Jane Hunt, French resident for 7 years, provides some advice on improving your French listening skills:
As a teenager, I was on holiday in France with my parents in the windy Vendée and I needed to buy a hair clip. I looked up the word, “barrette”, in the dictionary and made my way to a nearby pharmacy, accompanied by my mother. Rightly so, I feel, my parents always made me do the talking, because if I wasn’t thrown in at the deep end, how else would I move out of my comfort zone and improve my basic school-learned French?
“Est-ce que vous avez une barrette s’il vous plaît?” I asked, fairly proudly. The lady replied that she had several in stock, and would I like to choose one? Although I just about managed to get the gist of her words as she showed me the range, according to my mother, I stood there with open mouth, eyebrows knitted together in concentration, looking like a “dork” (thanks mum) as I earnestly interpreted her response.
Ask pretty much any newcomer to France and they will likely tell you that speaking is the easier part; understanding the words that come back at you is much harder, particularly if they are given in a torrent of rapid-fire French.
Why is it so much harder to understand French than it is to speak it? It could be that we tense up, limiting our brain function; it could be that we’re simply so relieved to have successfully spoken that we forget to concentrate on the response, or it could simply be that we need more practise.
Here is some advice that might help:
Firstly, relax! Once you’ve spoken, take a breath, then look and listen to the person replying. Always have in mind that most people are nice and they are trying to help you, not to trip you up or make a fool out of you.
Secondly, if you don’t understand what someone is saying, here are two sentences for you to learn by rote:
Je ne comprends pas. Pourriez-vous répéter, s’il vous plaît?
I don’t understand. Could you please repeat that?
Je ne comprends pas. Pourriez-vous parler plus lentement, s’il vous plaît?
I don’t understand. Could you please speak more slowly?
Having these two sentences in your toolkit should give you more confidence. Hopefully the person with whom you are conversing will be kind, slow down and repeat until you understand.
Thirdly, watch films in French and switch on the English subtitles. This is a relaxing and enjoyable way to get used to the sound of French and at the same time, you have the opportunity to understand it; as long as you are watching it alone, you can pause the film and jot down any words or phrases you didn’t know. (I used to keep a book of these and learn ten a day.)
And lastly, keep French radio or TV on in the background. Whilst you might not consciously understand every word, your brain is becoming accustomed to the rhythm and sounds of the French language and if you are anything like me, you may well be surprised later on by just how much of it is subconsciously stored in what I call the “back drawer” of the brain. “I didn’t know I even knew that word!” is something I have often said after the phrase has already tripped off my tongue.
Learning a language is an amazing thing to do so be proud of yourself and your achievements so far. And don’t worry if you look like a dork; it never bothered me!