podcast directed at French learners. My favourite by far is FrenchPod101. Although this wasn’t around for me back in 2005, I’ve used this company’s podcasts for my other languages to improve my listening comprehension. I like that it separates language levels according to the CEFR scale. Essentially, it starts at the lowest levels, playing a very brief conversation and explaining every aspect of it, so that when you re-listen to the dialogue at the end of the lesson you understand it much better. As you advance through the levels, it gets progressively harder and the speakers increase the speed at which they speak. I generally try to aim for one level higher than my current one, to push myself.
Study French audio at different speeds. You can take audio from a naturally spoken podcast, recording of a radio show, or interview and slow it down using the free online tool Come Again. You can get audiobooks recorded in French on Audible – their native player on Apple and Android devices allows you to slow down the speed up to 3 times.
Use Yabla! They select interesting videos of real native French content online, separate them into difficulty levels, and then let you see subtitles in either French or English and to slow the video down to better understand quickly-spoken French. You can also click on difficult words within the subtitles directly to see an expanded dictionary. With this option, you can de-activate the English subtitles entirely and only look up the hardest words.
Practise your writing skills via chat. Written live conversation is as stimulating as a live Skype conversation. It requires more concentration, improves your skills at recalling words, and allows you to be more confident, since you don’t have the pressure to say something quickly. Any tool to find French conversation partners works just as well in text chat as it does in video chat.
This blog post is an extract from my language hacking guide Why French is Easy. Pick up your own copy here!