Does French seem like this when you listen? If so, you’re doing it right. Now keep going.
Listening (and understanding what you hear) is the most challenging aspect of learning a language. It’s possible to be a decent speaker of French and still understand little of what you hear.
What can you do about this?
Listen to more French.
Yeah, I know, you already knew that. But are you actually doing it? And if you aren’t, why are you avoiding it?
For some of us, it can be distressing to notice that we don’t understand spoken language very well, so we avoid listening. Or maybe you find it exhausting to listen to what seems like endless noise, so you avoid it.
Everybody goes through this — it’s not just you. But everybody who eventually gets past this also had to just put up with it and keep pushing forward.
If it’s exhausting to listen to French because it all sounds like noise to you, listen in shorter doses. Listen for 10 minutes, then stop. Do another 10 minutes later on, and then another 10, and another. Don’t force yourself to listen to an hour straight if it’s going to frustrate you. As your understanding increases, you can listen in longer sessions.
If hearing all that language you don’t understand is distressing to you, listen for what you do understand instead. Pick out all the words and expressions you do understand and focus on that. Let the rest go.
Understanding movies in another language is very challenging, so don’t put unrealistic demands on yourself. Listen to them for enjoyment, but don’t drive yourself insane trying to understand language you don’t understand. It won’t work anyway, and you’ll just get frustrated.
Don’t let what you don’t understand deter you. Even when the language is above our level, there are still parts we’ll understand. At first, there won’t be many of them, but they’ll become more numerous over time. Listen, enjoy and let the rest go. If you’re listening a lot, that language is going to keep coming up again and again. Maybe you won’t understand something the first time you hear it, but you might understand it the thirty-seventh time in a different context without even trying.
If you’re exposing yourself to a lot of French, then it’s only natural to come across copious amounts of stuff you don’t understand. You’re doing it right.
Increase your vocabulary.
We need to know a huge amount of vocabulary and expressions to understand spoken French comfortably. That’s not meant to freak you out. It’s meant to reassure you — this is something you can work on, starting today.
Pick a topic and then speak aloud about it for 10 minutes in French to yourself. Every time you find yourself struggling to express yourself, write down the words you didn’t know how to say. At the end of the 10 minutes, go find out how to say those words in French and learn them. Keep doing this over and over to uncover gaps in your vocabulary. You’ll probably be amazed by what you discover.
Make a friend who speaks French.
And then speak in French with that friend!
A lot of learners of French want to practise with cashiers, store employees, strangers, etc., while on holiday in Québec. There’s nothing wrong with this (it can be motivating), but it’s not high quality practice. There’s only so much you’re going to learn from a cashier who tells you how much you owe and asks if you want a bag or not for your purchase.
Ideally you’ll make a friend who speaks French (or boyfriend, girlfriend, co-worker, etc.) — someone who cares about you and isn’t just a random stranger. If you’re fortunate, that person will speak to you in French in a way you’re more likely to understand and will spend lots of time speaking with you. Obviously the more people you have like this in your life, the better your chances.
Your listening comprehension will improve dramatically the more you take part in meaningful conversations.
Learn colloquial language.
Textbooks and language classes are usually very faithful to the written standard. Often what you learn in a language class sounds more like written French than spoken French. It’s not surprising then that spoken French can seem like a wall when the most basic features of colloquial language have never been encountered, stuff like contractions, omitted words, informal vocabulary and turns of phrase.
That’s why I wrote C’est what? 75 mini lessons in conversational Québécois French. This guide will give you a broad overview of important features of spoken language. It will raise your awareness of how conversational French differs from what you learned in school or from a textbook, and it will make it easier for you to figure things out on your own. You can download C’est what? here.
Even when you’re doing all the right things, it’s still going to take time. You’ll speed things up by working on your listening every day, but accept that you can’t force understanding to happen. Expose yourself to as much spoken French as you can, then relax and let time do the rest. Perseverance and patience really are the keys.