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As far as I can tell "il parle" and "ils parlent" are pronounced identically. So how can you tell the difference between them? The same goes for "elle/elles"+verb and all other verbs where the third person singular is pronounced the same as the third person plural.

Please answer in English only! I am learning French but I can't understand it yet.

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Phonetically speaking, you can't tell the difference between them; they are pronounced the same. And yes, it goes for all the other verbs where the third person singular is pronounced the same as the third person plural, except in cases where the verb starts with a vowel. In those cases, there is often a liaison made when it's plural. For example, ils écoutent will be pronounced "il (z)écoute" as opposed to "il écoute" for singular.

So how do we ever tell the difference between the two? Context. It is usually fairly clear from context if it's singular or plural. There are also often other words in a sentence that will clear up the meaning if the subject is muddy (e.g. are we talking about the group or just one individual). Such words can be tous, ensemble, seul, etc.

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    I'm using Duolingo to learn French at the moment and in some of the questions it asks you to translate a spoken phrase with no context. So I guess even a native speaker will struggle with those ambiguous questions! I feel a lot better about being marked "wrong" now! – CJ Dennis Feb 21 '15 at 4:42
  • @CJDennis Exactly in the same situation and that made me arrive here. – Blaszard Dec 3 '18 at 13:36
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Usually, we rely on the context to determine whether the pronoun is the singular "il"/"elle" or the plural "ils"/"elles".

For example :

Ils sont partis. (They are gone.)

The auxiliary "sont" is plural, so the pronoun before it is plural as well.

While in :

Il est parti. (He is gone.)

The auxiliary "est" is singular, so the pronoun before it is singular as well.

For verbs like "parler" (to speak) that don't change phonetically between singular and plural ("il parle" and "ils parlent"), the number must be implicit.

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Just seeing this question 3 years later, but I have noticed that in DuoLingo, and there isn’t always context from which you can determine singular or plural form. But, I’ve also noticed in pronunciation that there is a slightly prolonged, more pronounced release of the final syllable in the plural form. So instead of “elles” sounding short like “elle”, it will sound more more like “el-uh”. “Écrivent” instead of sounding like “ècrive” will sound more like “écriv-ffe”. It is ever so slight. You can hear it better when you listen to the slow version. Truth is, the average person speaking casually in French will probably not make such distinction, so unfortunately, you’ll have to rely on context in most situations, as verbs like “être”—which make the form obvious—are not always used.

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    The course editors have confirmed many times (particularly Sitesurf) that the audio is identical. They now allow both singular and plural in these cases. – CJ Dennis May 25 '18 at 5:14

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