The Best Way To Study French For Listening and Understanding

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

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 improve your French understanding.
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.

But before that, there’s a simple key to improve your French comprehension.

The Key To Improve Your French Listening Skills

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

Yet, not every French audio makes the right training tool.

The quest for the right training tool

The biggest challenge is going to find the right audio material that’s adapted to your present level.

Unfortunately most French practice available out-there is for high intermediate or advanced speakers of French.

Don’t Trust The Level

The language industry is huge. Nowadays, everybody promises it’s going to be fun, fast, easy…

But it’s not because the video on Youtube says ‘easy’ that’s it’s actually easy. For example, interviews of random French people in the street featuring super fast French, complex tenses and advanced vocabulary… That’s that not at all easy to understand…

It’s not because the video on Youtube is labelled ‘easy’ that’s it’s actually easy. It’s only easy if you can actually understand it. Otherwise, it’s smart marketing, but it’s not a good studying tool.Click to Post

Having the French subtitles and translation can help, but if most of the vocabulary is new to you, or if the speaker speaks really fast, it’s not a suitable training tool. Especially for a beginner / intermediate student!

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

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

And that might require some research from your part.

How do You select the Right Audio Tool?

The right audio tool to improve your French listening and understanding skill is the audio tool YOU understand.

It doesn’t matter what it says on the box / label… If you understand it, if you like the way the person speaks, then it’s a good tool to work on your listening skills.

You’re not looking for a challenge at this point. You’re looking for a training tool.

I Don’t Understand Spoken French

If understanding spoken French is challenging for you, you first need to train with very clear recordings, one person talking at a time so you can clearly hear what is being said.

A confidence boost

Your priority at this point is to boost your confidence.
You can understand spoken French.
But maybe not “everybody-saying-everything-fast-in-french” as of yet…

Written French ≠ Spoken French

Quite often, the problem is not so much understanding as hearing properly.

I’ve been speaking English for 40 years. Yet, I often turn-on the subtitles in English when I watch a movie. I perfectly understand the subtitles, so I understand the written language…

But there’s a huge difference between understanding a spoken language and understanding a written language.

But I’m not a Beginner…

Like I often say, spoken French and written French are like two different languages, and more often than not, you have not been prepared for spoken French.

Even though you may have been studying French for years, maybe you should consider yourself a beginner in ‘spoken French’.

graphic with quote saying that the French language taught in school is different from the French spoken everyday in France

Solutions To Improve Understanding French For Beginners

There are three main things to take into consideration to understand French:

The level of vocabulary and sentence structure

If you are a beginner, you’re likely to know some essential French vocabulary and use simple sentence structures. If the audio recording you are training with introduces too many news words, you will feel lost.

Remember: you don’t need a challenge : you need a training tool.

The level of enunciation and French accent

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.

If you want to improve your French accent, consider the accent of the person you’re going to mimic:

  • to understand standard French, train with someone with a standard French accent.
  • If you have a house in Provence, then maybe train with someone who has a Southern French accent…

The speed at which the person is speaking

In French, when we speak in a relaxed environment, we do a lot of glidings. It’s what I call modern 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 overly enunciated French or written French.

So you need to find someone who speaks naturally, but clearly, and maybe bit slower.

Beware that lot’s of material out-there labelled for “beginners” is actually made for intermediate speakers. Especially on YouTube…

I’ve written and recorded French audio novels especially made for beginner students.

À Moi Paris Audiobook Method

A new approach to learning both traditional and modern French logically structured for English speakers.

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More Details & Audio Samples

If you enjoy learning French language and culture in context, check out French Today’s downloadable French audiobooks: French Today’s bilingual novels are recorded at different speeds and enunciation, and focus on today’s modern glided French pronunciation.

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

How can I Improve my 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.

To improve how you understand French, the audio you train with is crucial: if it’s too challenging, you won’t be able to follow, and it will damage your emerging self-confidence in French.Click to Post

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 seven step method below.

Are you unsure of your spoken French level? Take my free French placement test: audio based questions with immediate answers and explanations.

Unique Audio-Based
Modern French Level Test

20 Questions to REALLY test your modern French comprehension. All audio-based with full explanations. Completely free, no signup required

Let’s Start…

How Can I Understand Everything in French?

If you’re short term goal is to understand everything and everybody in French, this means you must already be an advanced student. If not, you’re skipping some important steps and I encourage you to read above…

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 longer conversations.

  1. Studying French with a movie which comes with French subtitles is possible for the most advanced students, when they apply my step-by-step method below.
  2. Audio magazine with transcripts and translations are also a good tool for advanced students.
  3. There’s plenty of videos on Youtube. Interviews of French people in the street, people talking about every single possible subject… Many videos come with French and English subtitles and can provide an efficient studying tool if you are already advanced in French.
  4. And then of course there are my French audio novels: they feature different speeds of recording and enunciation and focus on today’s modern glided pronunciation. Learn French easily at home and on the go on any device!

Now that you know how to pick the right audio tool to train with, let’s see how to study to improve your French listening and understanding.

7 Step Method to Improve Your French Listening Skills

The method to study is the same for all levels.

  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.

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.

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.

The last piece of advice – try to be positive about it. Chances are that some conversations/ some speakers will still elude you – as I said before, I still struggle with some English movies… And I really can’t understand David Duchovny (he mumbles)…

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

I post new articles every week, so make sure you subscribe to the French Today newsletter – or follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Please react! Leave a comment, make a suggestion, share this article… Your engagement really encourages me to create more free French lessons!

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 25+ years in the US and France. Based on my students' goals and needs, I've created unique downloadable French audiobooks focussing on French like it's spoken today, for all levels. Come to Paimpol and enjoy an exclusive French immersion homestay with me in Brittany.

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