How to understand spoken French better

How to better understand spoken french

As a learner of the French language, you’ve probably found out that, no matter how much you study, understanding everyday spoken French is an enormous challenge.

The problem is the same in many languages : you can learn grammar and vocabulary, you can master reading and even writing, but when it comes to listening to spoken language, it’s just a whole different ball game.

But why is understanding spoken French so difficult ? In my experience of language learning, the challenge stems from 3 major aspects of spoken languages.

The first aspect is contractions. In spoken French, we might say they are elevated to an art form !   The same can be said about spoken Spanish (particularly in Andalucia) and Portuguese (very similar to French in that respect).

Contractions make it extremely hard for an untrained ear to distinguish the words and phrases being spoken.

The second challenge is the high frequency use of colloquialisms / slang words and phrases.  It’s like a second language, in parallel to standard French.

The third factor is speed.  As if constantly contracting words and using colloquial phrases in everyday speech wasn’t enough, native French speakers typically speak at breakneck speed.

So how can you better understand spoken French ?

At this point I could start to list the usual obvious tips such as, practice with natives, listen to podcasts, watch TV shows, switch your phone language to French etc etc.  I’ll spare you.

I’ve been teaching myself spoken European Portuguese, which is a very difficult language to hear, even if you know French and Spanish like I do.    

Reading Portuguese for me is a breeze, but listening to spoken Portuguese has been a totally cryptic experience.  I started understanding it the hard way, by spending time in the country and listening to people, often without getting a single word.

This steep learning curve, however, helped me think of an approach that I’ve since tested successfully on my students.

Let’s assume you’re not starting from scratch, and are already familiar with basic words and phrases such as hello, how are you, thank you, please, my name is, what time is it, and a few others.  

Here’s a simple process I’ve tested that really helps learners build their understanding of spoken French :

  1. Start with a short, simple conversation using words and phrases you understand in standard French (just 2 or 3 lines).

    Make sure the conversation makes sense, that is, there’s a context.

  2. Now replace some of the standard words or phrases with colloquial ones

  3. Listen to the modified version again, then at an increased speed

  4. Rinse and repeat with another short conversation

Of course, you will need help to do this since you don’t have the necessary mastery of the language to do it on your own - you’re a learner after all.

What you need is a native speaker to help go through these steps.  Then, each new spoken phrase you’ll learn in context will serve as a building block for the following ones.

In the rest of this article, I’ll show you a few examples so you can see exactly how this works.  By following the approach outlines in these examples, you’ll start quickly improving your understanding of spoken French.

Understand spoken French : I’m hungry

Let’s start with a simple phrase you can easily understand in spoken French :

“J’ai faim.” (I’m hungry)

Now let’s make it more colloquial :

“J’ai la dalle.”

Let’s add a logical sequel to this :

“Il n’y a pas quelque chose à manger ?”

This would translate to, is there anything to eat ?

Let’s listen to a more typical way to pronounce it :

“Ya pas queq’ chose à manger ?”

As you can hear, “il n’y pas” has been contracted to “ya pas”, omitting the “il n’ “.   Also, “quelque chose” is contracted to “queq’ chose”, skipping the “l” and the “que”.  

Let’s put these 2 phrases together :

“J’ai la dalle ! Ya pas queq chose à manger ?”

OK now let’s come up with a response, first in correct French  :

“Eh bien, il reste un peu de fromage dans le réfrigérateur”.

Let’s hear the spoken version :

“Ben, y reste un peu d’fromage dans l’frigo”.

Now understanding this spoken French phrase is somewhat of a challenge.  Clearly, the following conversions are taken place :

  • “eh bien” turns into “ben”
  • “Il reste” becomes “y reste”
  • “Un peu de fromage” is shortened to “un peu d’ fromage”
  • “Dans le” is now “dans l’ “
  • “Réfrigérateur” is replaced with “frigo”

Note that “frigo” is a reduction of “Frigidaire”, which is a historically popular refrigerator brand in France.  As a result, the French have been using “frigo” as a slang equivalent for “refrigerator” for decades.

As you can hear, trailing l’s are skipped, and “de” and “le” are shortened to death.  This all makes it hard, if not impossible, for learners to understand spoken French, especially at full speed.

Let’s listen to the French phrase again at French speed :

It’s like hearing Chinese isn’t it ?  Putting everything together so far, this is what it sounds like :

“J’ai la dalle ! Ya pas quequ’ chose à manger ?”

“ben  y reste un peu d’fromage dans l’frigo”

Understanding spoken French :  what are we doing tonight ?

Suppose you’re making plans for the evening with someone you know.  In standard French, you might say or write :

“Que fait-on ce soir ?”  This is a standard way of asking, what are we doing tonight ?

Let’s hear what it typically sounds like in spoken French :

“On fait quoi c’soir ?”

Notice how “que fait-on” changes to “on fait quoi”, a very colloquial (and grammatically not so correct) way of asking a question.

The other thing that changes is that “ce soir” is contracted into “c’soir”, a very common French way of pronouncing.  If you succeed in training your ear to recognize these contractions, that will be a major step in bettering your understanding of spoken French.

A typical answer might be (standard French version)  :

“Je ne sais pas, on pourrait prendre quelque chose au McDonald ?”

The spoken version would go something like this :

“Chaipa, on va s’prendre un truc au McDo ?”

As you can hear, “je ne sais pas” is being contracted quite a bit, becoming an ugly “chaipa”.

“On pourrait prendre” turns into “on va se prendre”, pronounced “on va s’prendre”.

Notice the use of “va” (aller verb) to suggest doing something.  The tone of the speaker’s voice is what allows you to tell that s/he is making a suggestion, rather than just asserting something.

Also, the abusive use of the reflexive pronoun “se” is common in colloquial French. In reality the verb “prendre” here is not reflexive  (“se prendre” does exist but with different meanings, e.g. “se prendre les pieds”, “se prendre au jeu” etc).   

The grammatically correct form in this example would be “on va prendre”, rather than “on va se prendre”.  In spoken French, we often add “se” before a normally non-reflexive verb just to make it sound more colloquial, relaxed, and impactful, sort of like a linguistic provocation  :

“On va se prendre un verre” (normally “on va prendre un verre”)

“On va se faire une partie de cartes” (should be “on va faire une partie”)

“Elle va se manger un gâteau” (should be “elle va manger un gâteau”)

Back to our spoken French phrase, “se prendre” is further transformed into “s’prendre”, making it even harder for a non-native listener to distinguish :

“On va s’prendre”

Another substitution you need to get familiar with to better understand spoken French phrases, is using “un truc” instead of “quelque chose” :

“On va s’prendre un truc” = on va prendre quelque chose

Finally, “au MacDonald’s” becomes “au MacDo”.  If you want to better understand spoken French, you have to train your ear to recognize these reductions the French make all the time.

For example, “la faculté” is “la fac”, le restaurant is “le restau”, “la publicité” is “la pub”, “personnel” is “perso”, “professionnel” is “pro” ... the list goes on and on.

“MacDonald’s” does not escape the contraction rage, and is referred to as “MacDo”.

Let’s recap the phrases we’ve learned :

“On fait quoi c’soir ?”

“Chaipa, on va s’prendre un truc au McDo ?”

OK we’re making progress. Let’s move on.

Understanding spoken French : what do you think ?

Suppose you threw a big party at your place yesterday.  Many people were invited, many came and they all had a lot of fun.

The next day you talk to a close friend, and ask him/her how he/she liked the party.  Here’s what the exchange might sound like in normal French :

“Alors, qu’as-tu pensé de ma soirée ?”

As usual, the spoken French version is likely to do away with the interrogative form “as-tu” :

“Alors, qu’est-ce-t’as pensé d’ma soirée ?”

Two things going on here : first, “qu’as-tu” is replaced with “qu’est-ce-que tu as”, an alternative, grammatically correct form of interrogation in normal French.

Second, “tu as” becomes “t’as”, following the usual contraction pattern.  So “qu’est-ce-que tu as” becomes “qu’est-ce-que t’as”.

The result is :

“Alors, qu’est-ce-t’as pensé d’ma soirée ?”

An even more colloquial alternative would be to say :

“Alors, t’as pensé quoi de ma soirée ?”

Remember, we talked about this “verb + quoi” pattern in a previous example.

Now let’s think about a possible answer from the friend, starting with the standard French form :

“C’était vraiment une réussite ! bravo tu as fait du très bon travail !”  

In English : it was a real success ! Congratulations, you did a great job (organizing it).

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone just spoke like this all the time ? Even at rapid speed, you would have much less trouble grasping the spoken French you hear !

Most of the time, however, the person would instead say something like :

“Franchement c’était top, t’as vraiment assuré sur ce coup-là !”

The core of the phrase is “c’était top”, meaning it was just awesome.  Notice how the French use the word “top” for great, fantastic, the best.   That right there is your answer.

The friend adds the word “franchement” at the beginning of the sentence.  Though it literally means “honestly” - you can alternatively say “honnêtement” - the role of the word here is one of emphasis.  The party was really, really “top”. Honestly.

Then comes the congratulation part.  S/he uses the word “assurer”, which normally translates to “to assure”. In colloquial spoken French though, it means something like “to nail it”.

So your friend is saying “you really nailed it !”

The last part of the phrase is “sur ce coup là”, which you can loosely translate to “on that one”.  

So saying “tu as vraiment assuré sur ce coup-là” is somewhat redundant, she could have skipped the last part and still convey the same idea.

But appending “sur ce coup-là” is another way of emphasizing the idea, saying you really did a great job with the party.  Basically, “you really nailed it on that one!”

Now let’s put our spoken French phrases together, and see if we can now better understand what’s being said :

“Alors, t’as pensé quoi de ma soirée ?”

“Franchement c’était top, t’as vraiment assuré sur ce coup-là !”

Keep going at it in this fashion, you’ll soon understand everything we crazy French people are saying !

Understanding spoken French : are you at home ?

In the following example, you happen to be in the area where your friend lives, so you give him a call to find out if he’s at home so you can stop by and say hi.

When you get your friend on the phone, you ask :

“Je suis près de chez toi, tu es chez toi ?”

Here’s a spoken French version of the question :

“J'suis dans l’coin là, t’es à la maison ?”

As you know by now, “j'suis”, or even "chui", is short for “je suis” in everyday spoken French.  Recognizing this is key to improving your understanding.

Notice the expression “dans le coin”, which means “in the area”.  “Coin” means “corner”, so you’re literally saying “I’m at the corner (of your street)”, i.e. you’re close by.

And as usual, “le” gets contracted into “ l’ “, so “le coin” becomes “l’coin”.

“A la maison” literally means “at home”, but a more standard phrase for being at home is “être chez soi” (chez toi, chez moi etc).  In this context, “à la maison” is a somewhat colloquial expression.  

So if you were speaking to someone you don’t know, you would typically say “vous êtes chez vous” instead of “vous êtes à la maison”.

Of course, “t’es à la maison” is short for “tu es à la maison”.

Note the word "" appended to the phrase "j'suis dans l'coin".  Here, "là" means "right now", "as we speak".  It indicates this is an ongoing, immediate thing : I'm in the area right now, as we speak.

This "là" has a different meaning from "je suis dans 5 minutes", which refers to the place you're on your way to.

That's  another one of these nuances you'll need to master to better understand spoken French.

OK, now you want to add something to explain to tell your friend you’d like to stop by and say hi :

“Je peux passer te dire bonjour ?” - can I stop by to say hello ?

That’s something you may say, but if it’s a good friend you might say instead :

“J’peux passer t’faire un p’tit coucou ?”

Here “un petit coucou” means “a little hello”.  “Coucou” is actually a cuckoo bird, and also refers to the bird that pops out in old cuckoo clocks.  That kind of hello.

Notice once again that both “te” are reduced to a mere “ t’ “ when in spoken form.

Now your friend may answer :

"Non mais je suis à côté, je serai chez moi serai dans 5 minutes” - I’m not home but I’m nearby, I’ll be there in five minutes”

Let’s listen to and try to understand the spoken French version :

“Non mais j'suis pas loin, j'suis là dans 5 minutes”

Notice how the colloquial, spoken version uses “pas loin” (not far) instead of “à côté” (close).  That’s something very typical in French - as well as in other latin languages such as Spanish and Portuguese.

So for example we gladly use :

  • “pas mal” for “OK”
  • “Pas bête / pas con” for “smart”
  • “pas mauvais” for “good”
  • “pas super” for “lame”

Your friend then says “je suis là dans 5 minutes”, meaning I’ll be there in 5.  Here, “là” refers to the place mentioned in your question, that is, your friend’s house.

More generally though, “je suis là dans + duration” means “I’ll be there in …”, that is I’ll be at the place you’re at or the place where we agreed to meet.

Now that we understand better what’s being said, let’s listen to the dialogue again :

“J'suis dans l’coin là, t’es à la maison ?”

“J’peux passer t’faire un p’tit coucou ?”

“Non mais chui pas loin, chui là dans 5 minutes”

Understanding spoken French : how much is it ?

In this example, you’re in a store checking out tables for your living room.  You spot one you like and you inquire about the price.  In a perfect world in which French is easy to hear, you would say :

“S’il vous plait, combien coûte cette table ?” (excuse-me, how much is this table ?)

In real life however, you would probably say :

“Si-vous-plait, elle est à combien cette table ?”

“Elle est à combien” is a colloquial phrase used mostly in spoken French.  What’s more, native speakers often omit the liaison that should be made when pronounced correctly :

“Elle est-T-à combien ?” “Elle est à combien ?”

This often makes the phrase more difficult to understand for a non-native.

The seller’s response in standard French :

“Normalement elle coûte 150€, mais je peux vous la laisser à 100€”.

More typically, he would say something like :

“Normalement elle fait 150€, mais j’vous la fais à 100€”

So he uses “elle fait” as a colloquial alternative to “elle coûte”. He also says “je vous la fais à” in place of “je peux vous la laisser à”.

“J’vous la fais à 100€”

Putting it together, we’re now able to understand the spoken version :

“Si-vous-plait, elle est à combien cette table ?”

“Normalement elle fait 150€, mais j’vous la fais à 100€

Understanding spoken French : what’s next

So we’ve taken a brief look at some of the patterns typically used in spoken French.  Knowing about and distinguishing these patterns will greatly help you in decrypting what you hear.

Of course, as you’ve probably heard and read everywhere, the more you listen, the more you’ll be capable of understanding spoken French.

But listening alone only really works if you already have the basics down.  You need to train your ear to these constant contractions, colloquialisms, and speech pace.

If you’d like to see more content that really goes into the specifics of listening and understanding spoken French, drop me a comment below, I’ll read and answer your comments individually.

Also, if you have specific questions about verbal French, that is speaking and listening, you can send me an email at shootquestion (at) blablafrancais (dot) com.  

Posted in Blog posts
2 comments on “How to understand spoken French better
  1. Eddie says:

    Hello,

    I have one question:

    When I listen to people speaking French in informal situations, I hear them use words like “bof” “bah” “bon bah” “euh” a lot. I never really know which of these words I should use when I speak French myself. As an English native speaker, I end up just saying “ummmm” when I am thinking of how to answer a question or respond to someone in French.

    Could you give some examples of how words like “bof” “bah” and “euh” are used in informal situations?

    • Equipe BlaBla Français says:

      Salut Eddie!

      You’re right, we use a these words ALL THE TIME ! It’s definitely something that should be taught as part of spoken French, because these words will make or break your native-sounding speech. Here’s a brief primer :

      – “Bof” may indicate that you’re pondering something, thinking about it before answering, or it may indicate skepticism or disagreement : “c’est beau hein ?” “bof …”

      – “Bah” can be used in place of “ben” which itself is a deformed “eh bien”, so in that sense “bah” can mean “well…”. It can also be used to mean “obviously!” : “bah oui, évidemment !”

      – “Bon bah” is typically a colloquial version of “bon eh bien …”, something like “well then…”. But it can also serve to introduce a solution to a problem : “bon ben, dans ce cas on n’a qu’à partir plus tôt”

      – “Euh” is equivalent to the English “Um” but also has other uses, such as “I don’t think that’s correct” : “Euh je ne crois pas non…”

      It’s worth having a full post about these words, with some concrete examples for learners to know exactly how to employ them. I’ll try to publish one for you guys over the next couple of days.

      Cheers,
      Yanis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Like these audio articles ?
Get them in your email
Zero spam ! Just great content
Loading...