One of the hardest things about learning French is actually understanding native speakers. I speak fluent French, and yet it took me years to be able to understand other native French speakers even at a basic level. In fact, I couldn’t understand natives for the first ten years of my studies in French -- and I even attended a French immersion school! That being said, I’ve since learned that the process of understanding other native French speakers doesn't need to be so long. In this article, I am going to break it down:
- The reasons why people struggle to understand natives.
- Different strategies and processes to improve your listening comprehension skills
The reasons why people struggle to understand natives?
Overall, there are two major things that contribute to this challenge. First and foremost, many people have unrealistic expectations. For some reason, there is a common belief that you should be able to understand natives after one or two years of learning French. However, the reality is quite the opposite. In my experience, it typically takes people at least three to six years before someone’s listening comprehension skills are at a high enough level to able to comprehend francophones. Unfortunately, this isn’t a concept that many people bring up in conversation during lessons, which leads to a general population of language learners being unaware of this fact. As a result, most people place an unreasonable expectation on themselves and set the bar higher than it should be.
There are a few explanations for why this happens. Most commonly, the problem is that people’s approach to learning French is not conducive to improving their listening comprehension skills.
Let me be more specific:
The majority of learners of French spend a large proportion of their time in a classroom environment. In most cases, classroom style learning helps you improve your reading and writing. However, they don’t tend to place too much emphasis on listening or conversational skills. I’ll use myself as an example. In my first ten years of French education, I learned almost exclusively in a classroom environment. It wasn’t until I turned 15 or 16 when I spent a semester abroad, that I was able to really understand what native speakers said.
I also had a similar experience learning Spanish. Initially, I spent the majority of my time studying in a classroom. This gave me a strong foundation since it taught me the ‘rules’ of the language (i.e grammar, correct pronunciation, spelling, etc). But it wasn’t until I started traveling abroad and living in Spanish speaking countries that my comprehension skills noticeably improved. This was because when I was living abroad, I was forced to listen to my non-native language and use it on a daily basis. Over time, this trained my ears to be able to understand natives with minimal, if any, difficulty.
The moral of the story is that if you want to improve your listening skills, you need to do as much listening practice as possible.
Different strategies and processes to improve your listening comprehension skills
So Azren, does this mean that I have to go abroad to improve my listening comprehension skills?
No! Absolutely not! As a matter of fact, for some people, I wouldn’t even recommend that you travel abroad to improve your French. Contrary to popular belief, living in a French speaking country is not some sort of ‘magic pill’ to take your French to a new level. For instance, if you are a very introverted individual, moving to a French speaking country is likely be too scary for you. You would almost certainly be too afraid to communicate with the locals, and end up spending the majority of your time to yourself. I have seen this happen so many times with so many people, and naturally their listening skills barely improve.
This is why your strategy to build up your comprehension skills needs to match your personality and preferences as much as possible. Obviously, you may need to expand your comfort zone, but you should be mindful not to do anything that is so scary that you get discouraged of learning French altogether.
Here are a few different options to improve your listening skills. The amount of time that you spend with these options is not overly important, however you should be dedicating some time to one or more of the strategies listed below at least four to seven days a week:
Online language exchanges
For those of you who are new to this option, a language exchange is a conversation you will have with someone, usually via Skype, where you ‘swap languages’. In other words, you get to practice speaking French with your exchange partner, and your exchange partner gets to practice speaking, for example English, with you. There are lots of platforms online to find language partners for free (including italki of course!). In order for these to go smoothly, a few best practices would be to:
Have a list of questions prepared in advance to keep the conversation going. You can find lots of these questions on Google
Try finding as many language partners as possible. My general rule of thumb is to reach out to fifty people and ask them to be your language partner. This is to ensure that you are able to get accustomed to a variety of different accents, dialects, and ‘styles’ of speech. In addition, it ensures that you’re able to have language exchange partners that you get along with, because trust me, you won’t get along with every single person that you asked to be your language partner!
There are lots of teachers on italki (myself included) who are more than happy to help you work on your conversation. You can also try other websites as well. The website/app you use to find a teacher is not really relevant. All that matters is that you’re able to find a teacher (or multiple teachers) that you like.
Listening to movies, TV shows, e-books, podcasts, or other types of media
I would be mindful to find something that matches your level. A common mistake that people make is that they watch or listen to something where the speakers are talking way too quickly. This, naturally, will discourage you, and you may end up quitting. A few resources that I would recommend are:
- ‘Ohlala French’, it is a YouTube channel that contains a web series specifically designed for French learners, it’s very entertaining!
- [email protected], if you search ‘[email protected] French’ on YouTube, you will find it
- Any French channel on YouTube that teaches English. This is an interesting ‘language learning hack’ that I discovered about a week ago. In the video, as the teacher is explaining English concepts while speaking in French, you’ll be able to not only build on your French listening comprehension, but also increase your vocabulary
Attend French get-togethers
This may not be an option depending on where you live, but it’s worth looking into. If you go to meetup.com and search through the ‘language meet-ups’, often there are groups of people who meet regularly in your city to practice French. In my city, there is a group of about 15 to 30 people who meet every week to drink coffee and speak French to each other. I have joined them a couple of times, and I have found it useful and enjoyable. You may get lucky too, because in my experience, sometimes native speakers come to these events as well, not just French learners.
I’ve gone through the major reasons as to why people find it difficult to understand natives. To summarise, the reasons were that people don’t follow the right methods or strategies, and/or they expect results sooner than is realistic. In addition, I covered a few different options for working on your listening comprehension skills. If you choose one (or more) of the strategies discussed in this article, and focus on practicing four to seven days a week, you will see a noticeable improvement in your listening abilities as time goes by!
Hero image by Toa Heftiba (CC0 1.0)