Aug 162011


(asked by Jennifer from the US)

I have been to Paris several times and I make an attempt to speak French whenever possible. Apparently, my pronunciation is very good; they are invariably surprised that I am American. However, I am terrible at comprehending anything beyond a simple response, for example “ça coûte 25€” or “les w.c. sont là.” So what happens is that I will say something, they will respond in rapid-fire French, and I freeze, because I’m not actually fluent. I will respond with something like, “désolé, mon français est terrible, est-ce que nous pouvons parler anglais?” Usually they will smile and switch to English but I wonder what they really think.

Should I not speak French at all if I can’t understand anything more than simple responses? If they answer in French and I don’t understand it, what should I say?

First of all, stop wondering what they really think, they most likely simply don’t care. People who want to communicate with you care about whether you’re both having an efficient communication, not what language you’re using and such things.


Now concerning being able to speak French (or any other language) and not understanding it.

Well, it really depends on where you are in your life (I mean, literally, whether you live in a French speaking country or not).

If you live in the US and just travel to France, my advice would be to take more French classes (depending on your actual level) and/or listen to as much French as you can, films, news on the web and anything else that you can get your hands on.

Understanding French, after the basics of the language have been acquired is a matter of habit, practice and only that. If your hear French only when you’re visiting France on vacation, you’ll never really be able to understand it, no matter how hard you try. If you hear it regularly (the best being daily obviously), it’ll get better and better with time.

If you live in France, well, stop hanging out with English speakers, make the effort to hang out with French people (preferably some that don’t speak English), you’ll suffer in the beginning, but it’s the best option to become bilingual on the long term.

I hope that helps.



More Questions Answered:

  25 Responses to “I can speak French but I can’t understand it. What should I do?”

  1. I highly reccomend watching television or movies without subtitles and taking notes as you go. Write down everything that you do understand. Even if at first you only catch a word or a phrase…sometimes you will re-watch the same thing and realize that what you thought you heard isn’t what was said. That has worked for me when I have no native speakers to learn with.
    I like the news for this, but news reporters the world around talk really fast.

    • I’m not sure I agree with the “writing down everything your understand”.
      Or I guess the listening should be in two parts. First listening to the whole thing and trying to understand the general idea/context/etc.
      Then, listening again and taking notes.
      But it sounds a lot like homework.

    • I have started to try this. My French is limited to just a handful of the most basic phrases, so it will be an interesting process. I tried my first film the other day which was a 1930 version of Leroux’s “Mystery of the Yellow Room” and it was very tough as it was such a “talky” film. Only recognised the occasional word. Names, for some reason, really stood out for me though. I will keep at it though and see how I go.

      Like you, I do occassionally watch the French news (on SBS Australia) but the newsreaders do talk quickly. I only really have the chance to watch it when I am off work, too, as it is on mid-morning.

  2. Hello,
    “will respond with something like, “désolé, mon français est terrible, est-ce que nous pouvons parler anglais?” Usually they will smile and switch to English ”

    No, surely not, this is not the thing to do. Ask him or her to speak slowly. If he don’t want to help and prefer speak english in France, let him go and choose somebody else. You want to improve your french, and friendly people like to help strangers. I think it’s the same anywhere, if you try to speak the local language, you will get better experiences, if you speak your own language, exspecting the other people will do the job, you will be just a tourist. And for me the language is important, because it’s not a medium, but a part of the communication. In other words, trying to say something in french in France give an other meaning than saying it in english.

    N’est-ce pas ?

    • Penarbed,
      People in the street are not your guinea pigs for your language practice purposes.
      “let him go and choose somebody else” is extremely rude whatever way I see it.

      “trying to say something in French in France give an other meaning than saying it in English.”

      Er… No.

      Despite the fact that you say that language is part of communication, the rest of your comment totally contradicts this.

      Do you speak a language because you want to communicate? Or do you speak a language because you want to show off in front of whoever?
      Maybe I’m wrong, but from your comment, I feel that it’s the second one.

      If you want to communicate effectively with a person the medium (language included) matters only in the sense that you’ll pick the one that makes communication the most efficient, in other words, the language that both person speak and understand the best.

      • “is extremely rude”
        I’m glad I have found something you can think “rude”.

        “Despite the fact that you say that language is part of communication, the rest of your comment totally contradicts this.”
        No, I don’t think so, and you don’t explain why. It’s not enough to use this assertoric way. On this blog, people speak english. So I use a foreign language, and that’s why I cannot explain my opinion. In fact I don’t know what means “show off”, but as usual, you make assumptions without any fact. It’s ok, that’s why we have fun here. You did it already with Seth. “Irritation and sarcasm”, ok, but if you want to talk about language, you have to learn more on this subject.

        “If you want to communicate effectively with a person the medium (language included) matters only in the sense that you’ll pick the one that makes communication the most efficient, in other words, the language that both person speak and understand the best.”

        From a linguistic point of view, this is not true. Again, language is not a medium. I cannot correct you every time you say an error in linguistic and litterary fields. For a person coming from Occitania, it’s amazing you can’t understand this story.

        My purpose is to help this nice person, Jennifer, to feel better when speaking french, and to help french people to understand that speaking english in France to a stranger who try to speak french is just a lack of courtesy.


        • Well, I do explain why, in the part that you don’t understand, “show off” means “se la pêter, frimer, etc.
          Also the part where you say “language is not a medium but part of communication”. This phrase doesn’t male much sense. A far as communication is concerned, language is indeed a medium.

          “if you want to talk about language, you have to learn more on this subject”

          (nods with a smile, I could also have written “rofl” but I feel that would have been less polite)
          Also don’t confuse “making an error” and “disagreeing on a topic.”

          Of course language is not only a medium, but in the case we’re talking about here, yes this is only what it is, and it is ridiculous on insisting on speaking French under the pretense that you should do so to improve your language if it has to hinder your communication with people around you.

          As I said, if she lives in France, sure she needs to make some efforts to learn the language and leave her comfort zone a little. If she’s just visiting, there’s no need to make her trip more difficult just because of language matters that can be easily resolved. And no, it’s not a “lack of courtesy” to switch languages when one sees somebody is struggling with the other language.

          But wait… “Occitania”… “Kenavo”… Mmmm….
          I see where you’re going with that. Wouldn’t you be one of those Regionalists that are a little bit on the taliban side of things with languages?
          If it is the case, I have news for you: only people in your region care about your local language, and not even all of them, and yes, the whole point of a “lingua franca” (regardless of which one it is) is that people can communicate better. The whole point on insisting on speaking local languages, is to end up cutting yourself from the rest of the world.

          One last personal detail: Not only I’m not from Occitania, but I also think it’s a joke.

  3. I’ve always thought it is an important sign of respect when in France or Québec to speak French. I had that view challenged recently during my recent visit in Québec, and I’ve modified it a bit now : in cases where the French-speaker’s English is certainly better than my French (ie anyone in Québec working in the tourist industry) and when he or she is in a hurry (waitresses in a packed restaurant, etc.) they’re going to be annoyed if you slow things down. As our Frenchman pointed out, sometimes communication is all that counts. My French is accented and slow enough that a listener has to pay close attention (they get a particular expression on their face, showing concentration). When I was in France I was able to do everything in French without problems. I was there in March, though. In a touristy place in August it’s probably a different story - some of these people just don’t have time for you. My new plan is to avoid situations like that as much as possible!

    Jennifer, just to be helpful I’ll point out that “terrible” means the opposite of what you think it does, and it’s “parler en anglais.”

    I’ve improved my oral comprehension a lot from the internet. You can start out easy by finding speeches (conférences, discours) to listen to, because those tend to be slow and clear. Pick something that is fascinating to you personally, to start with, and listen to it several times. Each time you will understand more. Debates go a little faster but are still clear (due to a live audience having to understand). Comedy routines and the news are harder, and the worst are police dramas and sitcoms! There are excellent French learning resources, such as audio files, to be found on Jennie en France’s website (link under Learn more about France).

    • Regarding the “sign of respect”, I think I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s a widespread misconception from English speakers.
      They’re confusing “Speak French to the Francophones to show them respect” with “Assuming a non-Anglophone speaks English and directly speak to them in English without asking whether they can is disrespectful behavior.”

      Thanks for the “terrible” thing, I missed it.
      Yeah, don’t forget that “terrible” in French can mean “terrible” but most of the time it means “awesome.” Context will tell.

      However, I need to correct you Margaret as “parler anglais” and “parler en anglais” are technically different (the first one meaning “to be able to speak English” and the second one “to express oneself in English”), in real life, they’re pretty much interchangeable.

      And yeah, “Jennie en France” has amazing resources, I just didn’t mention them because I’m so incredibly jealous of how successful her site is (just kidding, it’s listed in the “Learn more about France” blogroll in the sidebar).

  4. I have the same problem, I can only understand about 50% when I hear natives speaking. It’s really frustrating, because I can speak French pretty well, and I adore the language.

    • Well, let me underline again that this is not a “problem” but part of the learning process.
      If you learn a language not in a country where the language is spoken, you’ll have trouble understanding it without practice. That’s part of the deal.

  5. I just keep reminding myself of all the times my dad and grandma were talking and I didn’t know what a word meant. I’d ask them to explain and they’d say “Go look it up.” There was a time when we all didn’t understand everything we heard in our native languages too, and learning takes time and the occasional trip to the dictionary.

  6. Hello Jenifer,

    Don’t worry, learning a language is a long and difficult practice. If you want to improve your understanding you should continue to try to speak french to the people because your understanding will imrpove by the exercise or your earing or oral and usual french.

    It was the same for me when I went to a family in the USA to practice my English. I though that I knew English (after year of English at school); but once in the family I cound’nt understand much, almost nothing actually at the begining. I had no choice, I had to spend a whole month with them and they didn’t spoke french… So I had to exercise my ear, and my comprehension slowly improved.

    A good way to exercise comprehension is to whatch TV, movies, etc. for hours and hours… One day you will notice that you understand much more things. To be able to understand always 100% of a french conversation you’ll need to live years in the country, speaking only french.

  7. When someone learns a foreign language it is practically impossible to develop equally all the linguistic aspects. Reading, writing, speaking, understanding and participating in a conversion are rarely at the same level for a learner. Usually people find talking and listening more difficult and challenging than reading, translationg and/or writing, because when they have to speak and listen they have to participate actively. This can be frightening to lots of people who otherwise have no problem whatsoever in reading/writing/blogging etc in a foreign language. While conversational skills can be quickly improved through “direct immersion ” technique, as far as listening/understanding is concerned most people block completely when exposed to a native speaking the language they have been learning. There are many reasons, from psychological ones ( bug questions that keep saying in their minds things like- they will laugh at you, you know nothing, I will say a stupidity, people will hate me etc) from logistic ones ( they have never heard and met before a native ,therefore they are not prepared for such an experience). Most people get to know a foreign language through course books, audio exercises and sometimes tutor classes or private lessons. All these situations occur and have one thing in common - the pace of speaking is carefully controlled to match their level of understanding. When faced with a real person who does not carefully plan what to say and in what rhythm, most people feel blocked because they think ” I thought I was able to speak english/french/german etc, and now I see I don’t know a thing! ” It is a very powerful negative feeling and it can be overwhelming and very frustrating . The second mistake lots of people do is to concentrate on translationg in their mother tongue what they hear while their interlocutor speaks … They have done that at school and in their language classes and now they try to apply same technique in real life and it does not work because while they are able to translate they do it at a slower rate than that of the speakeer and when they hae somehow solved the first phrase they suddenly realise the speaker has already said 3 more phrases they have lost. So, they are stuck between understanding, translating , perplexity and fear of mistaking.

    I can understand what bothers Jennifer, especially since her pronounciation is good enough to create the image of a possible fluent conversation in French. It is only natural she feels frustrated about it and I think she has to accept the limitations of how much French she actually can speak and handle now and get rid of any fear/anger feeling because that will definitely not help her improve her listening skills. I would advise her to stop translating in her mind what she hears and to expose herself to controlled portions of native French speaking through music, news ( on the radio) and movies with english subtitles and french speakign actors. She should look for the lyrics of French tunes she likes and listen to the music while she knows the lyrics, because doing this repeatedly she will see improvement. Same with the news because the news is repeated from hour to hour and everytime she hears it again, she will understand more and easier since the content is approximately the same. And just like with everything else in life, no pain, no gain !

    Uff, I wrote that much ! Sorry for the length of the post !

    • Thanks for this great feedback Rosabell, I don’t have much to add (so of course, I will add something), and don’t be sorry for the length, the more regular readers help, the less I have to do (and the more often I may post, who knows? )

      So, I’ll add just one thing. I always advise against using songs to my students (or any other language student for that matter) or at least not before a certain level (a good one) in the language for the simple reason that the rhythm, pace and well musicality (duh) of the language is not a natural one in a song.

      Yes, songs can be a fun tool to help with a language (to acquire more vocabulary for example, something I used intensely in English when I was still learning) but not before having an already near fluent level.

      • Is that really so? Within the very FIRST week that I started learning French, I began listening to French music. It helped me a great deal! Of course, at first, I had no clue what they were saying, but in about a month or two, I knew all the words and it really helped me to understand French sayings, expressions, and words, etc. I started learning in Feb. 2011, and I am not fluent at all yet, (due to lack of consistent study…but that’s besides the point) but the songs did really help me to understand a different language when spoken. (Which is the point, right? Understanding another language when spoken?) Of course, everybody learns differently, but no, it still helps even if you’re not near fluent yet. That’s what I think based on experience. <3 <3

        • Isn’t it what I said?
          Yes, songs can help you acquire vocabulary, but that’s pretty much all what they’re good for. They won’t help you express yourself in the language unless you already know the basics, and they can even teach you wrongly about rhythms and tones when speaking is involved.

          • Yeah, that’s what you said….I never even thought about that particular point you just mentioned about how they can teach you wrongly. Mmm. Well, I’m wrong then. And you were a teacher, right? <<(That's rhetorical, of course). I shouldn't argue with you on this…

    • I just wanted to comment on your “the pace of speaking is carefully controlled to match their level of understanding” for courses and course books. That’s true by and large, I agree. I live in Toulouse and I have a French boyfriend, French friends and I adore this country. I read and write French to a high intermediate level. However, I am quite deaf and have a major speech problem. In Britain, I had special classes that taught me to speak to a level where I could deliver public speeches. I have studied with some famous institutions here like Alliance Français but none have taken my disability into account. Can someone recommend a class for me?

      • I don’t know if Rosabell can, but unfortunately I can’t. And I admit that “taking disabilities into account” is something France seriously lags in pretty much every field, and no, I’m not proud of that.

    • I am using children’s books, they have passages of text followed by questions which is a huge help to understanding sentence construction, verb conjugation and tenses as well as adding to your vocabulary (I am also having 4 hours or lessons each week with CLE). This, however, doesn’t help with conversation skills, I am fortunate enough to have a french boyfriend and have also gained his friends. I can’t always follow what they are saying but they understand that I will sit with them and listen, over time my french has improved to the point where I can hold a conversation without coming across as completely ignorant.

      If you don’t have anyone to practice with and really want to learn, then all I can suggest is either getting a french professor and private lessons or scout around (non-stalker style) and try to find someone who would like to practice their English/whatever in return for you practicing your french. If you live in France there is an organisation called AVF that are in every town and they have evenings where you attend and converse with locals.

  8. I have to agree with pernarbed. In Jennifer’s situation she should ask that the Frenchman speaks more slowly, not that he speaks English. I do, however, disagree with the notion that if the Frenchman would rather speak in English that Jennifer should let him “go and choose someone else”.

    It’s not that Jennifer should try to use every French person as her personal “guinea pig”. The fact is that, like Frenchman agrees, the best way to learn to understand native speakers is to listen to native speakers, and there is no better way than through personal conversation. Not everyone is going to speak English, so it’s better that Jennifer learns to understand native speakers for future communication, and for further understanding of the language. Those who are willing to speak more slowly in the conversation will help her along the way. And, from my experience, some native French speakers (particularly the older folks) would prefer to slow it down a little and throw in English where it’s needed rather than switch to English.

    I’m a native English speaker and I speak both Spanish and French at an intermediate level. With Spanish, if the speak slows down I can usually understand them very well. With French, if they slow down I can get the gist. Jennifer sounds likes she’s somewhere in the same ballpark as I. (I have been complimented on my accent and clarity when speaking French as well, and it does cause native speakers to go on as if I am fluent.) From her example, it sounds like she would be able to communicate fairly well if the speaker slowed down a bit, and it would allow them to communicate (which is most important) while helping her sharpen her ear from the language.

  9. I have just come across this site today and I think all of the advice here will be helpful in my quest to become better with my French listening skills.

    I studied French while growing up and then later as an adult, I starting taking classes for fun. Four years ago, I visited Paris for the first time and stayed there for a month. I rented an apartment, did some “touristy stuff”, but also took ballet classes and shopped at Monoprix-basically did all the things I normally do in Chicago, except I shop at Target…;-) I am going back in about a week and will stay for just two weeks this time in an apartment.

    I have the same problem as Jennifer. I’ve been told by native speakers that I “parle bien français”, but I do know that I need to hear French much more often in order to get better with my understanding.

    Since I have not taken a French class in over four years now, I recently joined a French group where I practice listening French and speaking to native speakers of French and Francophones. In addition, I recently ordered super basic cable from Comcast so that I could get the TV5Monde channel (which isn’t available with the DirectV that I already have).

    I saw some recommendations to watch movies in French with English subtitles. I find that watching movies in French with French subtitles helps facilitate more learning of French, once you get to a certain level. Sometimes I’m able to understand that what was written in the subtitles wasn’t quite what was said verbally, although the meaning itself is very close. I hope that means that I’m getting better with my French language skills!

  10. I forgot to mention: While I was in Paris the first time, when I had problems understanding, I said, “Pouvez-vous parler un peu plus lentement”. No one seemed to mind, and in fact, were quite helpful…

  11. Maybe you should ask them gently to speak more (or even more) slowly instead of turning it in English.

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