When learning French, you are probably hoping you will sound completely bilingual some day. After all, you are not learning a language because you want to mispronounce it.
So you listen to as much French audio as you can, striving to imitate the sounds and turn fluent French into “spoken like a native.”
Of course, when deciding to perfect your French accent, you will need to decide which one. French as it is spoken in Belgium? Switzerland? Québec?
For the purposes of this blog, we will be sticking to French French – as it is spoken on the news, and in the region around Paris (though there is a specific Parisian accent as well…)
For an English-speaker, French vowels are the hardest to get right. That’s because the English language, including the British accent (all of them), mostly uses diphthongs rather than pure vowels. A diphthong is made up of several vowel sounds. For example, the “a” in “made” is made up of an “a” sound and a very slight “y” sound – the first part of the word, indeed, rhymes with “may” (in some places, at least. I’m American and even I can’t keep track of all the American accents, never mind the British ones.)
So how should you pronounce French vowels?
|Vowel||How to pronounce it|
|A||An open "a" as in "garden", but close your throat a little more.|
|E||E without an accent can be pronounced the same as "eu" or similar to the English set|
|É||Lie "eh", but widen your mouth and tighten your throat.|
|È||Like the E in "set", but open it up a bit more and lengthen it slightly|
|Ê||The same as è, but even more open and drawn out.|
|I||Like the word for the letter E or the "ee" in "feet" - but a little shorter.|
|O||Like "open" but without the slight "w" sound at the end.|
|U||Like the German Ü: say "you", without the "y", but close your throat and tighten your lips.|
|Y||Followed by a consonant, like an I; followed by a vowel, like the Y on "you".|
French has a few modifying signs that change the value of vowels:
“Café” is perhaps the most iconic French words to use an accent aigu. Photo credit: Katrinitsa on VisualHunt
When pronouncing French, don’t forget that certain letter combinations are read as specific sounds.
The French language actually has diphthongs – they are just written differently. Here are some French diphthongs to watch out for:
In trying to perfect your French accent, look out for these letter groups:
The “gn” sound in a good French accent sounds a little bit like a cheesy villain’s laugh. Photo credit: Pedro Vezini on Visualhunt
To speak French correctly, getting the sounds right is not enough to make people think French is your native language.
Pronouncing a language right means also using the proper rhythm and intonation. Every language has its own music. By listening to it, you will be able to improve your accent and speak French words and phrases like a native.
When learning basic French words in the classroom, too often the stress is not taught. Listen to a French video, or even an English one. Don’t concentrate on what is said, but on how words are said. One part of the word is emphasised.
In English-speaking dialects, words are usually stressed on the first syllable. Like this:
WOrds are Usually STREssed on the FIRst SYllable.
(Although one of the particularities of English is that stress can fall almost anywhere, depending on the word – for example, it’s dePENding.)
In French, though, it is the last syllable which is stressed:
En françAIS, c’est la dernIÈRE sylLABLE qui est stressÉE.
This is especially important to remember for words that are similar in French and English. You saw that the word “syllable”, though written the same, is not only pronounced differently in French (see-lahbl) but also stressed differently (sylLABLE).
So the best way to learn French vocabulary is to remember where to stress the word. Note however, that the stress of French words is not as strong as in English. If the stress feels unnatural to you or it trips you up, you can opt for no stress at all.
Listen to French speakers and try and capture the rhythm of the language. Photo credit: april-mo on Visual hunt
Not just words, but sentences have their rhythms, the rise and fall of the language. You will notice that certain languages will prefer certain forms of poetry. English likes the various iambic feet (the pentameter and tentameter) A iamb is a metric foot that accentuates the second syllable. A pentameter would go: ta-DA, ta-DA, ta-DA, ta-DA, ta-DA. (My horse! My horse! My kingdom for a horse! Shakepeare, Richard III).
It is interesting that French doesn’t have feet in poetry: their metres rely entirely on the amount of syllables in the verse. This is because all French words are stressed the same.
French sentences are like French words: they are stressed at the end.
Je suis allé au TRAVAIL.
Je vais faire les COURSES.
To speak French phrases like a francophone, remember to stress the ends of sentences. This has nothing to do with intonation – don’t raise the pitch of your voice as though asking a question, just put more force into the last word.
It is worth noting that street talk often has a different rhythm than more formal speech.
It’s all very well and good to read a blog about French pronunciation – but reading isn’t hearing. And once you have passed the beginner French classes and start on Intermediate French and advanced French lessons, you will be learning more and more vocabulary outside of class. So how to learn the pronunciation of a French word you don’t know?
You can look up the pronunciation of a word in a English to French or French to English dictionary, or even a French to French one.
The only problem is that you need to be able to read the phonetic alphabet. While it is a good skill to have, especially when learning how to speak a language, it is not a common one. If you have nothing but a dictionary to look up new words, here is a site where you can hear the sounds associated with each symbol.
Trying to learn French pronunciation from a dictionary means learning the international phonetic alphabet. Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images on Visualhunt.com
Even better for learning the proper pronunciation than a paper dictionary is an online French dictionary. Online dictionaries such as Linguee or the French dictionary Larousse not only translate or explain the words, but also have a button you can click to hear it pronounced by someone for whom French is a first language.
There are also language learning apps where you can hear the most common French words spoken by a French person to improve your accent:
Use French language and vocabulary apps to improve your French accent. Photo credit: gillesklein on VisualHunt.com
Of course, the best way to improve your French accent is to be confronted with native speakers on a daily basis. Travelling to French-speaking countries, studying abroad, listening to French every day is better than simply taking French courses. Live in France, even if only for a few weeks, and you will also experience French culture (or Canadian – if you don’t mind a Québec accent!) and get to know the French people. Fluency comes from practise, and living in a country is the best way to learn a foreign language – and pick up the slang.
If you can’t afford to travel, you can practise French immersion at home by watching French movies, listening to French music and audiobooks and reading French books.