You gracefully say: “Bonjour, Madame. Où sont les toilettes, s’il vous plaît ?”
The response: “Over there.”
Why is it that, no matter how hard we try, no matter how hard we practice sentence structure, the French can always suss us out as foreigners?
A big part of it has to do with pronunciation!
Pronunciation is a difficult element of French to master, and yet it can be the difference between someone who only reads French and someone who speaks it like a pro. Our French pronunciation guide is the key to getting well on your way to near-native pronunciation!
Fast French Pronunciation Guide: 4 Surprising Tips for Instantly Better French
1. Get in the Right Rhythm
One of the major parts of speaking French with the correct accent actually has nothing to do with the foreign sounds, but rather with the foreign rhythm.
English is a language with a relatively free system of intonation and stress. In other words, speakers of English can use their voices to place stress on different words, thus changing their meaning or their importance in the sentence. Take the following exchange, for example:
Jane: “I’m going to the party.”
Claire: “Well I wasn’t invited.”
By placing the stress on the “I” in the sentence, Claire indicates an additional meaning that wouldn’t be in the sentence as written on the page. While this system of intonation comes quite naturally to native English speakers, there are rules involved that can be maddeningly complex for English learners. French is arguably a great deal simpler.
That being said, due to the fact that English is rather free with its intonation system, it allows different speakers to intone different ways depending on their personality or speaking style. For example, many people “up-talk,” or speak with a rising inflection at the end of every sentence, kind of like when asking a question.
In French, however, stress, inflection and intonation are all important to the basic structure of the spoken language. These rules cannot be bent at will, and when a non-native speaker tries to use his or her native intonation, it’s a clear indication that he or she is not natively French.
3 Major Rules of Rhythm in French
French has three major rules when it comes to rhythm and intonation. Once you’ve mastered these, you’ll be moving much closer to native French pronunciation.
When continuing a sentence, use a slight rising inflection.
Examine the difference between these two sentences:
Je suis allé(e) à la bibliothèque. (I went to the library.)
Je suis allé(e) à la bibliothèque, et j’y ai vu Marion. (I went to the library, and I saw Marion there.)
The second of the two sentences would be said with a rising inflection on bibliothèque, to signal to the listener that there is more to the story. A rising inflection in this case is said a bit like asking a question. This distinguishes it from the first sentence.
But how do you say that one? This brings us to our second rule.
Declarative sentences are said with a falling inflection.
Simple declarative sentences are always said with a falling inflection at the end, in this case on the word bibliothèque, to let the listener know that the idea has finished. This distinguishes them from sentences that continue, lists and questions.
A falling inflection that goes from a high tone to a low tone can sound very decisive or dramatic in English, as though giving a command. In French, however, a falling inflection is a normal part of speaking.
Yes/no questions can be asked using a simple rising inflection at the end of a declarative sentence.
When you were learning about yes/no questions, you likely learned about inversion, like the following question:
Es-tu allé(e) à la bibliothèque ?
While this is definitely correct, it’s not the only—or even the most common—way to express yes/no questions in spoken French.
More often than not, you’ll hear the following form of yes/no question:
Tu es allé à la bibliothèque ?
The upward inflection shows you this is a question, and it’s the only indication you need.
Intonation is one of the keys to pronunciation, and it’s a shame that we don’t spend more time learning it in the classroom. Fumbling your R sounds or vowels is actually less telling to a native French speaker than a foreign intonation; you’ll hear lots of different French accents pronouncing these sounds in different ways, but the one element that unifies them all is inflection.
Keep in mind that French-speakers do also use intonation for exaggeration, stressing certain words and other purposes, but the above rules will give you a framework with which to start.
Master this, and you’ve already got much of French pronunciation under your belt.
2. Get a Phonetics Table
As you continue through our French pronunciation guide, you’ll want to arm yourself with a key tool—a phonetics table.
You see, it’s very easy to assume that since doctor is written with a D in English and docteur is written with a D in French, the sound is the same. Not so. The French D is fronted slightly on the alveolar palate as opposed to the English d. Sound confusing? That’s why you need a phonetics table.
A phonetics table shows you the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA. IPA uses many Latin symbols—and some that may be less familiar—but each symbol represents one unique sound. Not all sounds exist in every language, but you can see which sounds are close to one another in your native tongue and in French, making it easier to get to that elusive pronunciation.
For example, did you know that the French R is closer to the English K than to the English R? That’s because it’s pronounced in the same place in the mouth, but with a different voicing.
Once you understand IPA, it will be much easier to see where and how certain French sounds should be pronounced and therefore to get closer to these pronunciations yourself.
3. Identify Difficult Sounds
Some sounds in French are especially hard for learners to say properly.
One is the aforementioned R; the others include many of the French vowels. But not every sound is equally difficult for all learners! For example, a learner who has already had some experience speaking Mandarin Chinese may not have as hard a time with the French U as an English speaker who has had some experience with Spanish will.
The important takeaway from this is that it’s up to you as a learner to identify the sounds that are difficult for you. Identifying these sounds is the first step in learning how to pronounce them correctly.
To identify them, try recording yourself speaking and then comparing your pronunciation to that of a native speaker, by seeking out native pronunciations online or in your community. If you can’t hear the differences in pronunciation very well, you may wish to meet with a French teacher and have him or her identify your trouble areas for you.
Once you’ve identified the sounds that are difficult for you to pronounce, use your newly acquired IPA skills, real live French people (if you can!) and online pronunciation videos to master these sounds.
4. Replace Sounds When Necessary
Sometimes, try as you might, you just can’t overcome that pronunciation hurdle. Maybe it’s the French U. Maybe it’s the French R. Maybe it’s the switch from the fronted to the backed U in the expression Pas du tout. Whatever the trouble you have, sometimes it’s better to admit defeat—for now, at least!—and find a different strategy.
Many French sounds can be replaced with other sounds that are close to the sound you’re looking for. You probably already do this without thinking about it! If you’re having trouble pronouncing a French R, I bet you say an English R in its place. The trouble with this is that an English R is actually not the closest sound you have in your arsenal to a French R. Say an English L instead, and the effect will be much closer to what you were looking for in French.
The same is true for the French U. If you’re saying the English U, you’re actually pretty far from the real sound. Try instead saying an “ee” sound while rounding your lips. You’re getting closer!
As for the French D and T, try experimenting with moving the tip of your tongue closer to the front of your palate, listening to the change in sound as you do so.
And for those pesky nasal vowels, try practicing the sentence, un bon vin blanc, which has all of them. If you aren’t able to differentiate amongst the four, figure out which ones you can pronounce well, and swap them in for the nasal vowel in question instead of pronouncing a non-nasal vowel in its place.
We hope that this French pronunciation guide has been some help in getting you closer to your ideal pronunciation. At this point, there’s only one thing left to do! Practice, practice, practice!