The Real Story About How to Learn Spoken French

by Yanis Massard

So you want to learn to speak French.

You've probably scouted the web and found hundreds of pages about the best and fastest ways to achieve that goal.

You may have seen tips like these:

By now, however, you've probably realized there is no magic path that will get you there fast and easy.

Learning French, as with any other language, is hard work. And it's harder for some than for others.

And here's another thing: spoken French and written French are actually two separate languages.

So if you plan on learning both, you're on a quest to learning 2 different languages at the same time. That's double the effort!

OK, now that the decor is set, let me tell you about my own personal experience.

My Experience Learning a Language

I'm French. French mom. Native French speaker.

I'm also fluent in English. People usually think I'm a native English speaker.

I want to talk about how I became fluent in English. And how you can use that to learn spoken French.

After graduating from French high school, I got into a U.S. university.

In a short time, I was able to adjust and follow the classes in English. Even though my English level was merely that of a French high school graduate.

It took me twice as long as the other students to do the readings and assignments. But with some hard work, I was able to manage it.

Why was it possible? Because the English used in university classes is close to written English, book English. The kind of English we learn in French school.

The real hard part, though, was outside of class.

Every day spoken English. With classmates, in the street, at the store, at parties, at the pizza shop.

Now that took me months to pick up. Until then, I felt isolated, afraid of speaking. Unable to understand everything that was happening.

Learning spoken English was a real challenge for me. And I know it's the same for most people in any language.

How Did I Get Started?

I know what you're thinking. When you're living in a foreign country, you have no choice but to quickly pick up the language.

I agree. But the interesting question is, how does that happen?

Initially, it's a challenge just having any conversation with anyone. So learning by speaking with native speakers is not a real option.

What really helped me was watching TV. Particularly those corny, easy family shows that have been broadcast for years on public TV.

Every day I was learning new phrases. Not just words, but complete phrases. Things like "what' you talkin' about Jerry?" or "Sorry, I gotta go!"

After weeks of TV immersion I started to feel spoken English growing inside me.

It became a matter of mixing and matching a few dozen phrases and expressions, with simple transitions to glue them together into the desired meaning.

That's right: spoken language is not so much made of words as it’s made of phrases.

Let's take a simple conversation between 2 people at a fast food place:

Instead of learning the words: can, help, like, drink, have, large, sure, ... , a much more effective approach is to learn complete phrases. E.g. " can I help you?"

Then you're ready to hear and re-use that same phrase again in similar situations. For example in a store or a bar.

You'll then come up with a similar response:

It sounds silly, but that's exactly how I learned to speak. Absorbing and re-using key phrases of every day life.

How You Can Get Your Spoken French Rolling

You may say: OK that's great, but where and how do I learn these phrases? I mean, there are so many, where do I start?

And how can I even remember all this stuff?

Let's think about this: why was watching stupid TV familly shows so effective in improving my listening and speaking skills?

The main reason is that I was hearing phrases in their natural context.

So by watching and listening to video scenes, my brain was able to understand or guess what was happening, and from that, most of what was being said.

What's more, I was going directly from images to English, from concept to language. Not going through the filter of my own native language.

So I wasn't translating from English into French and associating what I was seeing with French words. I was learning directly in English.

OK, so let's recap our findings about learning spoken French so far:

  1. learn complete phrases
  2. learn them in context
  3. learn them directly in French

At this point, you're probably guessing what I'm about to say: you need to watch French-speaking conversation videos.

You probably know there are tons of French-speaking videos online. Just take a look on Youtube.

Problem is, you may not intially understand much of them.

That was my case when I first started watching U.S. TV shows. I could probably understand no more than 20-30% of most programmes.

However, I was living in the U.S, so I was immersed in the language every single day. That helped me make fast progress in listening.

If you're learning French but are NOT living in a French-speaking country, you may not be improving as fast.

So watching French videos may be quite challenging in the beginning.

One way around this problem is to use English subtitles at first.

Again, there are plenty of subtitled French-speaking videos on the internet, all you have to do is a quick search.

But here's the snag: subtitles is translation. With subtitles, we are forgoing principle #3 above: "learn phrases directly in French".

When you read subtitles, you are switching back to your native language.

Also, many times you're actually reading the phrases instead of listening.

As a result you often end up pronouncing them as you see them written, rather than hear them spoken.

In French, that's a recipe for speaking disaster. You really need to watch, listen and imitate before you read.

In short, you should avoid subtitles when watching a video for the first time. Listen to the phrases before reading and translating them.

Back to square 1 ... Without subtitles, how do I know what's going on?

Here's the thing: you need to watch videos that match your current listening level. Otherwise you'll just struggle and get discouraged.

This is narrowing our options, isn't it? Finding videos with the right level of difficulty is not that easy.

3 Resources To Get You Going

But not impossible. Let me mention 3 free resources that will help you put these principles into practice.

The first one is Bla Bla Français. A free, all-video website exclusively focused on learning spoken French. Colloquial French.

Each lesson revolves around an animated video dialogue, 1-2 minutes long , staging a humourous everyday life situation.

Follows a series of video exercises to understand, memorize and practice the dialogue.

The method puts our principles to work: the videos emphasize learning common phrases, in visual context, directly in French.

The fun animated videos and exercise practice videos make the site an effective resource for improving spoken French.

The second resource I'd like to mention is elingora, a free language learning community.

Elingora lets you record yourself speaking a foreign language, and get corrective feedback from native speakers.

I have recorded myself speaking in Portuguese, and gotten some very useful corrections from native speakers. I've also corrected a few French learners.

It's a nice complement to watching videos. Put your newly learned phrases to work and get feedback from people who know.

I'll mention one last great resource: the Elementary French course from Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative.

This is a free, full university course with a significant oral / spoken component.

It has short videos and dialogues with common phrases and expressions in a real-life context, similar to Bla Bla Français's.

The course also has other, non-speaking components, including grammar, vocabulary and writin. Whether you want to go through these is up to you.

Let's Wrap Up

If you've read this far, you deserve a medal! You are highly motivated for learning spoken French.

In this post I've shared my own experience on learning a new spoken language.

I've identified 3 essential things that really got me speaking:

A consequence of these things is that, short of living in a country where the language is spoken, video is the best way to learn to speak like a native.

Not just any video, though. The content should be adapted to your level so you can watch, listen, and imitate.


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