Why can't I understand spoken french??

astropais

Member
England, English
Why on earth do i find Italian so damn easy to understand, where as written french great, spoken french - i cannot understand at all what they are saying! It is very strange. Am i not alone on this? I have an easier time understanding Arabic.
 
  • Luke Warm

    Member
    English USA
    I also had problems understanding spoken French in the past largely because words in spoken French so often combine with each other. A simple example, in the word "vous", the s is silent, but in "vous allez" the s is sounded. Now this is a simple example, but when one is learning, it makes it difficult to know where one word ends and the next begins. Fortunately, I got used to it and could eventually understand a fair amount. Of course, now I'm out of practice again, and therefore can't keep up, but I'm sure with more exposure I'll get it again. And I guess that's the key-- exposure and training your ears.
     

    Thomas F. O'Gara

    Senior Member
    English USA
    I've always experienced the same problem, and I've asked myself the same question many times. I've come to the concluision that there is no one reason, but rather a number of small reasons, none of which is paramount on its own but added together create difficulties for the learner.

    For one thing, French really has a phonetic system that is unique in Europe, having lost in the spoken language many consonants that are sounded in other Romance languages. French also has what is in effect a pitch accent, although I've never heard it defined that way, and that is also unique in Europe. The Scandanavian pitch accent is not the same.

    The loss of consonants in turn has created a large number of homonyms in French, perhaps more than English. It has had an effect in turn on the syntax, and I think French relies more on phrases rather than individual words than other European languages do, since this avoids ambiguity.

    There is also a considerable gap between spoken and written French, more, I think, than most other languages in Europe.

    I've always felt that speaking French is a little like playing a piano - any idiot can pick out a tune, but it's quite difficult to play the instrument really well. My only advice is that if you're starting on French it is a good idea to learn to understand spoken French before even attempting to read it.
     

    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    English is everywhere. It's impossible not to learn it, at least a little bit.

    I have more trouble understanding French than English, but I know this is due to lack of practice/exposure. The other things never caused me any trouble, perhaps because Portuguese has some phonetic features which are similar to those of French (such as linking the sounds of consecutive words, or eliding vowels in certain conditions).
     

    modus.irrealis

    Senior Member
    English, Canada
    astropais, you're not alone in this. My ability to read French is (or at least was, when I was using French everyday) fairly strong, but my ability to understand spoken French is much weaker and I need to adjust to a person's speech patterns before I can understand them. The only French I listen to now is commentary during sports games and I noticed that my ability to perfectly understand what they were saying took a few games to kick in.

    And to add to what others have said to why, I think the biggest thing is that clues you need to look for in spoken French are very different from what you get from written French, where you have all these extra silent letters, words are divided by spaces, and so on. None of these clues are present in spoken French. Something like je sais vs. il sait is impossible to confuse in written French but they can sound almost indistinguishable (at least to me) when in a sentence that's spoken at a normal rate. In the end, though, after enough exposure, you'll start picking up the differences and you'll be okay.
     

    emma42

    Senior Member
    British English
    No, you are not alone, astropais.

    I have to disagree with thomas, though, about learning to understand spoken French before attempting to read it. It's entirely up to you. Reading and understanding a spoken language are two different skills. If you want to read French, read it. If you want to understand spoken French, listen to as much of it as you can. Bonne chance!
     

    Layzie

    Member
    English, Spanish.
    I agree spoken french is loads harder to learn than written french. For example, in this short clip the little boy says "maman a dit que je peux" over and over again, but it sounds different to me every time he says it.
    http://youtube.com/watch?v=XNK1olW6cAQ
    I'm a native spanish speaker, so I picked up on the grammar very fast, and am pretty proficient at reading french (I'm working myself through a novel: L'etranger) but after watching several movies and listening to some songs I just cant seem to catch the speech all that well.
     

    Sallyb36

    Senior Member
    British UK
    It's harder to learn to understand any language spoken than it is to read it. Reading is much easier than listening and understanding.
     

    judkinsc

    Senior Member
    English, USA
    It's a part of the accent. There are a couple of things to it, in my experience: one, the stress typically falls on the last syllable of a word, and each word and sentence has rising and falling stresses. When these stresses are combined with the "blurring" of consonants and liaisons, it becomes difficult to distinguish the words separately. The key in French is not to listen to the consonants, however, but rather to the vowels and to listen for the stresses. Once you concentrate on this part, the language becomes much more clear.

    The best way is to just go listen to a lot of it, of course. Additionally, the best French is far easier to understand than colloquial French on the spoken level. The more colloquial, the more blurred, just as in English: "chais pas" for instance, instead of "je ne sais pas." You'll also here "j'en sais pas" in place of "je n'en sais pas," which is "I don't know anything about it," and the phrase is more common than "je ne sais pas" as the French don't like to admit that they don't know something (which I quite understand). Additionally, "ne" is dropped all the time in spoken French, so just listen for the "pas." The ability to understand spoken French is mostly based around the ability to understand and use a relatively small number of core phrases; it is simply that these phrases are not often taught in French class, as they are not "perfect French." My French teachers refused to drop the "ne," for instance, whenever they were standing in front of a class. Now, while this is understandable, and English teachers will speak better English for the same reason when they're in front of a class, it doesn't help at all with understanding French spoken by a native.
     

    Lemminkäinen

    Senior Member
    Norwegian (bokmål)
    There are a couple of things to it, in my experience: one, the stress typically falls on the last syllable of a word, and each word and sentence has rising and falling stresses.
    I've heard that the stress in French is equal on all syllables, causing it to sound like it's on the last syllable for non-natives.
     

    konungursvia

    Banned
    Canada (English)
    You just need to focus in detail upon the phonetics of French. There are no less than sixteen spoken vowels in French, while Italian and Spanish have a mere 5 apiece. The language relies very heavily on small distinctions between these vowels to specify phonemes and words. So, it takes a lot of work becoming accustomed to them. It is not true that all syllables in French have equal stress, either. The last syllable of each word receives a "tonic accent", a strong stress. Hope this helps.
     

    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    I've heard that the stress in French is equal on all syllables, causing it to sound like it's on the last syllable for non-natives.
    I have read that, too, although it's not what I learned at school. Maybe they have a different concept of "stress".
     

    Venezuelan_sweetie

    Senior Member
    Venezuela --> Spanish -or something alik
    It's a part of the accent. There are a couple of things to it, in my experience: one, the stress typically falls on the last syllable of a word, and each word and sentence has rising and falling stresses. When these stresses are combined with the "blurring" of consonants and liaisons, it becomes difficult to distinguish the words separately. The key in French is not to listen to the consonants, however, but rather to the vowels and to listen for the stresses. Once you concentrate on this part, the language becomes much more clear.

    The best way is to just go listen to a lot of it, of course. Additionally, the best French is far easier to understand than colloquial French on the spoken level. The more colloquial, the more blurred, just as in English: "chais pas" for instance, instead of "je ne sais pas." You'll also here "j'en sais pas" in place of "je n'en sais pas," which is "I don't know anything about it," and the phrase is more common than "je ne sais pas" as the French don't like to admit that they don't know something (which I quite understand). Additionally, "ne" is dropped all the time in spoken French, so just listen for the "pas." The ability to understand spoken French is mostly based around the ability to understand a use a relatively small number of core phrases; it is simply that these phrases are not often taught in French class, as they are not "perfect French." My French teachers refused to drop the "ne," for instance, whenever they were standing in front of a class. Now, while this is understandable, and English teachers will speak better English for the same reason when they're in front of a class, it doesn't help at all with understanding French spoken by a native.
    I have a French friend who's the son of a Venezuelan man and a French woman. He is always encouraging me to speak to him in French, but I'd rather do it in Spanish or English, (although he started speaking Spanish about 2 years ago, and his English is almost as rudimentary as my French). The reason? I just can't understand a word he says.

    The problem (according to what my friend says) is that everybody "contracts" the language up there, even grandmoms and grandads, so if one learns French 'in the good way' (good enough to read it), you get lost when you go down to the 'field work'!

    I don't know, I've been learning French for a while, I can read it well enough, but when it comes down to speaking, I still feel timid and get all tongue-tied!

    So no, my friend, you're not alone in this. Most of us can relate!
     

    modus.irrealis

    Senior Member
    English, Canada
    About the stress, my understanding was that there is a stress on the final syllables, but on the final syllables of groups of words, rather than of every word (where "word" here means something that would be written down with spaces on either side). Just to come up with an example, I would think that Je ne sais pas comment le faire would have two stresses, one on pas and one on faire. That's at least how I hear it, but maybe this is something we could ask the many French speakers on the board.
     

    judkinsc

    Senior Member
    English, USA
    About the stress, my understanding was that there is a stress on the final syllables, but on the final syllables of groups of words, rather than of every word (where "word" here means something that would be written down with spaces on either side). Just to come up with an example, I would think that Je ne sais pas comment le faire would have two stresses, one on pas and one on faire. That's at least how I hear it, but maybe this is something we could ask the many French speakers on the board.
    The way I was taught stress in my French phonetics course informed me that each sentence has a rising and falling stress, as well as each word. The word's stress can be sublimated to the overall stress of the sentence, but there will still be a stronger pause on the final syllable of the word than on its beginning syllable.

    In "je ne sais pas comment le faire:"
    je ne sais (with a rising stress, almost as if asking a question)
    pas (ending stress, as in a statement)
    comment (rising stress)
    le faire (ending stress)

    There is a set of rules for how to break up a sentence into its stressed parts, but the rules closely follow patterns in syntax, so you don't need to know them.

    As for stresses on individual words, each ending (or singular) syllable has a stress, similar to the stress of the final word of a statement. It's slightly more emphatic and clear than the preceding syllable(s) of the word.

    All of this is an over-simplification. Each word rises and falls, and it's the falling stress that is the stress on the final syllable. Each part of a sentence has a rising and falling stress, within which the words' stresses are blurred. Furthermore, these stresses are only lightly applied. All I can really say is that once you get used to listening to it, it's quite clear. It's just the adaptation to the stresses and liaisons that causes difficulty for a while.
     

    KaRiNe_Fr

    Senior Member
    Français, French - France
    Are you really sure this is a "special issue" when learning French only? ;)
    I experience the same phenomenon learning English. I'm often struggling to understand properly some people speaking English (especially native dubliners or people from India): my ears only hear parts of the words and my brain (if any! :) ) can't parse the flow I hear into words I know. The sentence is coming with some blanks instead of real words too... Yet the same sentence wouldn't be a big deal if I read them.
    I think one of the causes is that I completely wrongly say "into my head" some words (even some usual words I mean). So, when I hear a good english way of pronouncing them I can't recognize them at first sight (or should I say at first listening? But sometimes it's not even at second listening either...! :eek: :D ).
    I'm afraid only listening to a lot of good English from natives (TV, radio, DVD...) can cure my disability, at least a little. ;)
     

    englishman

    Senior Member
    English England
    Why on earth do i find Italian so damn easy to understand, where as written french great, spoken french - i cannot understand at all what they are saying! It is very strange. Am i not alone on this? I have an easier time understanding Arabic.
    I agree. Spoken French is much harder to understand than, say, spoken German. Although I can read French much more easily that I can read German, the situation is reversed when it comes to listening. This is because, in French:

    1. it's difficult to hear when one word ends and another begins, due to liaisons and the general tendency of the French to "smooth out" the ending of words.

    2. Many vowel distinctions that exist in other languages have been lost e.g. "sent", "sans", "son" all sound pretty much the same to a non-native, "boue" and "bu" are also confusing similar, and so on. One therefore has to subconsciously reverse-engineer the sentence using semantic clues while you are listening.

    3. The rhythm of the language differs from English - we tend to listen for clues to meaning "at the wrong time"

    4. Many letters are simply not pronounced (e.g. as in "sent" and "sans" above) leading to large numbers of homophones (or pronounced occasionally which is even more confusing e.g. "ils boivent beaucoup" v "ils boivent aux dames")
     

    Venezuelan_sweetie

    Senior Member
    Venezuela --> Spanish -or something alik
    Are you really sure this is a "special issue" when learning French only? ;)
    I experience the same phenomenon learning English. I'm often struggling to understand properly some people speaking English (especially native dubliners or people from India): my ears only hear parts of the words and my brain (if any! :) ) can't parse the flow I hear into words I know. The sentence is coming with some blanks instead of real words too... Yet the same sentence wouldn't be a big deal if I read them.
    I think one of the causes is that I completely wrongly say "into my head" some words (even some usual words I mean). So, when I hear a good english way of pronouncing them I can't recognize them at first sight (or should I say at first listening? But sometimes it's not even at second listening either...! :eek: :D ).
    I'm afraid only listening to a lot of good English from natives (TV, radio, DVD...) can cure my disability, at least a little. ;)
    Well, darling, I had the same problem while learning English (quite a while ago). I remember the first time I heard a Scot speaking... :eek:

    And, well, I was born in a Spanish-speaking country, and sometimes I listen to a person from Argentina, Spain, or even my neighbor Colombia, and it's hard for me to get some things!

    But I think that's just for the idioms and accents. With French (at least me), the deal is that difference between reading & speaking, because (seems to me, being illiterate ;) ), that spoken French is far more relaxed than written and therefore much different than what I've learned...
     

    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    2. Many vowel distinctions that exist in other languages have been lost e.g. "sent", "sans", "son" all sound pretty much the same to a non-native, "boue" and "bu" are also confusing similar, and so on. One therefore has to subconsciously reverse-engineer the sentence using semantic clues while you are listening.
    "Sent" and "sans" sound different from "son", though. And I'm sure that, although I'd never seen those words before, so do "boue" and "bu" (or did you mean "but"?) :)
     

    modus.irrealis

    Senior Member
    English, Canada
    The way I was taught stress in my French phonetics course informed me that each sentence has a rising and falling stress, as well as each word.
    I think we might be using the word stress differently, since what you describe is what I'd call intonation, and I don't disagree with what you say about rising and falling stresses (or pitches), but...

    As for stresses on individual words, each ending (or singular) syllable has a stress, similar to the stress of the final word of a statement. It's slightly more emphatic and clear than the preceding syllable(s) of the word.

    All of this is an over-simplification. Each word rises and falls, and it's the falling stress that is the stress on the final syllable. Each part of a sentence has a rising and falling stress, within which the words' stresses are blurred. Furthermore, these stresses are only lightly applied. All I can really say is that once you get used to listening to it, it's quite clear. It's just the adaptation to the stresses and liaisons that causes difficulty for a while.
    This isn't quite what I hear with every word, but that may just be my not picking up on it.

    What about comment?
    I'm not a native French speaker so the following is all but useless but I say and hear (or at least expect to hear) comment without any special stress on the last syllable and it would form a group with the following le faire. Perhaps there is a weaker stress that I'm not attuned to so I'm going to go ask in the French forum.
     

    englishman

    Senior Member
    English England
    "Sent" and "sans" sound different from "son", though. And I'm sure that, although I'd never seen those words before, so do "boue" and "bu" (or did you mean "but"?) :)
    They may do to you, but most English people have difficulty distinguishing "sans" from "son", in my experience. I certainly do. "boue" and "bu" do sound different: they just don't sound *very* diifferent to an English speaker - we simply don't have the "bu" sound in our language.
     

    konungursvia

    Banned
    Canada (English)
    The other difficulty with understanding spoken French, other than the huge number of vowels, is the "e caduc" or fallen e. This is (unexpectedly) dropped out of unstressed medial syllables by native speakers. Example: acheter, to buy. The original pronunciation is something like ash - shuh - TE (I can't render the IPA here), but the middle e is dropped out, and everyone says ash-TE, in two syllables. This is frequent and makes cognates sound nothing like their English relative. Example: the word "second" meaning the one after the first. This is usually pronounced "zgond" by native speakers, who drop off the unstressed e in the first syllable. SO, if you master the e caduc and the 16 vowels, you will understand French when spoken.
     

    beglobal

    New Member
    Perú
    Why on earth do i find Italian so damn easy to understand, where as written french great, spoken french - i cannot understand at all what they are saying! It is very strange. Am i not alone on this? I have an easier time understanding Arabic.

    You are not alone!!! Is not easy to understand spoken french... I really don´t know why!!! but Arabic, easy????????????:confused:
     

    judkinsc

    Senior Member
    English, USA
    I think we might be using the word stress differently, since what you describe is what I'd call intonation, and I don't disagree with what you say about rising and falling stresses (or pitches), but...
    Intonation is probably the more accurate word there, indeed.
     

    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    The original pronunciation is something like ash - shuh - TE (I can't render the IPA here), but the middle e is dropped out, and everyone says ash-TE, in two syllables. This is frequent and makes cognates sound nothing like their English relative.
    The "original pronunciation" hasn't been used since the time of Marie Antoinette, at least. :p
     

    mansio

    Senior Member
    France/Alsace
    I think there is no original pronunciation of "acheter" (or "acheté"). Everybody around me and myself included we say "achter", but in the South of France, where there have a special accent (the remnant of their former Occitan language), people will say "acheter" in three syllables.

    Sometimes I wonder at how we put one consonant next to the other by dropping the intermediate vowels in the spoken language. And we are not supposed to be able to pronounce Slavic languages.

    Here an example of spoken French: "what did you buy?" becomes "kesta achté?"
     

    ronanpoirier

    Senior Member
    Brazil - Portuguese
    Oh my God! I never had any problem understanding my French teacher... well... I was the only one who could understand her... I think I just had too much exposure to the French language... but I didn't surely understand the teacher from Congo!
    I have more problem understanding a Spanish speaker :eek: I'm not from this world! :confused:
     

    konungursvia

    Banned
    Canada (English)
    In the period from 1066-1500 or so, the "e caduc" or fallen e was not habitually dropped. Acheter would have had three syllables. Anyhow, like I said, if you master the sixteen vowels, and get used to the e caduc, you will understand spoken French. I started learning French at about 15 years of age, then went on to do a Ph.D. in French. I began with the same difficulties, not understanding French, and now I understand it as well as a native. So I really do have the same experience that you are talking about. The stress is not a difficulty in understanding spoken French: it falls very very regularly. (Some people think of stress because when native French speakers speak English, they do get syllable stress wrong, making it hard for us to understand them).
     

    itka

    Senior Member
    français
    Don't be so pessimistic ! You have not to master 16 vowels ! French doesn't make so many differences to-day (if it had ever done).

    You've probably learnt 2 [a] : there is only one now.
    [é] and [è] are contextual variants, so as are {o'] and [o] and [eu] vs [eu'] (sorry for IPA !)

    You may drop away the difference between [in] "hein" and [un] "un". It concerns a few words, and in the North of France, they have no idea of what I'm talking about.

    Don't worry so much for the question of the "e caduc" and try to learn the prononciation of these words like if it didn't exist : [achté] [pti]

    And... be sure that understanding english is not so easy as you believe !
     

    konungursvia

    Banned
    Canada (English)
    Well, a native speaker is the least qualified to give advice on how to overcome the difficulties an Anglophone encounters in French .... so you can't just "learn the pronunciations as if it didn't exist". When you hear /zgond/ no one whose first language is English will suspect the word "seconde", because of the e caduc, which we expect to hear because we see it. Another example: ce que, pronounced "/sk*/" where *=schwa, upside down e. Also you do have to learn all the 16 vowels. There are 18 in fact, but two pairs have been simplified so you only need to distinguish 16. An example of a series of common words which are difficult to distinguish for students who are not native French speakers: vingt, vont, van, veux, vous, vu, vit, vais, vas, vos.... A slightly mispronounced vowel by an English speaker attempting French always gives another existing word, making it a very precise language. Keep up your efforts. Hope this helps.
     

    itka

    Senior Member
    français
    When you hear /zgond/ no one whose first language is English will suspect the word "seconde",
    ...............................
    Also you do have to learn all the 16 vowels. There are 18 in fact, but two pairs have been simplified so you only need to distinguish 16. An example of a series of common words which are difficult to distinguish for students who are not native French speakers: vingt, vont, van, veux, vous, vu, vit, vais, vas, vos.... A slightly mispronounced vowel by an English speaker attempting French always gives another existing word, making it a very precise language. Keep up your efforts.
    Of course, if you prefer to learn "seconde" and than complain that it is not pronounced this way... It would be easier to learn first that the [e] is not pronounced...
    About french vowels :
    Please read a book on "french phonology". Never 18.
    There are 16 vowels in french, included all variants and [e]. Six of them are not necessary to understand and to speak french.

    But these are only advices of a not qualified native speaker and teacher of french for foreigners, so I don't add anything else.
     

    Benjy

    Senior Member
    English - English
    As a non-native english speaking autodidacte maybe you would consider me slightly more qualified.

    I didn't know what the vowel triangle was and couldn't read IPA and yet still managed to get by just fine. There are loads of things that are not really important in the spoken language that academics and dictionaries might consider otherwise.

    Example: the two a's. patte/pâte. For loads of people these are homonyms.

    I'm not saying that learning the vowels isn't important, but getting hung up on minimal pairs that most people just get by context anyway seems a bit silly.
     
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