As many expats and visitors in Paris know, it’s disheartening to speak your very best French to a French native and only to receive a look of confusion – or pain – in return.
We want to say two things about this. First, having an accent is natural. Unless you learned to speak French as a child, the chances are you’re going speak it with some trace of your mother tongue. So, don’t feel shame over your accent or let it prevent you speaking French with natives.
Second, you can minimize your mother tongue accent and speak more like a French native with practice. You won’t necessarily speak flawlessly – but you don’t have to. The most important thing is to speak with a clean enough accent that can be effortlessly understood by natives. Here’s what you need to do:
1. Be conscious of how your lips and tongue move when speaking French
When speaking French, force of habit will make your tongue and mouth try move as they do when speaking English, causing your native accent to sneak in where it’s not wanted. To develop a cleaner accent, you’re going to have to train your mouth and tongue to move differently.
Be prepared to move your tongue a whole lot less than you would in English. Why? For one reason, the English language is rich with diphthongs: that’s the sound formed when two vowels sounds are adjacent to one another (house, round, owl, etc). To make these sounds your mouth and tongue start with the first vowel sound and move onto the second, necessitating movement. In French, however, the vowels are pure – no diphthongs or long sounds exist. As a result, the sound is shorter and there’s no need for abundant tongue movement.
To help inhibit your tongue movement when speaking French, put the tip of your tongue against your lower front teeth. Then let your lips, jaw and, sometimes, your nose do the work. Depending on the letters you’re forming, your lips will purse (to form most “e” sounds), stretch into a near-smile (to pronounce “i” sounds), become rounded (to form an “u” sound and some “o” sounds), even as your tongue stays near your bottom front teeth. Look at yourself in the mirror as you speak to help ensure that your mouth movements are accurate.
2. Practice French in groups of sounds
When learning to read French, school children here have a cahier de sons (notebook of sounds), which teaches them how to connect the written letters with the spoken sound – not a self-evident thing in the French language! You can practice your improving your French accent in the same way – by mastering individual sounds by group.
For example, for one week, you may want to focus on saying words that contain the letters “ou” (pronounced “oo” or like the sound in “soup”). During this week, you would practice saying words like, rouge, vous, pour, fou, bijoux, etc. until you can produce the “ou” sound naturally. Afterwards, move on to another sound group.
In particular, you may want to concentrate on French sounds that don’t exist in English, such as:
– eu (veulent, feu, peu) – Don’t pronounce the “u” but only the “e” sound
– u (jus, nu, dessus) – similar to “ew” sound in English. Say with rounded lips.
– r (roux, rue, répéter) – pronounced from the back of the throat with minimal tongue tip movement.
3. Read aloud in French
Choose an interesting text in French and read aloud to yourself slowly, taking the time to consciously produce each word. This will force you to think about each word you’re pronouncing and is great training for your tongue and mouth. It has the extra benefit of helping you absorb French grammar, sentence structure and flow. You should also record yourself while reading so you listen to your own speech and work on the sounds that are giving you particular trouble.
4. Listen to spoken French
To master an accent, naturally you must know what the correct accent sounds like. Don’t forget to devote regular time to listening to French, either through audio recordings or by watching French television programs, movies and, most especially, songs. When listening, jot down phrases and words that you’d like to learn so that you can practice them aloud.
5. Speak with a French native
Naturally, chatting with a French friend or French teacher is an ideal way to perfect your French accent. Make a specific point of asking them to correct your accent and watch the movement of their mouths as they speak. (May want to give them a little warning that you’re going do this so they won’t be taken aback by your staring!)
6. Practice tongue twisters
You might be saying that French pronunciation is tricky enough without trying to speak a tangle of words that are even difficult for native French speakers! But tongue twisters (“virelangues“) are a fantastic way to test yourself and discover pronunciation patterns. And they’re fun too. Practice saying them slowly and as you begin to get familiar with the sounds, increase your speed. Here are five of our favorite virelangues:
Dans ta tente ta tante t’attend.
(In your tent, your aunt is waiting for you)
Les chaussettes de l’archiduchesse, sont-elles sèches ? Archi-sèches!
(Are the socks of the archduchess dry? Extra dry!)
Ces cerises sont si sûres qu’on ne sait pas si c’en sont.
(The cherries are so sour that one doesn’t know if they are [cherries])
Pauvre petit pêcheur, prend patience pour pouvoir prendre plusieurs petits poissons.
(Poor little fisherman be patient in order to fish several little fish)
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