How To Understand Spoken French For Fluency

The challenge of understanding spontaneous French

Before you can speak French fluently and accurately, you have to understand it well. Easier said than done.

When you first listen to a spontaneoius conversation of native French-speakers, the first impression is often discouraging because everything is so fast. It all seems like a stream of sounds with the odd intelligible word here and there.

The real problem isn't so much speed as not being able to make out the words. Once you have the words, you can at least look them up in a dictionary, understand the grammar and then figure out the meaning. Obviously, if you have to do this while trying to converse, the whole exercise becomes rather tedious and frustrating.

And forget about idiomatic expressions, puns, jokes, cultural references and subtle nuances of meaning.

Many leaners use CD's, DVD's with subtitles, audiobooks and songs. These are excellent tools, but they rarely contain true spontaneous interactions.

The characteristics of spoken French

The problem with authentic spoken language is that it is not made of nice, neatly organized sentences like you see in textbooks. A lot of sentences are cut short or clipped. The words all blend together. All kinds of extra seemingly meaningless words are thrown in.

People make mistakes and may or may not backtrack to correct them. Or they may even veer off in a different direction right in the middle of a sentence.

We all do this in our own language. Understanding is not a problem because we can fill in the blanks, correct the mistakes and see through the clutter. Pity the poor learner who is trying to figure this all out.

On the other hand, the good news about spoken French is that is it much easier than written French. The grammar is usually quite simple. The vocabulary is usually very limited except for some technical terms.

The secret to keep in mind is that spoken French is very repetitive. A small number of words and grammar items are used over and over again.

Unlike written French, spoken French relies heavily on sound to convey meaning. A good part of the meaning comes from intonation, rythmn and stress.

Also keep in mind that French is spoken in many different accents. The French spoken in Belgium, Quebec, Africa and Acadia is quite different from the French of France. And even within France, there are many regional accents.

How can I improve my understanding of spoken French?

At MondoLingua, we believe that there is nothing better than working with the real thing. We recommend the systematic study of a wide variety of samples of authentic spoken French.

And to save yourself a ton of work, wouldn't it be wonderful if each sample came with a complete transcript, a translation and a technical commentary that pointed out things to take observe in the recording?

That's exactly what we do at MondoLingua. It's all part of the general approach underlying all our learning tools. To show how this works, we'll demonstrate with two short sample recordings lasting around 1 min 20 seconds each.

A. A conversation featuring a male voice with a relatively neutral European accent. Here are the recording and documentation including translation, transcript and technical commentary. The long version of this sample (FCONVER01) with extensive documentation is available for purchase.

B. Two female voices speaking on the radio in a very neutral standard Quebec accent. You can download the recording here and the  documentation with translation, transcript and technical commentary.

The technical commentary highlights elements of grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation that you should pay close attention to.

We have deliberately kept the translation somewhat close to the original French so that the French structure is more apparent.

How to use these samples to develop fluency

Step 1: Listen to the recording a few times to see how much you understand.

Step 2: Look at the transcript and translation.

Step 3: Listen while reading the transcript.

Step 4: Look up in the dictionary any words you don't understand.

Step 5: Study the grammar from the transcript. Pay special attention to the forms of the verbs. Look at the form and placement of the object pronouns. Notice the reflexive or reciprocal verbs. Make sure you understand how everything works.

For the pronunciation, pay attention to the liaisons or the blending of words. Listen particularly to intonation.

Step 6. Repeat listening 3-4 times a day for at least a week or until you feel that you understand everything completely.You should feel that you are beginning to know the samples by heart. This is a good sign.

Step 7: Try voice-over with the recordings, speaking odd words here and there. Then work your way up to entire phrases. This is not easy because the delivery is so fast. You don't have to try to speak over the entire recording. Just learning some phrases will do.

The end result? Because spoken language is so repetitive, you'll find that your understanding of other conversations will be automatically enhanced. And, above all, you will start to speak more and more fluently because you will have internalized many of the patterns of spoken French in these recordings.