1. Forum
  2. >
  3. Topic: French
  4. >
  5. Understanding spoken French


Understanding spoken French

Hi all,

I've completed my French tree, I'm reading news articles, I'm reading a book, I write to my French penpals, I listen to French music and I try to watch TV.

I still barely understand a word when it's being spoken by a native French person.

As soon as I watch a French GCSE video or something where the speaker is a native English speaker I understand a lot more.

It seems no matter how much I try to understand spoken French, unless they speak slowly or aren't French I am just terrible and don't seem to improve.

Does anyone have any tips or resources that would aid me in understanding spoken French?

Kind regards,


EDIT: Just wanted to say a big thank you to you all for your support and advice, I think my motivation is being restored due to you guys and gals :)

June 12, 2015



Keep trying. It isn't easy, but you'll get better.

You might listen to audiobooks, too, as they are usually spoken a bit slower than everyday conversation is. Try to understand sentences aurally a few times before looking at the text, and then once you've seen how the "sound stream" is divided up, listen a few more times. IMHO, using older materials (because you can use them for free) does not hurt in this case, as this is really more ear training than anything else. Find a reader whom you can understand, and stick with him/her for a while.

These sites have good material to practice with LingQ, litteratureaudio, and there are several more.


Audiobooks are a great idea. I also like newscasts, since the presenters speak more slowly and clearly than they would in conversational situations.

I've also found that when watching movies, if you watch a lot of films with the same actor(s), it becomes easier to understand the actors whose voices you hear the most often. I first noticed this when running through a bunch of Gerard Depardieu's old movies... after a while I could understand him just fine but the other people I wasn't familiar with were harder to comprehend.


I guess I'm not the only one to struggle with the French accent?

It's weird listening to an English person speaking French since I can pretty much understand it but as soon as they're talking in a real French accent, I'm down to like the odd word or phrase here and there.


> I guess I'm not the only one to struggle with the French accent?

Nope. You'll find lots of discussion and, even, many cries for help on Duo. But (IMHO) no foreign language is a snap to understand by ear, right off. Practice makes better--there's no two ways about it. So keep practicing and don't give up.


I prefer movies, music, basic media outlets, oh and joining french club helped a lot. The biggest thing i've noticed every time i go "what?" is that what i don't understand is most likely jargon, slang, idioms, etc. Learning these are as crucial to learning french as much as learning english as a foreigner. I mean like 1% of english natives speak it properly, the proper english that they teach to foreigners..it goes both ways bruh.


If it is any consolation, I am a native English speaker, and there are times when I don't understand other native English speakers due to accents. Take a native English speaker from the Yukon, the Bronx, Alabama, County Cork, Edinburg, Cardiff, Canberra, etc....they'll all understand each other eventually but there will be a few minutes or more where they'll be thinking WTF is this person saying?

I am a native Quebecer and speak fluent "Quebecois". If I watch a French (from France) movie, I'm likely to miss a good 10-15% due to expressions I'm not familiar with, or different pronunciations/exaggerations that throw me off.

If people speaking the same language have trouble understanding each other sometimes, someone new to the language is bound to have issues too.

Don't get discouraged. I'm encountering some of the same stuff with German. On one of the shows I watch regularly, one of the characters regularly says "Nee, ne?" It usually catches me off guard and I think she's saying an exaggerated "Nina". You'd think I'd know by now. She says it every episode and I'm 2 seasons in. Baby steps.


I don't understand German, but when I listen to people speaking German I feel I have actually heard what they said, as the Michel Thomas tapes say "C'est un question d'accent !".

If you're struggling a little with the French accent and you're a fluent Quebecois speaker, then I feel much better about myself. Having started watching the Peppa Pig as parapluie4194 suggested, I am on episode 3 and feeling confident!!! I've already learnt une flaque de boue (I think that's right) which was a puddle of mud :)


un fraque de boue

That would be une flaque de boue (flaque = puddle, boue or bouette = mud).


I know I post this exact suggestion on the forums all the time but... kids' shows! At the very least, it'll be exciting/encouraging to watch something you can understand. And listening to slow native speech is the gateway to understanding fast native speech; don't feel bad about working your way up. It's how kids do it. And it's helped me a ton.


PS I think Lingvist has helped with my listening too, since the voice enunciates well and the site teachers a lot of slang.


Maybe some kids show from Canada could be a good idea, as the toned down version of the Canadian accent (sometimes called the Radio-Canada French, based on the national public TV and radio channel) is considered the standard, or international, French by many people. In all humbleness (and especially since French is my first language, I may not be the best person to judge on that), I think the standard French spoken by Canadian official sources (like journalists) might very well be easier to understand than the equivalent in France.

The best I can think of in this category would be Passe-Partout. It was originally created in the 70's when the Quebec public network hesitated between buying the rights to either translate or adapt Sesame Street and creating their own original show, which they finally opted for. It ran from 1977 to 1998. Since it's pretty old and they started to release the series on DVD (and parents of my generation who grew up with the show go crazy over them to show their own kids instead of some crap we have now as kids' shows), it's quite easy to find on Youtube, and probably in torrents as well, though I wouldn't normally encourage people to pirate copyrighted content.


I had a huge crush on Passe-Carreau as a kid.


I believe you were far from being alone ;-).


Yeah lingvist is great!!

I've tried watching Le Petit Ours Brun but their accents again are too cartoony to be understood, Pepa the pig thing seems better though! Thanks, I'll give it a go!


Yeah, kids' shows where the characters have silly voices are no good. I don't really like Petit Ours Brun and I tried watching 5 Rue Sesame and it was a struggle because the Muppets all speak in bizarre ways. I have an easier time understanding movies for adults than I do understanding 5 Rue Sesame. XD

Peppa Pig is especially great for language learners because it was made with the intent of teaching kids' new vocabulary, so the characters speak very clearly and new vocab is repeated often and everything is enunciated well. And it's super cute. At first I could only catch a word or two, and then later I could understand Peppa okay but not her parents (because they talk faster), but nowadays I can understand pretty much everything that's said and it feels really exciting.


I'm starting to understand why my little brother loves it so much :p


Lol. I like when there are jokes in there that only adults would get. They end every episode with "Tout le monde adore ___." In one case, the episode was about construction, and at the very end the camera zooms out to show a massive traffic jam caused by the construction and the voice says "Tout le monde adore Monsieur Bull! [the construction worker]" I was like, well now that's dark.


Yeah, I've been watching Adventure Time in English and there are times when it's really not for kids, it's for us adults. Les grandes personnes as he says in Le Petit Prince.


bonjour tout le monde, comme je disais dans un topic que j'ai posté, à mon humble avis, il n'y a que deux façons d'améliorer l'apprentissage d'une langue étrangère, prendre des cours avec un professeur ou parler avec une personne originaire du pays, pour ma part je me contente d'apprendre l'anglais ( je trouve ça contre productif d'essayer d'apprendre plusieurs langues en même temps) duolingo et un bon outil de travail pour mémoriser des mots, mais il ne peut pas par exemple corrigé votre prononciation.Ce qui est certain dans tous les cas, c'est que ça va vous prendre beaucoup de temps.


Désolé mais je dois vous avouer que je ne suis pas tout à fait d’accord avec vous ici. On peut bel et bien apprendre une langue étrangère quelconque sans jamais “avoir pris des cours avec un prof ou parlé avec une personne originaire du pays“, comme vous dites. En fait, j’en suis un exemple pour ce qui concerne le français, et même l’anglais aussi (tous les deux sont des langues étrangères pour moi).

Je dirais que la chose la plus importante c’est d’écouter ce langage parlé par les natifs pendant une longue durée du temps - bien sûr, il faut bien choisir du contenu qui nous convient parce que ça ne sert à rien d’écouter les podcasts très difficiles au tout début... Il y en a beaucoup d’autres (des astuces pour apprendre des langues), mais c’est cela qui a marché le mieux pour moi.


I give you a Lingot, not because it helps, but you have summed up my problem exactly. I am thinking that I am just going to listen to the same things over and over instead of a lot of new resources. Maybe watch a movie in French with English subtitles once and then just watch it without subtitles over and over until I start to understand the words. Maybe I'll start with something short from Youtube. Cyprien is rather funny. I don't most of what he says, but I can get some of it. Best of luck to you.


Maybe watch movies and videos with French subtitles. Usually, animation movies are more clearly pronounced, because the actors are concentrating only on their voices, and not the whole action happening at the same time. Also, you mentioned already having pen pals, if you start to video chat, you can ask them to speak more slowly or articulate more, and then repeat the same thing faster and faster until they reach their natural spoken rhythm.

I guess it's a question of practice more than anything else.


I used to love watching Albert le 5ème Mousquetaire but when I watch it in French their accents are so cartoonified that it's just impossible. Really really really tough. I have watched many of the episodes too and I just have no idea.

I've tried watching the Asterix films in French too with subtitles, but I think after a few minutes I'm just reading the subtitles instead of paying attention to the French, again their accents are a little cartoony.

I've been watching the series Extra which is probably the best one I've found so far as it's designed for learning.

It doesn't help that Netflix's French audio does not match the French subtitles. Maybe I should just cancel my Netflix subscription and try to sign up again on the French site... Hopefully giving me matching subtitles...

Do you recommend any animated things that don't have cartoony voices?


The subtitle mismatch thing has nothing to do with French, it's the same with English, but you don't notice it because why would you watch something in English with English subs? It comes from the fact that the goal isn't to teach the language, it's to understand the action going on. They have to make it short enough that people have the time to read it and keep the meaning of what is being said. If you want subtitles closer to what is being said, go for close captioning (or subtitles for the hearing impaired), as these tend to be more literal. But they also are way harder to find.

For recommendations, any animation for children should do the trick. Although Asterix is a cartoon, it has some jokes that are completely lost on a younger audience (or a foreign one). You can pick any Disney movie dubbed in French. I haven't seen them yet, but some people behind Les triplettes de Belleville made L'illusionniste and Ernest et Célestine more recently. Maybe films by Studio Ghibli (dubbed in French) also.


Wow. I can't believe I never even thought of watching the Disney films. I love them in English, now I can have double the fun in French!!!


Oh! Yes! And the translations are usually very good, in all the languages I've seen them in. As a bonus, they even translate the songs and some are so well done, they're better translated than the original.


Il y a" C'est pas sorcier"une emission qui cible les jeunes el les moins jeunes, tous les sujets sont abordés de façon clair et précise, non seulement c'est un bon moyen d'entrainer le système auditif à la phonétique française, mais aussi d'augmenter ses connaissances sur des sujets qui nous intéresse.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ci64dLXMKi4


I've got the Arial song Sous L'Océan already in my playlist!!! Which is why I wonder why I hadn't thought of it before!


I've been watching the Ghibli films in French.


"Le chat du Rabbin" is animated and on Netflix and very great. I recommend it highly. Switching to French Netflix won't help you with the subtitles though, that's done (as Bastou said) in order to match the dialogue with the action at people's reading speed.


This. Just this. I am working hard to be able to pass my foreign language proficiency exam in French - the ONLY requirement I have left to get my college degree. Understanding spoken French is so hard for me, and it is a major component of the test I need to pass. I just want to thank everyone for their suggestions and help, because I am totally going to use them myself.


At least for Italian, the podcasts at www.podcast.ch are really helpful. They have a lot of completely free (no registration required), archived podcasts in German, French, Spanish, and Italian - as well as English - along with the corresponding scripts. There is a 'karaoke' mode, to make it easier to follow where the speaker is, as the podcast goes on. The podcasts are essentially short essays - similar to a feature story in a newspaper or radio broadcast - and are likely to interest many/most people. They also provide some vocabulary cues for some of the less familiar words, phrases, or idioms. There is no translation provided for the overall article - only the dozen or so cues in a ~two page text.

The speaking speed is probably a little slower than everyday communication - and maybe you're struggling to get better with the faster pace - but at least for podcast.ch (in Italian) I don't think it is that slow. However, I may be a lot less advanced than you.

In the past, I've bought relatively inexpensive books for Spanish and Italian (from McGrawHill). that were essentially the same thing, that were OK, but they aren't really as useful to me as these free podcasts. The biggest difference: easy access on desktop, laptop, mobile... is superior in almost every way (the books had audio only CDs to go along with the printed material). Those pay material had more vocab help, and study questions for you could use to self evaluate your understanding - nice but not that big a deal) - and no karaoke mode.

Practice to build skills in extended listening (to paragraphs, or short stories, etc) is a key building block that Duolingo really doesn't address at all. Duo has been spectacular at helping out with basic reading literacy, but that's not really 'fluency', as many people have already grumbled....


There's this hilarious show called Extr@ that might help. Turn the subtitles on and try to get a feel for how the spoken language correlates to the written. It was made in four languages (Spanish, French, German and English) so if you ever decide to take up other languages it'll be there!


Yeah, I've been watching the series Extra which is probably the best one I've found so far as it's designed for learning.


I like Extr@ in German, and one of these days will give it a try in French. I think the same actor plays Sam in all the versions, but the native speakers are (obviously) played by different native speakers for each language.


Have a look at Johan's videos on Youtube - Francais Authentique


I just had a look, this is great thanks for the recommendation!


RFI's "fait du jour", the one with the quiz attached helped me a lot. The quiz helps you focus in on what to listen for.

Also http://www.dailyfrenchpod.com. The paragraph of the day isn't hard, but the tangents the guy goes on to explain words are good. Both sites serve as a bridge between exercises and stuff like TV.


Congratulations Cephlin on finishing your French tree, that's great!

To help with understanding spoken French maybe trying listening to an audio book in french while reading along in the same book? Then you'd get a native speaker pronouncing all the words while you read them. I'm doing that with a few books and it's helping me, hope it does for you too!

Hope you get to move to France someday! :) That's my dream to live in France. I got to visit Paris for a week a couple years ago and it was wonderful.


I've just started using this site http://www.listeningpractice.org It has many different voices speaking sentences to translate, and I am so bad at it, that I am sure it must be useful ;-).


You can listen to french radio -- there are podcasts and such with slow spoken news in other languages. Something to try is http://www.newsinslowfrench.com/ -- it also includes a written script so that you can read along as you listen to understand better. Also, speak with other french speakers -- I learned french a long time ago and am bilingual because I have been encouraged to speak, write, and read in French more than in English. It helps that I'm frequently around other people who are francophone. I can easily communicate with them because of my french knowledge. Practice makes permanent, so keep trying.


For anyone looking for French radio:

That link's homepage http://www.listenlive.eu/index.html lets you choose numerous countries to browse. Great for learning languages and getting exposed to more of a country's culture.


I watch French movies with French subtitles so that I can get used to the pace but still (somewhat) understand what is being said. It's obviously not a foolproof way of understanding French native speakers, but it is pretty helpful!


Above all, it just takes time listening to French as much as you can.

If you can find an opportunity to speak French with someone, especially a native speaker, it really does help. Is there anything in your area? It can be costly sometimes for a tutor or to take a class, but you can also find people who are willing to help you for free or for a low cost. It's worth searching in my opinion.

My French classes way back when were immersion. The teacher spoke only French from day one. Although difficult to do, I found that just listening to the sounds without getting frustrated helps. I'd hear a word several times without understanding it, then weeks later it would click in my head and I realized what it meant. Sometimes I will write down how I think it might be spelled and then look it up. That doesn't always work, but I can figure it out after a while.

Lately, I have been watching movies that I know very well with the French audio on and English subtitles off. As I already have an idea of what is happening, this may be less frustrating than trying to watch a movie that you don't know in French. Movies are great because the visual and context can help cement the meaning of a word in my mind. If someone says "rideau" in a movie and I see them pulling back a curtain, it helps me remember the word better.

Despite what many people have said, I have found that Duolingo has helped my understanding of spoken French. Previously, I often had trouble understanding because I didn't know (or remember) a word. Duo has improved my vocabulary and so it has become much easier to watch French movies with the subtitles off. I do know that I will have to continue to increase my vocabulary outside of Duo since the number of French words are limited.

I often ask native speakers to speak more slowly, and no one has ever minded. Of course, you need to be respectful of other's time as always.


I know this post is kind of old but I just stumbled upon it. I fully agree with a lot of what's been said in these comments : learning the spoken version of a language is hard and very much separate from what we learn in schools, books, and even here at Duolingo. Like many have suggested, I try to watch movies with subtitles to help me understand. I also use blablafrancais.com which has free and open access animated video lessons to learn colloquial French, they really help me with the listening and speaking. Practicing with native speakers is of course great and effective, but in my opinion that only works if you have at least a minimum level of listening and speaking , otherwise you're basically asking the native speaker a huge favor waiting for you to come up with words and trying to make something of it, lots of patience required... I'm going through this very process in Portuguese right now as well. I do believe it's entirely possible to learn a spoken language on your own without teachers using online resources, it seems I'm making good progress judging from the people I interact with. Keep at it, patiently, one day it just clicks.


I too have just restarted French lessons (intermediate at my university) and using Duolingo. My teacher recommended France Inter https://www.franceinter.fr/. I have just started to use it amd it seems that the speaker (on Foules sentimental) I heard had good diction, and did not speak too fast - I just lack the vocabulary. But it may depend on the programme; at least I am getting the 'sound and music' of the language.

Learn French in just 5 minutes a day. For free.