even if your accent isn’t perfect at first, emulating the French accent is better than not trying at all.
With these tips, you’ll be speaking like Jacques Cousteau in no time.
1. Master French Intonation
A lot of people don’t realize how important intonation is to mastering a language, especially speakers of English. While British English has stricter intonation rules than American English does, neither has quite as strict a tonal rhythm as French.
French uses rising and falling inflection to allow speakers to demonstrate where they are in a thought. A rising inflection is used when a thought is not yet finished, and a falling inflection is used at the end of a sentence.
Consider the following:
Pierre et Jeanne, qui sont bons amis, sont venus nous voir il y a une semaine. (Pierre and Jeanne, who are good friends, came to see us a week ago.)
A French speaker would naturally use a rising inflection—kind of like the tone you use when asking a question, though not quite as high—on the words Jeanne, amis and voir. The speaker would then use a falling inflection on the word semaine, to show that the thought is finished.
The same is true when making lists:
Il nous faut du beurre, du sucre, de la farine, et des oeufs. (We need butter, sugar, flour, and eggs.)
A French speaker would use a rising inflection on beurre, sucre and farine, and a falling inflection on oeufs.
A more intense rising inflection is used to signal questions in French, as in English.
Because French inflection is so strict, French does not allow for tonal emphasis, which English does.
English allows speakers to place tonal emphasis on a word to make that word more important in the sentence.
Consider, for example, the difference in meaning between the following identical sentences in English when the tone is placed on the bolded word:
I went to the park yesterday.
I went to the park yesterday.
One can imagine that the first sentence is a response to an erroneous statement about where the speaker went, for example, “So how was the library yesterday?” On the other hand, the second sentence seems to be a response to an erroneous statement about when the visit occurred, for example, “Weren’t you going to the park today?”
In French, you can’t create this sort of emphasis with your voice, and this poses problems for a lot of Anglophone speakers trying to make themselves understood. We’re so used to using tonal emphasis that it’s tough to get out of the habit. There are, however, two ways to create the same kind of emphasis in French.
The first way to do this is to use repetition. For example, if you wanted to say the equivalent of the following sentence:
I love it. (emphasis on I)
You could use the following French sentence:
Moi, j’adore. (Literally: “Me, I love it.”)
The second way to create this sort of emphasis in French is by using an extra word:
Franchement, j’adore. (Frankly/really, I love it.)
Respecting French intonation is a huge battle, but once you’ve overcome it, you’ll see your French accent improves almost immediately.
If you’re having a hard time mastering intonation, listening to native speakers and mimicking what they say sentence by sentence is a good way to master this.
For example, listening to podcasts at Frenchpod101 can help you learn intonation. Their podcasts are short and include transcripts, so you can listen to native speakers and mimic how they speak.
The Youtube channel EasyFrench is another good resource because it has interviews with native speakers on the streets about various topics. These usually include captions to follow along with, as well.
2. Learn the Small Differences in French Consonants
When you’re learning French, there are a few sounds that you’ll notice right away are quite different in French—we’ll get to those in just a moment, because the bigger battle is actually in the small differences.
There are a few consonant sounds that you’ll hear in French class or see on the page that you may assume are the same in English and French. However, these sounds have subtle differences, and mastering these differences can be the key to improving your French accent by leaps and bounds.
The first group of these sounds are consonants known as alveolar consonants. That’s because they’re pronounced with your tongue up against the alveolar ridge, that protrusion on the roof of your mouth just behind your top teeth. These sounds are “d,” “n” and “t.”
Try pronouncing a “d” in English, like in the word “dog.” Feel where your tongue is on the roof of your mouth? It should be right behind the alveolar ridge. Now move your tongue forward a bit, so that it’s hitting the back of your front teeth. That’s where a French d is pronounced. The difference in sound is subtle, but you should be able to hear it. This video will show you what both d and t should sound like, and n follows the same rule.
Another subtle difference between French and English is the sound that we pronounce when we see the letter “j.” In English, when we say “j,” for example, in the word “jump,” we’re not saying a true “j,” but rather a diphthong of “d” and “j.” In French, a j, such as in je (I) is pronounced as a true “j,” similar to the sound we make when we say “azure” or “Asia” in English.
3. Learn to Pronounce the French R Correctly
Of course, there are some consonant sounds that are pronounced very differently in English and in French: the biggest of these is of course the r sound, which many foreign speakers of French have a tough time with because of where it’s pronounced, in the back of your throat.
4. Practice Precise Vowel Sounds
Vowels are one of the toughest things to get perfectly right in a foreign language, because as opposed to consonants, where the tongue has a very precise placement in the mouth, vowels tend to have a bit more leeway.
Don’t believe me? Try saying the English letter “e” as a long sound, and then move your tongue around in your mouth a bit. At some places, it will sound strange, but there are a lot of places your tongue can be in your mouth where you’re still getting an approximate “e” sound that another English-language speaker would understand.
For the most part, in French, vowels have a more precise placement than in English, so this tongue exercise would work less well in French.
That said, there are a few vowel sounds that English speakers can say fairly easily in French, because they’re basically the same in both languages. These include:
- The a in ma (my), which is pronounced like the “a” in “father.”
- The i in oui (yes), which is pronounced like the “ee” in “see.”
- The ou in vous (you), which is pronounced like the “ou” in “you.”
As long as you try to make these vowel sounds precise, you probably won’t have much trouble getting them right in French.
Other vowels are subtly different in each language. The “o” sound in eau (water), for instance, might sound like the “o” in “oh,” but there’s a subtle difference. When we say “oh” in English, we start by saying an “o,” and then we finish with a “w” sound.
To get the French “o” sound right, put your lips into the “oh” sound shape, and pronounce the vowel sound while keeping your lips and tongue perfectly still. It should sound like this.
5. Practice Pronouncing the French Nasal Vowels and U Correctly
French has two “u” sounds, whereas English only has one. While the ou sound, as we saw above, is pretty similar in English and in French, the u in tu (you) is a sound that we just don’t have in English.
To get this sound right, put your mouth into the position you would use if you were going to say the “ee” in “meet.” Start making that sound, and slowly bring your lips together as though you were saying a “w.” That “u” sound is the proper way to pronounce the u in tu.