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How to understand fast spoken French
And why audio in “slow French” won’t really help you
One of the most common problems my students share with me is:
I’m pretty good at reading French, but when it’s spoken fast by Québécois, I have trouble understanding it.
In the past, I used to believe my students.
It’s true that understanding a written language is usually easier than understanding live conversations. Speaking fluently is even more difficult.
Over time, however, I realized the following:
Students who claim to have a “pretty good” understanding of written French often have a very poor understanding of written French.
The reason why they get lost in conversation is not because francophones speak particularly fast.
The main reason their understanding of spoken French is bad is because their overall vocabulary is lacking.
By focusing on improving vocabulary, especially through reading, my students are able to make progress understanding spoken French.
People don’t speak that fast
Everyone who learns a language claims that the natives speak very fast. But very few languages are actually spoken quickly. From what I’ve read, Spanish and Japanese are the fastest languages.
French is not spoken any faster than English, and in Quebec people don’t speak particularly fast. In fact, I feel that we speak slower than in busy Paris.
The main reason why people can’t follow a conversation is because there are too many words and expressions they don’t understand. In a busy setting, it’s difficult enough to concentrate on what people are saying. If there’s just one word that you don’t understand in short exchange, you’ll likely get completely lost.
Go back to the basics and read this article.
Listening to news in slow French won’t help
Often, my students believe that they need to slow down the speed of podcasts in order to understand them better. Many also follow channels that offer news in slow French.
I don’t believe this is a very helpful thing to do. If you have enough vocabulary, you will only get used to spoken French if you hear it at a normal speed — which as we’ve seen, is neither slow nor fast.
If you can’t understand something at a normal speed, it’s better to find material that’s more appropriate to your level, with fewer words you don’t know, rather than trying to slow down the speed to an unnatural level.
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Focus on reading first
It sounds counter-intuitive, but the best way to improve your understanding of spoken French is to read more, because reading is the best way to develop your vocabulary.
Don’t assume your reading ability is okay. If there’s more than one word per page you don’t know, you still have a long way to go.
How can you tell if you can read French well?
My method for determining reading ability is very simple.
Go to a decent French newspaper website like www.lapresse.ca
Pick an article, on any topic.
Read and translate the first 2-3 paragraphs, without any help.
Compare your guess by looking up the words or translating the whole text in DeepL.
Here’s an example, picked from an article published today in Lapresse.
Les ministres fédéraux se pencheront sur la crise du logement
(Montréal) Les ministres fédéraux se pencheront en priorité sur la crise de l’habitation au cours de leur retraite de trois jours qui s’amorce cette semaine à Charlottetown.
Beaucoup de nouveaux visages seront présents pour cette occasion. Il s’agit de la première réunion du nouveau conseil des ministres depuis l’important remaniement de la fin de juillet. Sept nouveaux ministres ont accédé à l’Olympe tandis que 19 autres s’occupent de nouveaux dossiers.
La crise de l’habitation devient un sujet brûlant pour le gouvernement fédéral qui est en train de perdre l’appui de la jeune génération de Canadiens dont les rêves de pouvoir s’acheter une première propriété sont en train de s’estomper à cause de l’escalade des prix.
What do the following words mean?
Se pencher (sur la crise)
(Une retraite) qui s’amorce
Le remaniement (du conseil des ministres)
S’estomper (les rêves)
I’ll give you the answers at the end of this article.
Other ways to improve your understanding of spoken French
Once you put more focus on learning more vocabulary through reading, you can take other steps.
Take conversation classes with a teacher (I’m available on Italki here.)
Participate in group conversations led by a French teacher. (I offer group conversation classes to paid members of my site.)
Listen to a lot of podcasts and live radio in French.
Improve your understanding of Quebec French (plenty of ressources on my website for that, and more to come).
Watch movies and TV series with French subtitles, but pause to look up words and expression you don’t know.
How did you improve your understanding of spoken French?
Answers to the quiz
Se pencher sur la crise, means to study the problem (of the crisis).
(une retraite) qui s’amorce - means to start.
Le remaniement (du conseil des ministres) means reorganization.
Tandis que means while.
S’estomper (les rêves) means to fade away. Here: to become less and less possible.