Three Simple Steps to a Great French Accent
Having a “great accent” when speaking a different language, or “talking like a native” is overrated. Think about how many people you have heard speaking English, for example, with an accent that is different from yours, but you could still communicate quite well. However, you can probably also recall some times when the other person was basically impossible to understand, because of the way they pronounced their words, or patterned their speech.
The following steps are designed to help people whose native language is English improve their French language pronunciation to the point that they can be understood by people who speak primarily or only French. Contrary to popular belief, the French do like and appreciate people trying to speak their language. It’s just that if they can’t understand a word you’re saying it gets old after a while.
Without further ado, three simple steps that will make your spoken French much more authentic and understandable.
Firstly, the apostrophe doesn’t mean what you think it does. In English, when we see an apostrophe in a word we know it means a pause. If we meet a guy who spells his name J’mal, we know he wants it pronounced “Juh-mal.” Even in verb contractions such as “isn’t or “hadn’t” we tend to throw in a little pause or hitch in the back of our throats.
This is not the case in French. When you see a French word with an apostrophe in it, such as l’enfant or j’aime, you do not pronounce these “luh-enfant” or “juh-aime.” That company at the mall that sells expensive toiletries is not called “Luh-occitane.” Instead these words are pronounced as if they would be spelled (in English) without an apostrophe; lenfant, jaime and loccitane. Of course, the words in French will sound more like “lonfaw” and “zhem” but the principle still holds: Do not make a break or separation for the apostrophe!
Secondly, ram every word into the back of the word in front of it. It’s really hard to overdo this. Just keep thinking that the front of a word should be joining up with the back of the word that came before it in a sentence. For example, “pas de normal” not pronounced “Pah de normal” it’s “pad normal.” When you hear someone saying “toot sweet” they are pronouncing “tout de suite.” And in fact, if you really want to get French you should be saying something that sounds more like “tude sweet” as the d not only joins up with the t, but even partially overpowers it. Then try saying it more like “tudes weet” and you’re getting into sounds like a native territory.
Finally, visualize the inside of your mouth. You have your teeth in arches following the jawbones, with your tongue on the bottom and your palate or roof of your mouth over the top. Now draw an imaginary line on your image across your tongue or palate from your first molar on the left side to the same area on the right.
Now further imagine that you have suffered a tragic accident, and everything in back of that imaginary line is now filled with concrete or otherwise out of action. You’re going to have to all your talking using the front half of your tongue and teeth, your lips, and your nose.
English speakers tend to hear French as being pronounced with emphasis, and when we speak English we tend to “open up our throats” when we are emphasizing our words. This is the exact opposite of what you actually want to do when speaking French. French is spoken in the front part of the face.
When speaking French, do not use the back part of your mouth or tongue. Use your front teeth and lips to help enunciate clearly. When you’ve got an m or an n or a “nasalized vowel” let it rip right through the old nasal passages.
This means that French will end up being a lot more nasal than English. And that’s OK. It’s not considered “snooty” when it’s French. (Perhaps this perception that nasality is haughty is due to that fact that we get a lot of our prejudices about the French via the British, who at times have a bit of an inferiority complex about their hereditary enemy.)
A bonus tip for the advanced student; when you pronounce a French word that starts with a p, say it kind of like a softly spoken b. When native English speakers start a word with p, they follow the p with a puff of air called aspiration. French speakers don’t. If you shade the p into more a b sound you can avoid this difference in pronunciation.
So there you have it. Follow these three simple rules. Don’t stop for apostrophes, ram the front of every word into the back of the word ahead of it a sentence and use only the front half of your mouth (and your nose) when speaking, and you’ll be communicating a lot more clearly in no time!