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Comprehending Spoken French

I'm really happy that my earlier post about my experience understanding French got a lot of positive feedback and that it helped to encourage people. I wanted to elaborate a little bit on what it's like to start understanding spoken French, as I think we're all probably in agreement it's the most difficult part of learning the language.

There is no light bulb moment where suddenly you hear spoken French and you understand everything perfectly. It's more like this -

Imagine you turn on the radio and all you hear is static. You might be able to hear a few words here and there, but for the most part, you can't understand what the radio host is saying or put the words together in a meaningful way that makes sense. That's what it's like when you start learning French, and that's what you'll hear for a long time (perhaps a year or more, depending on how frequent you study and how much exposure you have to spoken French).

As you get used to hearing the language, and if you continue to learn and repeat the things you've learned, you can understand more words through the static. Now you can hear individual words more often, you can hear entire phrases and entire sentences, and while there's still static (sometimes a lot of it), you can at least get the general idea of what's being said, even if you miss words or sentences. I'm assuming that with time and practice, the "radio" gets clearer and clearer, to the point that there is very little or no static at all. That, I assume, is fluency.

One of the best ways to be exposed to spoken French is watching movies in French with English subtitles. Disney movies are excellent for this, because most have a French dub, they're easy to acquire, most of us know the stories, and they use simpler words and phrases. I started doing this about a year ago. I picked out a few of my favorites, and when I'm at home I will put them on even if I don't sit down to watch them. When I first started doing this, I had to rely heavily on the subtitles. Now I've noticed that I can turn away from the screen and do something else, and I can still understand what's going on, even if I can't catch the meanings of some words and at times I get lost. I only look at the subtitles now when I don't understand a word or need a reference point. It's good to watch the same movie over and over too; you'll noticed that each time you watch it, you understand more of it.

Of course, if you're an adult, you'll have to get over feeling like a first grader lol, but I promise that it really helps. I can read the sports section in the newspaper with little trouble, but hearing the language is a lot more difficult. I still can't understand more adult movies like The Hobbit yet, nor can I understand most of the news or sports broadcasts in French. But if you're looking for listening opportunities, Disney movies are one of the best places to start.

August 21, 2018


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Merci d'avoir partagé. J'aime les posts qui sont longs, profonds et bien pensés, aussi utile.

August 21, 2018


thanks so much this truly is a helpful post and I appreciate the time you put in to right this. : )


I listen to France Bleu, France Culture, Europe 1 , France Inter all day at work thanks to internet radio. I read various French news sites. If I don’t understand a word I will look up the translation and try to use it in my vocabulary. I’m only level 17 in duolingo French but with all my listening and reading of my French textbooks I am much better at understanding French.

I’m headed to Toulouse in October for vacation so now I am even more motivated to learn French. I am now writing daily journals about my life in French and that helps too. Thanks duolingo and community for keeping me motivated.


I reduced the static with this online class from Carnegie Mellon University:


You can also look up French conversation groups on Meetup.com. I have been pleased with these so far. Usually, they will advertise what level of skill is required. Sometimes, all levels are invited.


thanks. i am just learning, and this is definetly how it is. however, i am trying to find somone who knows french


Thank you - I've notice that too and you've explained it well. I'll try the Disney movies.


a bit like leaerning to see/hear order in what af first seems total chaos


Love the Disney movie idea. Thank you for sharing.


Excellent way you explained learning to speak the language. I will certainly follow your example. Where would I find Disney movies in French with English sub titles please? I don’t know about you, but I am a retired senior. I live in a bilingual (French/English) area and I can find ways and means of practicing conversational French.


If you have Netflix, you can search "francais" and it will give you all of the movies available that are available in French. You will have to go to the subtitle menus and select Audio:French and Subtitle:English.


Thank-you for this post! You are so spot on about the static on the radio analogy! Sometimes it feels like it will never clear but I know it will with more immersive tactics and practice. I now have little post-its up all around my home, car, etc. telling me what things are. As I've learned more I have added to each post-it. Something that may have started as "bottes" (boots) has over time become "ma nouvelle, jolie et petite robe noire". Who knows what will be added in a month. For people in my life I have printed pictures of them and keep adding to their descriptions. I find that the personal element helps me to remember details more readily. I love the recommendation of Disney movies! This will be me using the same learning process that my young god daughter uses to learn and become comfortable hearing, speaking, and understanding english. Familiarity will help make things feel less threatening as I learn something new. I look forward to singing familiar songs from my childhood in french!


Great post! I would also suggest subtitled documentaries in French. They're narrated in a slow, clear voice that's perfect for beginners, there's plenty of visual aid to help with deciphering the language, plus the subtitles help lots :)

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