When I first came to France to teach English in 2009, I had been taking weekly French lessons for fun at the Alliance Francaise for about a year and a half before the big move. These were serious lessons, no English allowed. At that time, I’d say I had an intermediate level and could read, write, and (I thought) comprehend at an intermediate level. I was in for the shock of my life when I arrived in France and had to converse in real time with actual French people. I had a really, really hard time understanding spoken, spontaneous French outside the classroom.
For anyone learning a foreign language, I’m here to tell you to forget all the grammar and writing exercises and listen up to what I have to say below. Comprehension needs to be your focus if you plan on spending any time in another country or conversing with native speakers.
Language learning: Why comprehension needs to be your focus when learning French
So why did I have a hard time understanding French people? Because I spent too much time working on other parts of language learning that ultimately wouldn’t matter very much when I was face-to-face with a real French person.
The problem was that I wasn’t used to hearing fast, current French and the words were all jumbled together and unrecognizable to me about half the time. So I’d catch je vais but miss where the person was going, or I’d hear la piscine and know it was something about the pool but my ear couldn’t decipher between the garbled sound bite at the beginning of the sentence to figure out who was going swimming. I’d understand only portions of sentences and this went on for a while.
Truth: For a good couple of months, I heard a collection of sounds that I couldn’t make any sense of and I’d sometimes ask people to quickly write what they were saying instead. After seeing it written, I’d understand once I saw the words.
As you can imagine, it was a majorly frustrating time.
What was my problem, I thought. I had studied French for a while — why wasn’t I understanding everything around me?
Well, if you don’t make comprehension a priority, of course you’re going to struggle.
And when I say comprehension practice, I don’t mean the little audio clips and exercises where an articulate French person speaks nice and slow in 100% proper French, no slang. Everyone in my class nailed those. We were geniuses with all the educational exercises.
What should we have done?
Taken those exercises, added in a ton of background noise to mimic a city street, sped up the tape so the person is talking a mile a minute, and then added in some slang. That would have been more realistic.
I know someone out there is nodding along because they’ve been there or are there now… you’re not alone, OK?
Before we move on, let me just clarify something.
If you’re learning French for fun because it’s something you enjoy but don’t really have a need to speak it, then keep on doing what you’re doing. If you want to converse with French people on vacation in France or keep your mind active, totally cool. We’re all different, have different reasons for learning, and approach learning differently. You do what works for you.
But if you’re learning French out of necessity and will be conversing (or hope to!) with native French speakers because you’re moving to a French-speaking country or something along those lines? Well, here’s my advice.
Do everything in your power to focus on comprehension. Right now. Find native speakers to talk to. Listen to French TV and radio. Use the internet to your advantage and do whatever you can to improve your comprehension with people speaking “real” French.
So no one gets the wrong idea, let me say it right here that grammar and pronunciation are both important. I’m not saying other elements of language learning aren’t essential. They are — but they will not matter in the moment if you can’t understand someone and can’t make yourself understood when it counts.
One other clarification: If you’re a beginner, you need to learn the basics first before focusing on comprehension. You won’t understand anything if you don’t focus on learning the structure of the language first. So if you’re just starting out, learn the basic grammar, expand your vocabulary and work your way up to an intermediate level before focusing on comprehension.
Once you’re at an intermediate level and have moved beyond the basics of the language, spend twice as much time on comprehension. All the grammar practice in the world couldn’t have helped me because my comprehension skills were not up to speed. But I could write a great email!
Let me put it a different way. Imagine speaking your native language to these two foreigners visiting your home country. I’ve made up two different hypothetical situations below.
Background: You’re in a rush, already late for work and two tourists stop you in the street.
Situation 1) Guy #1 approaches you, asks you a question about directions to a museum with a moderate accent, no mistakes, and you understood the question right away. You answer the question in regular-paced English and then ask him if he needs help finding the metro station. He looks at you blankly and asks you to repeat yourself but slower. You repeat what you said a little slower but he still has no clue. He says “metro?” and you repeat again but he just isn’t understanding. You both get frustrated, apologize and tell him you have to get to work before leaving.
Situation 2) Guy #2 approaches you and asks you a question with a heavy accent. He used the wrong tense of the verb but you understood him fine like you did with the first guy, despite his mistake. You answer the question in regular-paced English and then ask him if he needs help finding the metro station to get there. He replies without missing a beat, albeit with a bunch of errors but you understood his reply and were glad to learn he already had a map and knew where the station was already. He said thanks and you continued on to work. He had no problem figuring out where he was going.
Who would you rather talk to and be more at ease around when you’re in a rush?
No offense to guy #1, but I’d rather talk to guy #2. The grammar, pronunciation and accent will be perfected later. He’s already able to understand and make himself understood. That’s all that matters in the moment. In an emergency situation, will it matter if you can conjugate every verb perfectly if you can’t understand the instructions from emergency personnel? That’s an extreme situation but it parallels everyday life.
I know I am not the only one who was overly focused on everything BUT comprehension.
Just last week I saw comments on a French language learning site with French learners getting derailed and hyperfocused on complex grammar concepts. In the comments of a post about something else, they were asking about when to use a certain verb and getting overly concerned with the difference between tenses they’ll probably never use. Down the rabbit hole they went…
Again, none of that matters when you’re face-to-face with a French person if you can’t understand what they’re asking you even after repeating it 3 times. Or you’re so focused on grammar and writing that you can’t formulate a coherent response. I realize that comprehension and grammar aren’t mutually exclusive. In a perfect world, we’d all be masters at everything. Of course you can have decent comprehension and grammar. It’s not one or the other. But usually there’s an imbalance somewhere with reading/writing/speaking/understanding and my point is to do as much as possible to improve your comprehension. Just my opinion based on my personal experience.
Why are we so focused on grammar and pronunciation and everything BUT comprehension?
Maybe it’s because we don’t have people to practice with when we’re not in a French-speaking country.
Someone I follow on FB asked his fanbase what their biggest problem/hardship is with learning French and guess what the majority of people replied?
To my surprise, it was NOT grammar or vocabulary or figuring out complicated conjugations. It was that they had no native speakers to practice comprehension and speaking with. Ohhh la la!!!!! (yes French people really say this but it’s not what you think).
People want to learn and perfect their comprehension but they don’t have anyone to talk to! That made me sad. I have a very nice, friendly native French speaker right here next to me on the couch. Maybe I should auction off “Time With Tom” for a giveaway. Conversation practice! I think I’m half-joking?
So what’s so great about having a good level of comprehension? Everything.
You’ll feel like a total boss when you can understanding what people are saying most of the time without having to sheepishly ask them to repeat themselves. You’ll feel more confident when making a phone call and just speaking in general. For the longest time, I was scared to talk unless Tom was there because I knew I wasn’t going to understand the reply (despite formulating a perfectly understandable question). ;-(
Having a good level of comprehension and an ability to respond without skipping a beat can almost trick people into thinking your level is higher than it is. Even if you make grammar mistakes or have a big accent, it won’t matter if you can make sure you understand people most of the time and can reply to what’s being said to you.
For me personally, my comprehension probably started to improve a few months after I arrived in France the first time. After hearing French around me. Listening to the radio in the morning while eating breakfast and making a deliberate effort to improve. I don’t think there was a lightbulb moment where French magically began to click. I also don’t remember the exact moment when I stopped translating and just started replying without having to think in English, but that shift happened and it will happen to you if you stick with it.
Wherever you are now, know that language learning is a work in progress. It’s gradual and might sneak up on you. Even when you don’t think you’re learning, you are absorbing everything around you. Don’t fault yourself if you’re not where you want to be. We’re only human and need to give ourselves a pass. I tell myself that daily. Even now. I’m unnecessarily hard on myself sometimes and need little reminders that I’ve come a long way and should be proud. You can always up your comprehension game. You can always improve. And sometimes you’ll surprise yourself. Little victories, folks….
Ever have any language learning wakeup calls? Did/do you put a focus on comprehension?
***I highly recommend Lingoda for language learning. Check out my post on Lingoda here!***