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You’re trying to learn French, you can read a bit, but it still sounds like one big garble. What to do? (#343)

You’re trying to learn French, you can read a bit, but it still sounds like one big garble.  What to do? 

Boy, this is one I have heard a lot over the years.  It seems to be a definite point of frustration for a lot of people.   The problem with language courses (in school or elsewhere) is that people learn from textbooks without being immersed in French.

This means that if a native French speaker were to write out a paragraph stating their thoughts, many learners of French could read and understand it.

But if the native speaker was to “say” the entire paragraph, at regular speed,

  • it would catch the learner off guard,
  • it would be too fast with too few breaks (to allow time to process what is being said), and
  • it would sound like one big, long string of gibberish.

This is 100% natural, and it’s not something to be ashamed of or to get discouraged at.

Learning a language is like learning four different school subjects.  And just like different school subjects, your mastery of each, and your grades may be different for each one.

Your (1) reading could be very good it it (perhaps at an intermediate level).  But your (2) writing and (3) speaking may be at an elementary level.  And, as is often the case, your (4) listening skills (ability to distinguish what is being said) may still be lagging a little bit.

How can it be that you are at a different level for each?  Well, it is possible because you may have not had equal amounts of practice for each of the four language “subjects”.

  • Reading is often the easiest because we can do it anywhere, anytime (and it is emphasized in classrooms).
  • Writing is also drilled into students in the classroom.  It may take a little thought, but writing affords us the time.
  • Speaking also may not be too difficult if students are afforded the time to pause and collect their thoughts as they speak.  The speed at which one speaks can be controlled by the speaker.  Also, there are lots of little “shortcuts” when speaking (such as slipping in easier substitute words if the desired word isn’t necessarily on the tip of your tongue).

The odd one out is listening.  Drastic improvement often comes from regularly interacting with Francophones.

But what happens if you do not live in an area where you can regularly interact with Francophones?  That’s the big question, and boy, it’s a clincher.

Yes, listening skills can be improved by listening to television and radio programs.  The problem with TV and the radio is that the language spoken is for fluent native-French speaking adults, using vocabulary for fluent native-French speaking adults, at a (fast) speed which corresponds to that level.

The garbled jumbo from listening to fast-paced, advanced French can leave students frustrated, discouraged, and feeling they are not making progress (even when they are).

One way to counter that is to listen to children’s programming.  But seriously, what mature adult or student of French would actually enjoy doing that!?!  I’d rather be hit by a manure truck than have to watch Tele-Tubbies in French or any langage!    (I’d shoot myself!!!  And I’m sure you would too).

These are problems I sympathize with, precisely because I had the same issues when I as learning Chinese.  So I get it, I really really do.

An easy solution which could work for you, with fast results

When I was learning Chinese, and before I moved to China (and completely immersed myself in Chinese for a few years), one thing that helped me develop an ear was “slow news in Chinese”.

I recently found out that Radio France International (RFI) offers something similar for French.

RFI is France’s public broadcaster to an international public.

On their website, they have a “learn French” section.  Within that section, they offer numerous tools and exercises for learning French.

One such tool is an “Easy French” (français facile) daily news broadcast.

The daily newscast is spoken in a slightly slower-paced French, with better enunciation, and regular pauses between sentences and even words.

Even better, RFI offers online typed transcripts of the newscast to allow you to follow-alone.

To top it all off, you are also able to download the newscasts in an MP3 format for your iPhone or MP3 player.  You can also print the transcripts.  Therefore you can rewind, fast forward, read along and practice your listening skills anywhere, anytime.

It is really too bad that Radio-Canada does not offer such a thing for Anglophone Canadian learners of French (ironically, CBC Radio Edmonton offers something very similar in English for immigrants to Edmonton, using local Edmonton newscasts.  But it offers nothing in French, and I can’t find something like this anywhere else on the CBC / Radio-Canada platforms elsewhere in the country).

Here’s what to do

The driver plug-ins seem to work best in Internet Explorer.  I say this because the RFI broadcast plug-ins repeatedly fail for me in Chrome.

1.  Open Internet Explorer.

2.  Go to the following RFI website:


3.  In the middle column you will see the following:


It basically says “Understand the News — The Easy French Newscast: A newscast which presents you with the news, using simple words and which explains events in context.

Hey, what more could you ask for!?!

4.  You have three self-explanatory buttons (Read, listen and download).  Again, the listening and downloading work best in Internet explorer (not in Chrome).

Voilà!!  You now have a way to practice your learning skills at a pace and level which should shoot you light years ahead.  And the best thing is … IT’S FREE AND INTERESTING!!

But why stop there !?

If you go down by one more block, you’ll see the following:


It is a box which says “The words of the news:  A two-minute, stimulating segment which enlightens you on a word or expression which you will hear in the news”

So not only can you improve your listening skills with RFI’s simple French, you can also increase your vocabulary.   In the above example, today’s chosen word is “MAIRE” (Mayor).

1.  If you click the word “Maire” (or whatever word you have on your screen), you’ll get the definition and a little story about it.

2.  Clicking “Newscast” will play a news story using the word in question.

3.  Clicking “Read” will give you a transcript which you can follow along with.

But wait, there’s more! (Now I sound like an infomercial!!!)

Being the ‘lil go-getters that they are at RFI… Boxes further down offer you listening exercises.  You can listen to audio tracts, and are then prompted to answer questions about what you just heard (by checking off multiple-choice answers).


And below this is a whole series of French learning materials for teachers to present to their class.   You may also be interested in the materials.

They include:

  • Dossiers pour la class:  Materials which let you discover various areas of French culture.
  • Outils:   Which gives you more audio exposure
  • Fiche pédagogique:  Which provides you with exposés on various cultural tid-bits.
  • L’Actu de FLE:  More ways to learn in context.

Wow!!  This should give you lots of practice which you perhaps never would have otherwise had.  Take the time to check it out, and bonne écoute !!!

P.S.  Am pretty proud of ya for stickin’ with it!  Keep up the good work (the good stuff in life may not come easy, but sometimes is worth fighting for)