Watching a good movie is like entering another world.
Want to enter the Francophone world?
Of course you do!
The best way to make sure your French is understood is to work on your pronunciation.
And a great way to do this is to spend some time learning how natives really speak.
Unless you happen to live in a French-speaking country or have friends who speak French, it might not be so obvious how to arrange this.
But watching French films helps expose you to the rhythms and sounds of French and helps you identify body language and gestures, all of which helps you learn to communicate more effectively in French.
Films have an advantage in that you can watch them in one sitting, and can discuss them with others without being at different points in a series. They also often have memorable and poignant quotes and phrases that you can memorize to gain further footing in your pronunciation. Also, storylines in French movies are often simple and easy to follow and so can be very useful for beginners.
If you’re a beginner, you may not believe that watching films can help you at this stage, much less actually teach you pronunciation.
But fear not, because we’ve designed a guide to walk you through learning all the basics of French pronunciation with five wonderful and entertaining films! Let’s start with the French sounds you’ll need to be able to identify while watching.
French Sounds You Need to Know
If your French reading is already at a good level but you still need to learn proper pronunciation, you can try watching films with French subtitles. This will help you almost subconsciously absorb the pronunciation of French words from text.
If you aren’t at that level yet, though, don’t worry. You can still learn a lot from listening to French with English subtitles and picking up the occasional word as well as the sounds of French.
And with FluentU, you can learn from real-world content no matter what your level. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
To help you pick up on pronunciation, here’s a mini guide to French sounds.
One of the hardest parts of French is learning to properly pronounce the vowels. They usually contain just one sound and have less stress than in English. Below are some of the most common vowel sounds. Each is accompanied by the International Phonetic Alphabet equivalents in brackets (see here to hear each sound in isolation):
- a [a] as in rapporter [ʀapɔʀte] (to bring back)
- i [i] as in libre [libʀ] (free/liberated)
- e [e] as in des [de] (some)
- o [o] as in paume [pom] (palm)
- u [y] as in tu [ty] (you, informal)
This last one is one of the hardest sounds in French, so make sure you practice it. You may be tempted to use the sound [u] instead when you see the vowel “u,” especially as this is closer to the English sound for “u,” but this is incorrect and will hinder your accent.
To help you distinguish the two, consider the difference between tu (you) and vous (you, formal). If you aren’t familiar with the difference in meaning between these two words yet, you’ll also want to learn to make that distinction.
- eu [ø] as in yeux [jø] (eyes)
- ei [ɛ] as in Reine [i]
- ou [u] as in loup [lu] (wolf)
- oi [w] as in fois [fwa] (times)
These aren’t all of the vowel sounds, and many spellings take on different sounds in other words, so don’t be surprised if you hear them pronounced in another way.
The French use nasal sounds a lot; but don’t worry, they’re very easy to master. Try to consciously close your throat to block air up your nose as you say these. It really works!
- ent [ã] as in dent [dã] (tooth)
- in [ɛ̃] as in vin [vɛ̃] (wine)
- un [œ̃] as in brun [bʀœ̃] (brown)
- on [õ] as in rond [ʀɔ̃d] (round)
Aspiré and non-aspiré “h” (aspirated and non-aspirated “h”)
Like many letters in French words, “h” is silent. However, it’s sometimes treated as a vowel for the purpose of pronouncing a liaison or making contractions. These instances are “non-aspirated.” Others are “aspirated,” and are treated as consonants: Before them, do not pronounce the liaison or make contractions.
If you’re ever unsure, most dictionaries will indicate whether a word starting with “h” is aspirated or non-aspirated. (And if you’re confused, more on what a liaison is later in this post!)
Here are a couple examples:
Many letters at the end of words are silent in French, especially “f,” “l,” “c” and “r.”
These are all words with a silent letter at the end:
There are also plenty of examples with other letter endings:
These have the silent letters “z,” “d” and “p” respectively. There aren’t really any solid rules on silent letters, so keep an eye out for them when listening to French.
Pronunciation rules surrounding plurals can be very confusing to beginners, so you might want to spend some time on this.
For example, the majority of the time, pluralizing a word does not change its pronunciation. However, there are some exceptions. For example, the masculine plural of journal (newspaper) is journaux (newspapers).
This is the joining of syllables in a sentence between word boundaries. It makes listening to and understanding French quite difficult sometimes. Liaison is mostly used on collocations (two words that are often used together). This often means:
- adjectives + nouns
- articles + nouns
- pronouns + verbs
Liaison usually happens when one word ends in either “s,” “d,” silent “t,” “x” or “p” and the following word starts with a vowel. In the case of “s” and “x,” they both become “z” and part of the next syllable. For example, ils ont (they have) is pronounced like “il-zont.” “D” also becomes “t” in liaison and “t” and “p,” which are usually silent, can be heard.
In speech, the vowel [ə] is often dropped, especially in informal situations. A good example of this is rappeler (to recall), which can be pronounced both [ʁapəle] (three syllable) and [ʁaple] (two syllable).
Other informal shortenings
Informal shortening doesn’t just include the “e” muet. Other examples include “pasq” for parce que (because) and “t’es” for tu es (you are).
Equal stress of syllables
Unlike in English, every syllable in French is given equal stress and time. When you listen to French, this becomes obvious, but it’s still important to listen for it and emulate yourself.
Most of the time, intonation falls through a sentence, but it’s a lot more subtle than in English, so make sure you listen out for it. Exceptions include greetings, where the intonation rises throughout and the last syllable is stressed, and also yes/no questions, which do the same.
The above are all essential characteristics of a beautiful French accent.
How to Learn French Pronunciation Through Films
While watching a film, it’s helpful to keep a notepad and pen so you can pause and make a note of any memorable quotes you find and/or any phrases you particularly want to remember.
After watching the film, when your mind and ears will be most receptive to whether you’re sounding French or not, try to review the above sounds. Then, try to read French aloud for a while.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand what you’re reading, or don’t quite get all the words right. This will still help you get a feel for French speaking, and you’ll remember how it felt to say certain words when you need to actually use them later on.
5 Dazzling Films That Show You How to Pronounce French Words Like a Star
1. “L’arnacoeur” (Heartbreaker)
Synopsis: This is an adorable and heart-warming film about a man who seduces women to “open their eyes and not their legs.” He’s employed by various people to break up relationships that are undesired or not right by showing women what love can really be like and then disappearing to do it all over again. When he tries to break up Vanessa Paradis’ character’s engagement, he ends up with more than he’s bargained for.
Language summary: Much of the language in this film is informal. There’s a lot of slang and moderate obscenities, making it useful when learning to converse in France today. The speech is often very fast, but as it’s a romantic-comedy, much of the actions and reactions are exaggerated, making it easier to understand what’s happening and the overall tone, even if you miss bits.
Cultural points: The movie is set in Monte Carlo of Monaco with beautiful scenery and some local culture.
Je déteste le roquefort, avant toi j’avais jamais vu “Dirty Dancing”… (I hate Roquefort, before you I had never seen “Dirty Dancing”…)
This quote is a great one to practice silent letters at the ends of words. For roquefort and avant, the last “t” is silent, and for avant, the “an” is pronounced nasally. Roquefort has two silent letters in the middle. The ending “s” in avais and jamais is also silent. Déteste is a great word for practicing stress and also the effect of accents. If you say the word “detest” and compare, you’ll notice that in English, we put the stress on the second syllable, but the French put equal stress on both syllables. The acute accent also makes it more of an [e] sound than an [ə] sound.
Synopsis: One of the most celebrated films in French cinema, this one follows a man who moves to Provence after inheriting a farm. Two local men try to cheat him out of it by playing tricks on him and making his life difficult. Poignant and thoughtful, it raises many moral questions.
Language summary: As the plot of this film is centered around agriculture, a lot of the vocabulary is agricultural. You may find it helpful to learn these flashcards. The language is very formal and quite philosophical. Se méfier de (to distrust) têtu (headstrong) and triompher (to triumph) are all words you might come across. Speech in this film is not particularly fast, making it one of the best for learning pronunciation.
Cultural points: Alluding to the life of Provençal farmers and the rural French in general, this film highlights the hardships and many poverty issues that these people faced.
À la fin juillet, cette verdure sera jaune comme du blé mûr. (At the end of July, the greenery will be yellow like ripe wheat.)
An example of descriptive agricultural language common to the film, this quote is a great one to practice pronunciation! Firstly, fin is a nasal sound, so will be pronounced [fɛ̃]. Juillet is a difficult one to pronounce and might take some practice. For cette, the pronunciation is as if there was a cedilla (ç). Verdure is also tricky; you might want to try listening closely to that one.
Je suis bossu. Vous croyez que c’est facile ? Y’a rien là-haut… Y’a rien là-haut. (I am a hunchback. You think it’s easy? There’s nothing up there…there’s nothing up there.)
If you’re more advanced at French, see if you can work out the pronunciation of this one. If not, just note the speech contraction of il y a to ‘y a and keep your ears open for this in the film.
3. “Manon des sources” (Manon of the Spring)
Synopsis: Following from “Jean de Florette,” this film features Manon (a little girl in the first film) as she copes with events. It’s another film of revenge, morality and the eventual culmination and karmic end to the actions of the characters in the first film.
Language summary: The language here is very similar to “Jean de Florette” but with more religious vocabulary and a theme of justice and accompanying vocabulary. Again, flashcards may be of help here. The tone is very similar to “Jean de Florette,” as is pronunciation.
Cultural points: As with “Jean de Florette,” this film shows the importance of family and occupations in rural French life.
Premièrement, j’ai pas de mulet, j’ai un âne, deuxièmement, 150 litres, c’est pour un bistrot, pas pour une prairie, troisièmement, j’ai payé pour de l’eau de source, pas de l’eau de camion ! (Firstly, I don’t have a mule, I have a donkey, secondly, 150 litres is for a pub not a meadow, thirdly, I paid for spring water not truck water!)
This is a fantastic quote for practicing French pronunciation by leaving out the “e” between certain syllables. Premièrement, deuxièmement and troisièmement all display this. For premièrement, the “e” in bold is not pronounced, producing [pʀəmjɛʀmɑ̃]. There are also plenty of silent letters, like the “t” in bistrot and mulet.
The following two quotes are quite simple in pronunciation, so see if you can work them out yourself before hearing them.
J’ai payé, je veux mon eau ! (I paid, I want my water!)
Je t’aime Manon, je t’aime d’amour ! (I love you, Manon, I love you truly!)
4. “Et Après” (Afterwards)
Synopsis: This film is a psychological thriller based on a French book of the same name. It’s the story of a workaholic lawyer, estranged from his wife and told of his imminent death. He must work to prevent his death, but this isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Language summary: This is one both for complete beginners and more advanced learners. For beginners, this film is almost entirely in English, so the overall plot will be much easier to understand. However, if you have the ability to play the Region 2 DVD linked to above, you could switch on the French subtitles to help your reading and comprehension skills. The more advanced learner can try working out the correct pronunciation of the quote below without having heard it in French.
Cultural points: The film is partially set in Montreal, and so gives an opportunity to glimpse the French-Canadian way of life.
La merveille est dans l’instant, on s’en rend compte trop tard… (The wonder is in the moment, one realizes too late…)
Although a slightly complex quote, this is a great one to practice nasal vowels and silent letters. Merveille is pronounced [mɛʀvɛj], which can be tricky, and l’instant is [lɛ̃stɑ̃], with two nasal sounds. Rend is also nasal, pronounced [rɑ̃] with a silent “d.” The last three words in the quote all have a silent letter at the end, so it’s a great phrase to practice these.
5. “Hors de prix” (Priceless)
Synopsis: If you love “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” you’ll adore this film. Audrey Tatou plays a gold-digger who attracts a man who’s not a millionaire. He spends all his money to be with her and is eventually left with nothing, but they both gain something unexpected.
Language summary: As much of this film focuses on the art of seduction, the speech is a lot slower and more precise, making it easier to understand and emulate. Audrey Tatou tends to articulate well, making her easier to copy than some French actresses. There’s also a lot of body language and intonation that you can copy: Try pausing the film at several points and repeating the last line—subtitles are useful for this. The language is mostly formal in this film.
Cultural points: Many hotels and restaurants of France and the French Riviera are beautifully captured in this film, possibly inspiring your next trip?
On peut résister à la beauté mais pas au charme. (One can resist the beauty but not the charm.)
Note: This phrase pronounced with the liaison comes across as more formal. It’s pronounced this way in the film, as the characters are in a more formal situation, but it’s good practice to try saying it both with and without liaison.
Arrête d’tre gentil, c’est insupportable. (Stop being nice, it’s unbearable.)
Note here the contraction of d’être to d’tre. The “g” in gentil is a soft sound. Insupportable is a great word to practice equal stress. Practice saying each syllable equally.
Time to release your inner Frenchie and get practicing this sophisticated tongue!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.