Master French Pronunciation
French pronunciation seems to be perplexing for some learners. Perhaps it is the unaspirated consonants, or the vowel gradation that occurs, that is, the way in which change within a single vowel sound can affect the meaning of a word. Those slippery “e” sounds might seem like a lot to keep track of! Or perhaps it is the rhythm of French, characterized by the seamless movement from one word to the next within a phrase.
Whether you come across specific phonetic stumbling blocks or find French pronunciation generally difficult, there are some principal characteristics of spoken French that you can focus on in order to improve your French pronunciation.
Four Characteristics of French Pronunciation
1. Vowels in French
Let’s begin with vowel sounds. A vowel sound is produced with an open vocal tract and vibration of the vocal cords without audible friction (think of going to the dentist and saying “ah!”).
Vowel sounds in certain other languages, such as English, tend to glide more than vowel sounds in French. It is common to come across vowels within English words that might actually contain two sounds (think of the “i” in “high”, which contains /aɪ/, as written in IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet developed as a standard representation of spoken language).
Gliding vowels, or diphthongs, exist in French, but are less common, and you still want to give each component equal emphasis, retaining tension in the vocal cavity as the vowel changes timbre. For example:
the /ɥ/ and /i/ in “pluie” /plɥi/ get equal emphasis
There actually was a proliferation of gliding vowels in older versions of French, particularly during the medieval period. In modern French, vowels sound pure and clear.
An example of a very strong vowel sound in French is the /u/ sound, which we find in the first word of the following phrase:
“Où sont mes lunettes?”
“Where are my glasses?”
The production of the /u/ sound should be strong and pronounced with emphasis. This can be done by maintaining tension in the vocal cavity for the duration of the vowel sound. Your lips will form an “o” shape and you can even try contracting your stomach muscles while pronouncing this word.
This differs from the next “u” sound in this sentence, in the word “lunettes”. This is another sound that tends to confound learners of French, but can be dealt with by paying close attention to the positioning of the lips. The position of the lips is very similar to the position the lips take when playing the flute. You can achieve this by stretching the sides of your mouth into a smile and pronouncing the vowel sound /i/ and then moving your lips inward into a small rounded shape to make the /y/ sound. It’s similar to the “u” sound in the Chinese word for jade, 玉 “yù”.
Distinguishing clearly between the /u/ and /y/ sounds in French is important, since combining them with a single consonant can produce words with completely different meanings. Compare the following examples:
- “loup” /lu/ “wolf”
- “lu” /ly/ the past participle of the verb “to read”
This is the case for other vowel sounds as well, so it is good practice to keep different vowel sounds distinct, no matter how close they are to one another.
2. Consonants in French
Consonants in French have certain particular qualities that contribute to the even tone and sequencing of phrases which distinguish the language.
Aspiration is the strong burst of breath that accompanies some consonants – and should be kept to a minimum. This can be handled by paying close attention to the positioning of the lips and tongue.
To pronounce the letter “p” in the word “papier”, for instance, lightly touch the lips together without releasing a puff of air from them as you would for the English equivalent, “paper”.
To pronounce the French version of the word “table”, also maintain a light touch with your tongue on the hard palate (the roof of your mouth), and refrain from pushing a great amount of air out through your teeth the way you would in the English version.
The /p/ in “papier” resembles the type of “p” found in the English word “copy”. Similarly, the /t/ resembles the “t” in the English word “city” which also follows the same pattern. If you pronounce the “t” and “p” in these English words lightly and then replicate these sounds while pronouncing French words, you are on the path to elegant French pronunciation.
Another method of practicing these unaspirated consonants is to hold a piece of paper on your finger in front of your mouth while pronouncing “papier”, “table”, and other words beginning with /p/ and /t/ that are followed by vowel sounds, without having the piece of paper fly off of your finger.
3. Rhythm in French
The third aspect of French phonetics that distinguishes a native or advanced speaker from a beginning or intermediate speaker is rhythm. French places pretty even emphasis on each syllable of a phrase and this can be both difficult to understand and difficult to reproduce.
If a learner is used to more stops at the ends of words, as well as words that contain one powerfully accented syllable alongside syllables that are less accentuated, it can be confusing to distinguish where one word within a French sentence ends and where another one begins.
This rhythm is further enhanced by enchaînement, the sequencing linked to prosody, or the patterns of stress and intonation in a language. Not only do the syllabic units overlap the words of a sentence in French, but the “e” sounds of words often elide, merging one word into the next, as in this line from Charles Baudelaire’s poem “Le Chat”:
“Mais que sa voix s’apaise ou gronde.”
In this line the “e” from the personal pronoun “se” is dropped both phonetically and graphically, in its written form “s’”, and elides into the next word, “apaise”, which begins with a vowel sound. This word also merges into the next word phonetically, creating the seventh syllable of this octosyllabic line. Written in IPA, the line is:
/me kʲø sa vwa sa pɛ zu gʁõd̪/
Note: French speakers prefer to separate vowel sounds out, alternating them with consonants, thereby contributing to the enchaînement that is characteristic of their language, which explains this propensity for dropped “e” sounds.
Reading poetry, particularly poetry with a regular meter, helps learners find rhythms that are intrinsic to the French language and you can even tap out the rhythm with your hand, giving the syllables even stress.
It may be hard at first to find places to pause within longer sentences if your goal is to give even stress to each syllable, and this is where poetry also helps, since the meter is built into the reading. The punctuation also indicates where to pause and make full stops. Working with rhythm and meter in poetry will help you find phrasing in your conversational speech.
4. Vocal Conditioning
Focusing on pure vowel sounds, unaspirated consonants, and an even rhythm while trying to get your ideas across in French may seem like a lot to keep track of, and when you are arguing about politics or who is paying for dinner, these are not the things you would focus on. So it is important to find moments during the day when you are able to concentrate more fully on these phonetic aspects of French, and to make this a daily practice so that the physiological processes of producing these sounds will become familiar.
Think of maintaining tension in your mouth for vowel sounds and softening the passage of air through your lips and teeth when pronouncing consonants as conditioning for your vocal cavity. It can be fun to practice different types of sounds of the French language, as illustrated by the children’s song, which begins “Buvons un coup ma serpette est perdue”. The entertaining part of this song is replacing vowel sounds with other vowel sounds in subsequent verses, e.g., “Bavons un ca ma serpette est perda”, “Bivons un qui ma serpette est perdie”, etc.
This type of activity will not only help you practice different sounds, but practice different combinations of sounds, which will come back to you when conversing with different people in French. It may even prepare you for your next karaoke session with your French-speaking friends.
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Perfecting French pronunciation can be challenging. However, the more you listen and speak, the better and the more fluent you'll be. Our spaced repetition training gets your muscles familiar with speaking your target language, in this case - French. Combine the four aspects of French phonetics and Glossika's courses recorded by native speakers, you'll master French pronunciation in no time.
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