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Listening for sound vs. listening for meaning

David Tolman

There are two ways to listen.

When you listen to spoken French (such as on television, radio or DVDs) you are listening for meaning. You are like a hamster on a wheel: running and scrambling to keep up. This is good practice for listening on the fly, but it can't make you fluent.

If you want to become fluent, you need to keep listening AFTER you already understand the recording. Only AFTER you understand the recording can you stop worrying about the meaning and start paying attention to the music of the language.

Here's how to use recordings (whether audio or video) to improve your fluency:

  • Listening for meaning (the only part that resembles homework)

    Run through the recording a few times (or many times if you are a beginner) to make sure you understand the whole thing. Use the transcript to double-check any words that are new to you.

  • Listen again and learn to mimic the speakers

    Now you learn to say it like the speakers say it. This can be done in a car and is no more work than learning a new song. This part is actually fun! It's also the exercise that will lead you to fluency, because mimicking involves listening for rhythm and intonation and it forces you to actively concentrate on the way things are being said. Most importantly, mimicking helps you think in French: as you repeat expressions over and over, you build the direct link in your brain between ideas and the movements of your tongue and lips that convey those ideas. So mimicking helps you automatically produce the sounds to convey an idea instead of translating from English.

Here's what you need:

  • an audio or video recording
  • a transcript of every word on the recording
  • (optional) a translation of the French transcript. This will save you time: you won't have to look up words in a dictionary to figure out the meaning.
First, choose a portion of the recording (8 to 10 minutes is a good length) and work on understanding all of the meaning. Read along with the transcript so that you can recognize every word as the speaker says it. Depending upon your level, this may take 20 minutes or a few hours spread over multiple sessions of study.

Once you understand every word, you no longer will have to listen for meaning. You'll be free to mimic the speakers and this is where all of the magic occurs! Your ear will slowly mould itself to the new language and you'll learn French in a deeper way: instead of knowing an expression as a series of words on paper, you'll know it as a series of sounds that you have produced over and over. So when it comes time to express that idea, you'll find yourself speaking the sounds automatically instead of searching for an idiom or translating from English.

So should you listen to news, books on CD, or interviews?

If you are lucky enough to have a recording of unrehearsed native speech, the link between the sounds and the ideas will be that much better. This is because you can identify with real speakers; you can put yourself in their shoes and act out their role as you mimic. It's much harder to identify with a news reporter or an actor.

A last pointer:

you don't need a lot of recordings. Instead, we recommend improving your ear and rhythm by re-listening to the same recording dozens, even hundreds of times. A beginner can continue to learn from re-listening to the same recording, even after weeks and weeks of listening.

Related article: use echoing to improve your speaking.