Language dilemmas: Why can’t I understand what French people say?

Language dilemmas: Why can't I understand what French people say?
Everyday French chat is harder than you might think. Photos: AFP
It's a common problem - you've done your classes, listened to the tapes and then you try to strike up a conversation with a French person and are instantly lost. We asked French language expert Camille Chevalier-Karfis for her tips to help you understand the conversation.

Whether you're living in France or just visiting, there comes a time in every French learner's life when – flushed with confidence at how your lessons have been going – you strike up a conversation with a French person and find yourself embarrassingly lost as you instantly lose the thread of what they are saying.

So what are the most common reasons for this and how can you overcome them? We asked French language expert Camille, founder of French today, for some tips.

1. Expectations

Camille says: “People have crazy high expectations of themselves as language learners. If you went to a yoga class you wouldn't expect to master all the poses after a couple of lessons, it takes years. And it's the same with a language, you need to be patient.”

Also bear in mind that a full conversation is a lot more complicated than just ordering a coffee.

Camille says: “When I ask people what their language goals are, I often hear 'Oh nothing advanced, I just want to be able to chat to French people' – but that's actually very advanced.

“To be able to have an unscripted conversation, even on mundane topics, with varied vocabulary and maybe some slang, is more complicated than you might think. Don't expect to be able to do it straight away.”

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READ ALSO: Understand Spoken French Pronunciation – with audio recordings 

2. Grammar

It's no-one's favourite topic, but French is a very structured language so doing the boring hard slog of learning the grammar is essential if you are going to progress.

Camille says: “I see so many language-learning tools focused on 'fun' language like learning phrases or slang or matching words to videos, which completely neglect the grammar.

“But if you are to progress to a level when you can have an actual conversation, then you need to learn the grammar.

“I find even the word 'grammar' scares English-speakers, because the typical English school curriculum doesn't insist on sentence structure the way European schools do, but in French you need to really understand the word order and the agreement / functions of the words: and that's what grammar explains.

“The basics are really important in French and if you don't have those in place you won't progress, unless you one of the rare people who are gifted linguistic geniuses.”

3. Spoken v written French

Perhaps more than other languages, French has differences between the written and the spoken forms and if you are learning it in class, you might be focused on written French.

But when French people talk they frequently run words together and miss out words.

Camille says: “It's important to point out that this is not slang, it's just French as people speak it. And everyone does it, it's not lazy or incorrect or limited to a certain group – I do it, my 80-year-old mother does it.

“A good example is Je ne sais pas (I don't know).

“It's written with all four words, but when you say it, the ne frequently disappears and the je and sais are run into each other, so it sounds more like chez pas. This is not incorrect, it's just relaxed, everyday French and you will hear everyone say it, but for language learners it sounds very different to the full je ne sais pas. And there are loads of examples like this.

“This also applies to the word order, in spoken French it might not be the same as the formal French you have learned in your class. French people make mistakes when they talk, plenty of people avoid the subjunctive and some use contractions.”

4. Panic

Once you hear a phrase or a word that you don't understand it's easy to start panicking, but you don't need to understand every single word to get the gist of what a person is saying to you.

Camille says: “Don't try to translate every single word, listen to the whole sentence and you will probably be able to pick out enough words to understand, even if the person doesn't use the exact word order or question structure that you were expecting.

“Getting the gist of it is fine, and when you come to reply don't be afraid to borrow parts of what the person has just said, you don't need to construct a perfectly formulated sentence in order to reply to their question or comment.”

Like any other, skill, practice is of course important and the more spoken French that you hear, the better.

Camille says: “Definitely listen to audio as well as studying in books, but make sure you pick audio that is at the right level for you – if you rush straight into a complicated French film you will just get lost.

“Also try to pick conversational audio, some language courses have audio that uses an extremely over-enunciated form of French, but in real life people just don't talk like that – well maybe Emmanuel Macron does, but not most people!” 

Camille Chevalier-Karfis is a French language expert, and founder of FrenchToday.com


Member comments

  1. I now have a better understanding of written french but the hardest thing at the moment is the speed of how native french speakers converse.

  2. When chatting with native speakers, I find it useful to ask them to slow down if there is something I don’t understand. They don’t need to translate it, but merely enunciate. For listening, I have used the videos available from ina.fr. I usually listen several times, and find that I understand more the second time around.

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