A challenging task of learning French language is pronunciation. There are many difficult sounds to learn as well as different accents & dialects to get used to. When I first started learning French, I really struggled with pronouncing words properly; and unfortunately, I didn't know what to do to improve this. Luckily, over time, I was able to change this, and today I have a near-perfect accent when speaking French.
In this article, I would like to share some of the things that helped me improve my pronunciation when I was learning French. The major points that we’re going to cover are:
- Retraining your mouth
- Slow and steady wins the race
- Common pronunciation errors and advice on how to fix them
Retraining your mouth
This is the ‘golden ticket’ of pronouncing things well. When we are young, our mouths are trained to speak and accurately pronounce a certain set of sounds. For example, I was born in Canada, but my roots are from Gujarat, India. This meant that growing up, I was surrounded by Gujarati and English, which are my two native languages. As a result, the sounds that are the easiest for me to pronounce are ones that exist both in Gujarati and English. One of the biggest challenges in having a good accent in your target language is that you need to retrain your mouth and tongue to create completely foreign sounds.
So how the heck do I retrain my mouth?!
Interestingly, this is not necessarily hard, but rather it is something that requires patience. In my experience, the process of retraining your mouth and tongue starts with having a basic understanding of French phonetics. In simple terms, phonetics is a branch of linguistics that studies pronunciation and the speech sounds that your mouth is capable of making.
I am a huge fan of phonetics, and studying this has made it so much simpler to sound like a native speaker. This is because if you study phonetics, or more specifically French phonetics, you will learn exactly what to do with your mouth, tongue, and vocal chords in order to pronounce each and every sound.
The next step
Funnily enough, there isn’t that much more to it than that. All pronunciation errors begin and end with understanding phonetics. That being said, a word of caution: you need to take things slowly. Phonetics is a deep and complicated field of study. It is like a ‘never-ending rabbit hole’. Because of this, I recommend that you try to fix just one sound at a time.
I was about 15 or 16 years old when I first set out to improve my French pronunciation. Instead of trying to improve my pronunciation across the board, I decided to only focus on pronouncing the letter ‘r’ correctly. I took an unorthodox approach to doing this. In a nutshell, I learned to pronounce one French word at a time. Here were the first three steps I followed:
- I practiced pronouncing the letter ‘r’ on it’s own (i.e not contained to any specific word). I had a French friend who explained to me the phonetics of what to do with my mouth so as to pronounce the ‘r’ sound correctly.
- I learned to say the phrase je crois. I started with this phrase because of its phonetic logic. The ‘k’ sound, (i.e the sound made by the letter ‘c’ in the word crois), is pronounced using the back of the tongue. The French ‘r’ is also made in the back of the mouth. Because of this, crois is one of the easiest words to pronounce that contains the French ‘r’.
- After learning je crois, I learned how to say the word trois. This word is a little more difficult than crois. The ‘t’ in trois uses the front of your tongue, while you are required to use the back of the tongue to pronounce the ‘r’. This is a more challenging transition to make than the ‘cr’ combination in crois.
I continued this process one word at a time, and I was able to teach myself to pronounce the French ‘r’ correctly. I repeated this exact process with other sounds that I struggled with until I was able to gain near-native, if not native, pronunciation.
This all makes sense. But where do I start?
Are there any sounds that I should be working on first?
It’s tough to say because every single person will have difficulties with different sounds. That being said, in my experience, there are certain sounds that most people struggle with when pronouncing French. Here are the top six struggles that I find people have in learning to pronounce in French. I have also included a video that breaks down how to pronounce each sound. Try to improve on the letter(s):
We’ve now gone through some of the challenges concerning French pronunciation, and I have shared some tips on how to improve your own pronunciation in French. In summary, the most important thing that you should do is retrain your mouth and tongue. The process of doing this is to understand and implement the basics of French phonetics, and to work on the pronunciation of one sound at a time.
Lastly, I revealed a list of the most commonly mispronounced sounds, and shared some resources to help you pronounce them correctly. If you apply the concepts shared in this article, you will definitely see significant improvements in your French pronunciation.
Hero image by Eli DeFaria (CC0 1.0)