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Good ol' fashioned active listening. But what about passive listening? Is there any place for it as a way to improve your listening skills in French?

Good ol’ fashioned active listening. But what about passive listening? Is there any place for it as a way to improve your listening skills in French?

We’ve all got busy schedules, and sometimes it may seem like you don’t have enough hours in the day to do everything you want to do, like squeeze in an hour or two of listening to French.

Other times, you may find the act of listening to French to be pure drudgery and highly frustrating because you understand so little of what’s being said.

It’s only natural to wonder if you can take care of this task all while preserving your sanity by listening passively to the radio or television as you tend to more important matters, like your job or homework.

But is passive listening any good?

Passive listening has a bad reputation because we assume that we must suffer by listening hard to get any benefit. Even I used to believe this. But listening should never be painful or frustrating. If it is for you, keep reading.

You’ll notice that when you do passive listening, it isn’t always 100% passive. You’re 95% tuned out for a few moments, then 95% tuned in for another few moments, then tuned out, tuned in, tuned out, tuned in, and so on.

In those moments when you’re tuned in, you’re doing active listening. In the moments when you’re tuned out, you’ll notice that you still catch a word here and there.

I see nothing wrong with this. In fact, I highly recommend doing passive listening when you’re first starting with a new language. It’s also excellent for those of you who feel terribly put off by listening to an hour’s worth of French and not understanding anything.

Try it. You’ll begin to feel more comfortable with the sound of French entering your ears the more passive listening you do. You can progress to larger amounts of active listening when you want to.

But what if you’re already attempting a lot of active listening and you find yourself getting frustrated because you only understand 1% of the dialogue?

Stop forcing yourself to understand.

It’s a waste of time and energy. When your brain is ready for it, you’ll understand without having to force it. If you don’t understand what you hear, your brain hasn’t figured it out yet. Give it time. Keep listening, and let whatever you don’t understand wash over you.

As you listen, get excited at the 1 word out of 30 that you understood. Just listen for the words you understand. In a few weeks’ time, you’ll be at 2 words out of 30, then 3, then 4, then… oops, back down to 3 again. Keep going long enough, and I promise that one day it will be 30 out of 30.

So, back to passive listening — do I think it’s any good? If you’re tired and can’t concentrate fully; if you’re new to French; if you want to keep the sound of French around you all day; if active listening is still too demanding for you, then yes, it’s just what the doctor ordered!

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If what you’re doing isn’t working, change what you’re doing.

You’re putting in the time.

You study French vocabulary. You review verb conjugations. You work on improving your pronunciation.

You watch TV in French, doing your best to figure out what those moving mouths on the screen are saying.

You listen to the radio in French, trying to unscramble the incomprehensible gibberish the speakers are vomiting all over your ears.

You’re doing everything you thought you were supposed to be doing.

And yet, you feel stuck. You don’t feel like you’re making progress. You don’t understand what people are saying.

You always feel like you’re on the outside looking in.

And you’re frustrated.

Hell, maybe you’re even really pissed off. Pissed off to discover that all the work you’re doing to learn French isn’t paying off.

And now you’re convinced that you must absolutely suck at French. You practically believe that if you looked up the French word for suck in the dictionary, you’d find a dumb-ass picture of you as the definition.

But you don’t even remember how to say suck in French, which only serves to further convince you of just how much you suck.

Except it’s not true.

You don’t suck at French. C’est pas vrai que t’es poche en français.

But you are indeed stuck. Big time. And to get unstuck, you’ll need to tweak the way you’re doing things.

Um, hold on. That’s not quite right. No, you don’t need to tweak anything to get unstuck.

What you need is a major fucking overhaul.

Stop studying French so much and start living it instead. Find people to speak in French with on a regular basis. Even one person will do. More is better, but start with one.

This is without doubt the one thing that you must absolutely not neglect. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing everything else under the sun to learn French.

If you’ve got nobody to speak French with, you’re doing it wrong.

Ouch.

That’s tough to hear, isn’t it?

But deep down, you already knew it, even if you don’t like to admit it.

Let’s be honest. Expecting to feel at home in French without communicating with others is like watching an atheist pray to God for a miracle. It just doesn’t make sense.

If you’re just dabbling in French out of interest, then maybe none of this matters. But if what you want or need is to feel at home in French, then finding someone to speak with on a regular basis is the first issue you must resolve. This is a priority. For as long as it goes unresolved, you will always feel like an outsider in French.

What about studying? Isn’t that important too?

Yes, of course, you can study too. But it shouldn’t make up the majority of what you do.

If you get a thrill out of studying verb charts, then do it. But it won’t make you feel more at home in French. People make you feel at home in French. Studying verb charts mostly just makes you good at studying verb charts.

Sure, studying has some benefits. It can help you to make sense of what you hear. It can provide you with the vocabulary you want to know. Listening to the radio and watching TV in French can improve your listening comprehension. But this is mostly on the condition that you’re already spending lots of time speaking with people in French.

Studying isn’t necessarily bad. After all, this is entry #739 on OffQc. But many of us suffer from a tendency to go way overboard on the studying side, and way underboard on the speaking-with-humans side.

Maybe you’ve read OffQc today. Maybe you’ve learned a new word, like poche. Maybe you’ve even reviewed how to conjugate a tricky verb. You’ve probably studied enough today.

But you’re not finished with French.

Put your books away, or your laptop, or your smartphone, and figure out what you’re going to do to begin forming a bond with someone who speaks French.

Don’t put it off any longer.

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In 5 solid ways to improve your listening comprehension in French, Ash comments:

What I have a particular problem with is that I am totally not at a level where I can begin to understand most of what is being spoken on the TV shows or radio. I understand a few words here and there but for the most part, my A1-A2 level french lands me perfectly in a deluge of sounds that I can never seem to wrap my head around.

I would love to be able to follow all the pieces of advice on this post, but if anything, I see myself frustrated and mentally exhausted, through entire segments of french audio, whether through TV shows or radio, and completely just listening to what seems like a wall of incomprehensible noise. I am currently trudging through french-subtitled versions of french-dubbed American TV shows in hopes of reaching that level of critical mass at which I can perhaps begin to understand some of the stuff spoken without relying on subtitles exclusively.

Ash, the first thing I want to say is good for you. If you’re listening to lots of French, you’re doing things right. You don’t understand everything you hear right now. That’s completely normal. Every single learner will tell you that they went through the same thing.

What’s the difference between a learner who manages to make sense of the noise and one who doesn’t? The one who manages to make sense of it just kept going. Ash, keep going.

The next thing I want to say is: relax. If you’re frustrated and mentally exhausted, you’re pushing yourself way too hard. You’re forcing yourself to understand things that you’re just not ready for yet.

This doesn’t mean you should stop listening to French. What it means is stop worrying that you understand next to nothing right now. It’s OK.

Don’t try to understand everything right now. Just let all that French wash over you without getting caught up in details. Watch a show. What you understand, you understand. What you don’t understand, just let it go.

You’re not going to learn French better if you force yourself to try to understand things. It doesn’t work that way. You’ll need lots of exposure to French so that your brain can start making sense of it without you having to force it.

This takes time, not struggle. It may help at this stage to scale things back a little, though. If listening to two hours straight of French is mentally exhausting, do frequent but shorter doses. 15 minutes here, 15 minutes there. Increase the time as you go along.

Expose yourself to lots of French that you don’t understand. Don’t limit yourself to just the easy stuff that you know you get. Listen to lots of French that doesn’t make sense, but avoid dissecting it and getting stuck. Just let it go and relax.

If you can stop worrying that you don’t understand, you’ll probably find that you can listen to much longer segments without becoming exhausted at all. This is exactly what’s needed.

There’s a lot of stuff that you’re not going to understand the first time. Maybe you’ll understand it on the twentieth time, though. But to get to the twentieth time, you need to listen to enough French so that the twentieth time has a chance to come around.

If you stop after the first time forcing yourself to understand something, you’ll get stuck at that point.

Keep listening to French.

Relax and let things go.

Trust that French is revealing itself to you exactly as it should be.

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“Help! I think I speak pretty good French, but I still have so much trouble understanding what people are saying!”

If that describes you, know that you’re not alone. Improving your listening skills takes time — a lot of it. If you’re struggling to understand spoken French, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a gift for languages. We all have to work on it. It just means that you need to revise what you’re doing to avoid fumbling along without making progress.

Seeing improvement in your listening skills is a lot like losing weight (or gaining it). You only see the changes in hindsight after a long period has passed. You don’t see the changes on a day-to-day basis. If you start following some or all of the suggestions below, you can be sure that your listening skills will improve.

By the way, I’m not going to include “speak with francophones” in this list. That one’s so obvious that you already knew you should be doing it.

1. Speak with francophones

OK, I lied. Speak with francophones! There can be no better listening practice than speaking with francophones. Start with just one francophone. One-on-one conversations will reform your French in ways that you can’t even imagine if you’re not doing this yet. In one-on-one conversations, you have to listen to what your friend is saying for the conversation to continue.

Please don’t be one of those people who thinks that they need to improve their French just a little more before speaking. That’s missing the whole point of learning French. Nobody cares about your perfect or imperfect French, people care about you.

The francophone you find doesn’t even need to be québécois. Just find a francophone and start building a relationship.

If you are in fact already speaking with francophones very regularly but still feel like you’re struggling to understand spoken French — relax. You’re doing everything right. Your listening skills are improving, even if you don’t see it right now. Keep doing what you’re doing.

2. Familiarise yourself with more vocabulary

Yes, become familiar with the vocabulary specific to Quebec French, but please don’t neglect French vocabulary in general. Sometimes I see certain learners get so hung up with wanting to learn all the typical québécois words (nothing wrong with that) that they forget to learn even the most basic and important vocabulary common to all francophones (that’s a problem).

Become familiar with vocab however it is that you like to do it. You like word lists? Go nuts. Flash cards? Flash away. Read the newspaper? Browse the dictionary? Do it. Just do something that you enjoy and that you’ll be inclined to do often enough.

The point of this isn’t to study vocabulary. Really, I don’t think that you’ll learn vocabulary by studying it. The point of this is to make an initial contact with lots of vocabulary on your own so that when you’re doing the more important work of speaking with francophones or listening to French, you’ll hear that vocab again and have a better chance of understanding what you hear. And that’s when you’ll learn the vocab for real.

3. Listen to the radio

I know of learners who have made incredible progress in French after listening to the radio. I’ve recommended it numerous times on OffQc: 98,5 fm. It’s all-talk radio on weekdays, which means that it’s very dense with spoken French. You can listen to it live on the radio in Montréal, or listen online from anywhere.

Again, if I’ve insisted so much on 98,5 fm, it’s because I’ve seen the success that other learners have had with it with my own eyes (or ears). If this station isn’t for you, no problem, there are others to choose from. Pick something you like and listen to it. But really listen to it. Don’t just keep noise on in the background for the sake of it — pay attention to what you’re hearing.

4. Watch television series

OffQc is full of examples from québécois television series. This isn’t an accident! I’ve chosen the language examples that you’ve discovered on OffQc because they’re pertinent to everyday language situations. Three television series that I’ve quoted from extensively on OffQc are Les Parent, 19-2 and La Galère.

These three certainly aren’t the only québécois series that prove useful, but I’ve consistently gone back to them time and time again because of their pertinence, quality and entertainment appeal. You can watch films too, but the advantage to picking series is that they have many episodes and are produced in several seasons’ worth.

The most important consideration, of course, is to watch something that interests you. There’s not much point forcing yourself to sit through something that you feel is dead boring. You’re not going to become hooked enough to want to continue. Keep looking for something that you fall in love with, then listen, listen, listen.

Don’t just watch an episode once and be done with it. Watch it the first time to enjoy it. Watch it a second time to become even more familiar with it. Listen a third time, and then a fourth. You get the idea. The more you listen to it, the more that language is going to worm its way into your head and the better you’ll become at listening.

5. Every single day, baby

As a bare minimum, spend one to two hours a day of listening to French or taking part in French conversation. If you want to pick up steam in French though, I say increase it to the highest amount that you can manage, without driving yourself crazy. There is time for it. (No, you don’t need to spend quite so much time on Facebook.)

I don’t want to be a downer, but if the number of hours you spend per month listening to French and taking part in conversation can be counted on the fingers of one hand, you’re not doing enough. This is why you feel like you’re struggling to understand.

The number of hours should be more like the number of fingers on both your hands and all the toes on your feet. And then add to that all the fingers on my hands and all the toes on my feet. (OK, maybe not my feet because I’m missing some toes. Somebody else’s feet.) And then multiply that by three. Or four…

Increase the hours dramatically and you can be sure that your listening comprehension will improve. There’s nothing magical about it, honest.

Enjoy your journey!

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