A common problem that arises when you learn French is that despite having studied a great deal of vocabulary and grammar, it can still be very challenging to understand people’s speech in ordinary daily situations. And because it’s not easy to recognize what you've learnt, you often end up feeling quite puzzled and a bit hopeless. However, the reason for this is that there’s a big gap between how something is supposed to be pronounced and how it is actually pronounced in real life. The French language is a melody and we smooth it by connecting words together.
So, how do we do that? Well, that's precisely the point of this article. The changes we are going to look at are especially true in daily discussions with friends and relatives. To understand this special flow, we will focus on three aspects: the change in the pronunciation of the pronoun tu, the change in the pronunciation in the pronoun je and the case of the letter e. The last one is a bit tricky, but it will greatly increase your fluency and your understanding.
The pronoun tu
Let's start with tu. It is very common to drop the u in this word when speaking so that the t is smooshed into the verb that follows, creating a quicker flow. For example: Tu es en retard will become T'es en retard. However, this will not work with a verb that starts with a consonant. You cannot, for instance, change tu manges to t'manges. It's too difficult to pronounce, so we keep the u.
Dropping the u works for all tenses. For example, if you want to conjugate the plus que parfait, it will be t'avais mangé instead of tu avais mangé. It's very simple and by using this little trick you will sound more natural.
The pronoun je
Let's now look at the changes that occur to the pronoun je when French people speak. The normal pronunciation would be with the sound /ʒ/. However when we speak, the e of je disappears and the sound is changed depending on the first letter of the verb.
For example: Je mange is pronounced like J'mange. In this example the /ʒ/ sound still remains, but since we don't pronounce the e, it's as if there were only one word.
Now let's look at this phenomena with some other verbs. For example: Je fais. Here, because the verb starts with an f, the sound is going to change. We will still drop the e, but we can't keep the /ʒ/ pronounciation. It would be too difficult to pronounce. So, what do we say then? We pronounce the je as a /ʃ/. In our first example, the sound was vibrating more, now it is more of a whistle. In addition, the letter f isn't the only letter that changes the sound of je in a similar way. You will get the same sound in front of words that start with the sounds [k], [f], [s], [t] and [p].
The letter e
Let’s now continue with the topic of the letter e because it actually is changed quite often, and is frequently dropped altogether in cerain words.
One thing that I have noticed among my students is that they usually don't know what to do with this letter, especially at the end of a word. As a result, they often end up pronouncing it like /e/.
In order to illustrate the proper pronunciation, let's have a look at the words petit and petite. I'm sure that you all know that we don't pronounce the t in the first word, while we do pronounce it in the second. That's exactly what the e at the end of a word is for. It's used to transform the consonant that proceeds it. You now know that you need to pronounce it. Therefore, the e at the end of a word isn't a signal that you have to pronounce the e itself, but instead it's a signal that the consonant before it has to be pronounced.
In this example, we're going to say petiTe. But be careful, we don't pronounce the e. Therefore, we don't say petitE, we say petiTe. Same goes for une table. We don't say unE tablE but uNe tabLe.
Let’s have a look at the behaviour of this letter in a proper sentence.
- Je n'ai pas de table (I don't have any tables).
With a normal and slow pronunciation, we would pronounce every syllable. But remember, that's not what you're going to hear in the street. So, how do we pronounce it like a native?
First, you now know that the Je will change and that we will drop the e. As a result, we will get something like /jnay/.
Now, I’ll need to share the three syllable rule with you. It's a very important rule that will help you know when to smoosh a word or a group of words.
If you have an e in the middle of a three syllable word or group, then you can drop it. In our sentence, we already took care of the je n'ai part. We are left with pas de table. What do we have here? Yes! Three syllables: /pa/de/tabl.
The e from de will disappear and the letter d will be smooshed into pas, resulting in something we will pronounce "pad."
If we put the sentence back together, our final pronunciation will be /jnay padtabl/. With all this smooshing, it's logical to have a hard time understanding people when they talk.
Let's take another example and apply our rule again:
- Je te dis de ne pas boire.
This sentence has a lot of e’s, but which ones do we need to keep and which ones can we ditch?
The easiest one, as you already know, is to ditch the e from je. Since this one has already been removed, we won't be able to drop the second one in te. Otherwise we would end up with three consonants in a row and it would be impossible to pronounce: /jtdis/.
Now, let's look at the second group. Count three syllables. You should get de ne pas. If we follow our rule, then we’ll drop the e from ne. Therefore, we end up with a lonely n. What do we do with it? Just like with pas de table, we will attach it to the preceeding syllable, which is de. We then end up with something that is pronounced like /deun/. And that's it! The only other e left is the one from boire, and we know that we don't pronounce that one.
Our final sentence is then pronounced /jteu di deun pa boir/. You've just pronounced this sentence like a real native! Congratulations!
Don't forget that this rule also applies to words. Whenever you have a long word, check if you can spot an e within three syllables. If so, just drop it.
To finish up this article and check that you've understood everything well, nothing beats a little challenge. So, here are two sentences. You will need to tell me which e will be silent.
- Je mange beaucoup de fruits.
- Je fais ce que je veux (this one is tricky. You have to count the pronounced syllables).
Write your answers in the comment section. I'm really looking forward to reading them! In the meantime, for more French challenges regarding real French, you can find me on Twitter at @French_Blabla or on my blog at frenchteachercaro.wordpress.com, where I can help you speak like a native.
A très bientôt pour un nouvel article !