French graffiti

3 Reasons Why It Is Hard To Understand Spoken French

Have you been studying French for many years yet still struggle to understand spoken French? I hear you. I studied English for eight years at school, and when I moved to the UK, I couldn’t understand anything. Rien du tout. It was upsetting.

I wasn’t the only one, apparently. My French flatmate told me the first time he ordered a chicken kebab at the Rooster shop in Clapham Common (London), the guy gave him a whole chicken.

I’d like to help you avoid ordering a whole chicken like my friend did. So in this article, I’ll show you the main problems students encounter when trying to understand spoken French.

1. Written French is very different from spoken French

If you learnt French at school, you might have learnt a lot of vocabulary and grammar. Personally, I enjoy learning grammar. Actually, I believe when grammar is taught within context, using many examples, it can really help us make sense of the language.

However, if you aim to speak rather than write, I reckon you shouldn’t spend hours learning grammar rules. Or if you do so, start practising speaking at the same time. Fluent speech doesn’t happen overnight, and you’ll notice that what you learn in a French grammar book could be different from how French people speak.

I remember when a student, Tom, just came back from Paris after his 6-month mission in a bank and asked me, annoyed:

Tom: So, where is ‘nous’? 

Me: Hmm… What do you mean? 

Tom: No one uses ‘nous’ in Paris! Why are we learning the ‘nous’ conjugations if everyone uses ‘on’ instead?

I was embarrassed. No one uses ‘nous’ in all of France — except in writing. And no one asked Tom to write formal reports in French. Maybe some emails. However, his French team would have been delighted if Tom had been able to communicate more in French during the meetings as everyone else was French and not fluent in English. 

So yeah, why spend so much time learning about conjugating the ‘nous’ form? I agreed with Tom and decided I’d use ‘on’ a LOT in my courses, even for beginners, as long as their goal was to develop their fluency and writing was secondary. Of course, I’d explain that ‘on’ is almost systematically used in spoken French and that they should use ‘nous’ when writing an email or a formal piece.

I did the same with ‘ne’, but that’s a story for another time. 

Anyway, bye ‘nous’. And bye ‘ne’. 

2. French people make loads of liaisons

If you attend a standard French course in a school or a private tutor, you normally study these liaisons quite briefly.

Some are compulsory. You’ll find them between : 

  1. Articles and nouns — les enfants, des amis, un avocat… 
  2. Subjects and verbs — vous êtes, vous avez… 
  3. An adjective and a noun — un petit enfant, des grandes oreilles, un gros effort… 

Other liaisons are not compulsory.

And now you have a headache. 

Also, you should be aware of the links between words ending with a consonant sound (not necessarily a letter) and words starting with a vowel. This connection makes the sentence flow like in : 

  • Le quartier sera seulement accessible aux piétons. /AKSESIBLO/ = The area will only be accessible to pedestrians. 
  • En quatre ans, le nombre d’habitants a explosé! /ANKATRA/ = In four years, the number of inhabitants exploded.  
  • Tu veux une glace à la fraise ou au chocolat? /FREZU/ = Would you like a strawberry or chocolate ice cream? 
  • Pour qui est ce cadeau ? C’est pour elles ! /PUREL/ = Who is this present for? It’s for them! (female)  

If you heard these examples without the transcription, you’d probably be wondering what /AKSESIBLO/, /ANKATRAN/, etc. are…

The problem with the liaisons is that they lead you to think one word is pronounced instead of two. Liaisons are sneaky. They confuse you. Beware the liaisons!

I believe it’s impossible to learn them by heart, but whenever you do a listening exercise, it’s useful to check which words or phrases you missed and understand if it was because of this.

3. French speakers use many shortcuts 

Like in many languages, French people tend to speak very fast and use shortcuts, making it more complicated to understand spoken French.

First, start to notice how French people shorten words :

  • – Le restaurant : le resto ;
  • – Le cinéma : le ciné ;
  • – D’accord  : d’acc ;
  • – Un café : un caf’ ;

Then, observe some typical shortcuts in group of words : 

Please note that these shortcuts are typical in spoken French but not in written French.

Here I have listed the three most common shortcuts French people make when speaking (you can use them in text messages with friends, though) : 

  • – Tu + vowel = T’  —>  T’as fait quoi hier ? (instead of Tu as fait quoi hier?) 
  • – Je + consonant = J’ ou Ch’ –> J’veux pas venir / J’peux pas. (instead of Je (ne) veux pas venir) 
  • – Te et me + consonant = t’ / m’ –> Je t’l’ai dit ; Tu m’l’as écrit (instead of Je te l’ai dit / Tu me l’as écrit) 

If you’d like to see shortcuts examples in context, please look at my YouTube video below – for advanced levels:

I have also created some activities for you to practice recognising shortcuts with contemporary French series like the Hookup plan or interviews of French actors.  poet

In the beginning, it will be hard to use these shortcuts by yourself. Don’t worry; the first goal is simply to recognise them when you hear them — one step at a time.