The Best Way To Study French For Listening and Understanding

Most students – no matter their level – tell me “I listen to French radio, or watch movies in French,” and this statement is usually followed by “it’s so frustrating”… There is however a simple method to better your French understanding skills: follow my precise tips.

Understanding French people speaking full speed is your goal, but by no means is watching French movies, or listening to the French radio the right path to get there.

It’s as if you gave Shakespeare to read to a first grader. It’s only going to lead to failure, loss of confidence, and frustration.

First, I’m going to give you tips to better your French understanding according to your level. Then I’ll share my step-by-step method to improve your French listening skills: it’s the same for all the levels of students.

1 – How to Better Your French Listening Skills

To better your French listening skills, you need to work at it. It’s not going to magically happen over time if you do nothing to train your ear. And only working with written material is not going to help much either.

You need to hear French to train your ear to understand French.

Therefore, the most important thing to improve your French listening skills is to pick the right audio material that is adapted to your present level.

This is crucial if you want to progress and not get frustrated.

2 – How can Beginners Improve their French understanding

Beginners need very clear recordings, one person talking at a time so they can clearly understand what is being said.

Watch out though: there are three main things to take into consideration to understand French:

  1. the level of vocabulary and sentence structure
  2. the speed at which the person is speaking
  3. the level of enunciation and accent of the person

If you only train with recordings of a speaker who over-enunciates every single word, like most methods do, this won’t prepare you for real life, and you won’t understand the French when they speak to you, even if they speak slowly.

In French, when we speak in a relaxed environment, we do a lot of glidings. It’s what I call modern French versus book French… Even at a beginner’s stage, you need to train your ear to get the glidings, liaisons, and intonations that make spoken French pretty much a different language than written French.

I suggest you read my article: beginners – how to learn French.

3 – How can you Improve your French Understanding at an Intermediate Level

For intermediates, the recording should be a bit faster, a bit longer, with more challenging vocabulary – you have to learn to “guess” from the context and not freeze when you don’t understand.

Here again, the level of the audio you’ll train with is crucial: if it’s too challenging, you won’t be able to follow. It needs to be just the right amount of challenge!

It’s at the intermediate level that students get easily discouraged. They are done with the beginner’s bliss, when every new word opened new doors. Now, you want big results. And you want them fast.

There are so many resources out there that it is easy to get lost. Are you really improving your French understanding when you are binge watching these videos on YouTube?

Training is important, but repetition is the key. Instead of going from one video to the next, watch the same one, over, and over, and over again. See my step-by-step method below.

4 – How can Advanced Students improve their French Understanding

Finally, advanced students need longer (yet manageable) recordings which will train them to keep their concentration up for longer periods of time, and prepare them to understand movies.

  1. Working with a movie that comes with French subtitles is possible for the most advanced students, when they apply the step-by-step method below.
  2. Audio magazine with transcripts and translations are also a good tool for advanced students.

My French audiobooks feature different speeds of recording and enunciation and focus on today’s modern glided pronunciation.

Click the links to access French Today’s French audio method for beginners, lower intermediate French audiobooks and French products for higher intermediates.

5 – Step by Step Method to Improve Your French Listening Skills

The method to study is the same for all levels.

It’s simple enough, but there is no magic wand here: if you want to improve your understanding skills, you’re going to have to work at it.

Repetition is the key!

I promise you however that you’ll notice results in a very short time: this is hard work, but it does work.

  1. Pick a recording adapted to your level (see above)
  2. Listen to a couple of sentences at a time – hit the pause button, it’s your best friend for this exercise!
  3. If you do not get them, rewind, and repeat – you will see that most of the time, you will get it on the 3rd or 4th run.
  4. If you don’t understand a word, write phonetically what you hear. Repeat the whole sentence a couple of times. Then read the transcript and see why you didn’t get it; is it a new word for you? If so, could you have guessed it from the context? Was it a gliding or liaison that threw you off?
  5. Then, after reading the text (and the translation if need be), listen to it again (without reading) – can you get it all this time?
  6. Memorize the new word, sentence, gliding – whatever threw you off the first time around.
  7. Move on to the next couple of sentences.

 6 – How To Improve Your French Speaking Skills

If you want to improve your French speaking abilities, insert a repeat out loud phase – make sure to mimic the speaker as if you were an actor :-) For more on the best way to study French for speaking, go to my tips on the best way to study French for speaking.

You may also benefit from my top 12 tips to learn French efficiently, and how to express confusion in French.

The last piece of advice – try to be positive about it. Chances are that some conversations/ some speakers will still elude you – I still don’t get some English movies… Nor David Duchovny (he mumbles)…

Focus on all that you did achieve instead of letting frustration get to you :-)

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