Spoken French Comprehension

Spoken French Comprehension: Train You Ear With These 4 Dialogues

Comprehension is at least half of the challenge of learning spoken French. Understanding what's being said, and saying the right things the right way, are two sides of the same medal.

The comprehension side for learning spoken French plays a fundamental in the speaking side as well, since once you start to hear and understand what's being said, the mimicking kicks in and you begin to reuse in your own speech the colloquial French phrases you've heard.

So developing your spoken French comprehension skills is absolutely essential to becoming a fluent speaker, it's a fundamental prerequisite to producing French speech yourself.

In this post, I'll go over a few common examples of spoken French comprehension challenges learners encounter, with accompanying audio.

This will help train your ear to recognize the colloquial French phrases being spoken, which can go a long way toward developing your memory muscle for speaking.

Spoken French comprehension: getting helped in a store

Listen to this French dialogue:

Bonjour Monsieur, est-ce-que je peux vous renseigner?

Oui bonjour, s'il vous plait, je voudrais essayer ce pull en taille 44. Vous pourriez me le trouver?

Hello sir, can I help you with anything?

Yes hi, I'd like to try this sweater in a size 44 please. Could you get that for me?

The store clerk uses the phrase "est-ce-que je peux vous renseigner?", literally "can I inform you" to mean "how can I help you?". Learning to recognize this phrase will help your spoken French comprehension as this expression is used a lot in French retail and service.

Alternative variants commonly used as well include:

Je peux vous renseigner? (can I inform you?)

Je peux vous aider? (may I help you?)

Que puis-je faire pour vous? (what can I do for you?)

The customer responds saying he'd like to try on a sweater in a specific size. He uses the word "pull", short for "pull-over", which in French means "sweater". In spoken French, English words are often deformed and used to mean something different. Understanding what these English words really mean will help your French comprehension.

The customer then asks the clerk if she can get the given size for him. The expression "vous pourriez me le trouver?" (can you find it for me?) is a polite way of saying "go get it for me". Beginner French learners may be a little lost at first when hearing this. French speakers often jump through hoops to find indirect ways to ask for something in order to avoid sounding like they're giving orders. Something to keep in mind for improving your French comprehension skills.

Spoken French comprehension: how to get to a place

On est en retard là! On y va en bus ou en metro?

Vaut mieux prendre le métro, en bus on va se retrouver coincés dans les bouchons...

We're running late already! Are we taking the bus or the subway?

It's better to take the subway, with the bus we'll get stuck in traffic.

An common French expression you need to learn to recognize for listening comprehension is "on est en retard", often pronounced "on est en r'tar".

Also notice the trailing "là" which means "right now", "as we speak". Another example:

Je suis vraiment crevée (I'm really beat right now)

"On y va en (bus, metro, voiture, etc)" is the most common way to express how you're going somewhere, using which means of transportation. This is an important construction to recognize when listening to spoken French.

Tu y vas comment? En car? (how are you getting there? By bus?)

Ils y vont en avion (they're flying there)

Elle y va à pied (she's walking there, going there "on foot")

The answer "vaut mieux prendre le métro" is another very common French phrase to say "better do something". The correct phrase is "il vaut mieux + verb". Recognizing this construction is important for French comprehension. More examples:

Vaut mieux être prudent (better be careful)

Vaut mieux ne pas y aller (better not go there)

Vaut mieux se coucher tôt (better go to bed early)

The argument for not taking the bus is to avoid getting stuck in traffic, "se retrouver coincé(s)", another very common spoken French expression to recognize for listening comprehension.

Elle va se retrouver coincée (she's going to get stuck)

The colloquial term "les bouchons" (literally the plugs, the stoppers) is used for traffic.

Nous sommes en retard à cause des bouchons (we're late because of traffic)

Spoken French comprehension: having guests over for dinner

Mais, tu n'as pas encore préparé la salade? Les invités arrivent sous peu!

Je fais ce que je peux! Tu n'as qu'à m'aider un peu au lieu de perdre du temps!

But, you haven't prepared the salad yet? Our guests will be here soon!

I'm doing the best I can! Why don't you just help me instead of wasting time!

When listening to this short dialogue, notice how "tu n'as pas encore" sounds like "t'as pas encore". This kind of spoken contraction is one of the things that makes spoken French comprehension challenging in everyday life.

The phrase "les invités arrivent sous peu" (the guests will be here soon) is a typical spoken French construction you should recognize when hearing it.

Les pompiers arrivent sous peu (the firemen will be here soon)

The expression "je fais ce que je peux" (I do as I can) is another common colloquial French expression. Some equivalent variants:

Je fais comme je peux

Je fais mon possible

Je fais mon maximum

For French comprehension, it's key that you learn to hear and understand the expression "tu n'as qu'à...", which is a typical French way to say " well if you'd just...", "why don't you just...":

Tu n'as qu'à m'aider (why don't you just help me)

Tu n'as qu'à ranger ça dans la cave (just put this away in the basement)

The last part of the sentence "au lieu de perdre du temps" (instead of wasting time) is another very typical French phrase. The person is basically saying "just quit waisting time and give me a hand".

Va droit au but au lieu de tourner autour du pot! (go straight to the point instead of beating around the bush)

Fais quelque chose au lieu de me regarder! (stop looking at me and do something)

Spoken French comprehension: meeting a person at a place

Allo c'est moi! Mais enfin tu es où? On avait rendez-vous à midi non?

Allo? je t'entends très mal, je n'ai pas beaucoup de réseau là...

Hi it's me! Where the heck are you? We're supposed to meet at noon aren't we?

Hello? I can't hear you well at all, network coverage is not good where I stand.

The dialogue starts with "allo c'est moi!" which is used a lot nowadays in mobile phone conversations in French, since the person receiving the call supposedly knows who the caller is before picking up.

The next bit, "mais enfin tu es où?" is important to learn for good French comprehension. It conveys the idea the person asking the question as been waiting or looking for the other person for a while and it getting annoyed by their not being anywhere in sight. The phrase "mais enfin" expresses that feeling of annoyance impatience. It's equivalent to "for god's sake!" or "where/what in the world...".

Mais enfin, tu te décides ou non! (make up your mind for god's sake!)

Mais enfin, il est où ce restaurant! (where in the world/where the heck is this restaurant!)

The person asks "tu es où!". Following "mais enfin", this construct also participates in expressing the person's annoyance or indignation. A "calmer" way to ask someone's location would be to say "où es-tu?", although "tu es où?" is also used in an informal fashion in a no-stress situation. Understanding these spoken French nuances is important for comprehension.

Ils sont où là? (where are they right now?)

The second person can't hear what the first is saying:

Je t'entends très mal! (I can't hear you well)

This is an important phrase to recognize in spoken French for good comprehension, because the person is typically asking you to repeat what you just said - or letting you know they're not getting the message. Alternative French phrases you should be aware of for improved French comprehension:

J'entends rien! (I can't hear anything)

Je ne t'entends pas! (I can't hear you)

je capte très mal (I'm not receiving well)

Ça coupe! (your breaking up)

In this dialogue, the person can't hear well due to bad phone network:

Je n'ai pas beaucoup de réseau là! (I have bad coverage right now)

Again, this French phrase is important for you to comprehend and should trigger some kind of action on your part or the other person's, such as repeating what you last said, moving around to a zone with better coverage, or hanging up and calling back the person

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