Pronunciation Tips

By USFWS Mountain-Prairie (Barn Owl) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Or how to avoid ‘la cata’

A friend of mine was moaning the other day about the fact that the French never understand her efforts to speak the lingo. An American who’s lived in French-speaking parts for several years, she’s done her darndest to learn the language. But try as she might, she finds herself frequently misunderstood en français.

You know immediately when that happens. The French facial expression goes from neutral to vaguely pained, then contorted, as if suffering a bout of indigestion. If no understanding dawns, in a few short seconds this will resolve into a blank of incomprehension, possibly accompanied by the Gallic shrug and what’s popularly called the face fart.

I can sympathize with my American friend, even though my own experience was a little different. I have a fair accent and initially had less trouble making myself understood (at least as far as the language went – meaning was something else…) But it also meant they assumed I understood them – for me the bigger problem. This unleashed a stream of garble that left me blushing and stammering to decipher.

Learning a language, it seems you always do one thing better than the other at first. Understand or be understood.

As far as speaking goes, sometimes it’s a small thing that makes the difference. A nuance of pronunciation can foil your best effort to go native. In my friend’s case, she has a problem with emphasis. I think this is probably a question of ear. I have a good ear for music as I used to sing, a great many moons ago. So I hear the music of the language. And am able to parrot sounds back.

Here are my top 3 pronunciation tips for fledgling French speakers:

1. Become a slave to the rhythm
Forget the words for a moment. Just listen to the music of spoken French – in a film, on the radio, in conversation on the street. Wrap your ear around it. People’s voices go up and down, although not in the same ways as they do in English. It will sound different in staccato Parisian than in sing-song Provençal accents, but if you get that basic beat of the language, you’re half way to speaking French like a native.

2. Move your vowels
Don’t worry about the consonants. No one will be confused if you don’t growl the French r-r-r right in the back of your throat. But get your vowels right. Especially ou vs u. Try practicing in front of a mirror. To do the French ‘oo’ you really need to shape your mouth like you imagine an owl hooting (I’m not sure they really do this!). Whereas you hardly open your lips at all to do the ‘u’ – just stick your tongue behind your teeth.

3. Don’t put the emPHAsis on the wrong syllABle.
When I first met my husband in Toronto, he tried to tell me about going to see one of our most famous landmarks. So famous that he couldn’t understand how I’d never heard of it.  But have you ever heard a French person try to pronounce Niagara Falls? (It came out sounding like some remote place in Africa.) But it’s a tricky one. Not only do you have to get the vowel sounds right, you have to hit the syllables: Ny-AG-ra.

The trick in French is that there’s almost always an emphasis on the last syllable. This is very different from English. Take the Eiffel Tower. We say: EYE-ful TOW-er. But in French, it’s Tour eh-FELL.

(On a recent trip back to Canada I was teased by my brother for pronouncing our former President’s name as Sarko-zee! It seems they were all saying Sar-Cozy, making him sound like a teddy bear.)

Hence, my friend’s attempts to say “C’est une cata” (a quirky short form for ‘It’s a catastrophe’ — something that happens a lot here) went over people’s heads. She was saying CAT-a instead of cat-AH!

Let me conclude with a plea to the French: the one thing, la seule petite chose, you can do to help a non-native speaker is to slow it down a tad. Try not to run the words together quite so much. Give us a moment for the hard drive to register the words, and perhaps a few seconds to capture the sense of the phrase.

Actually that plea probably applies to native speakers of any language.

How about you? What’s your favorite tale of being (mis)understood in another language?


  1. Osyth · March 13, 2014

    I’m an actress of no repute so the accent is never a problem except as you so rightly say that the torrent of words all joined together that greet me in response leave me gawping like a fish. My pronunciation is not always good though – t’wit t’day in the market when I confidently told the man selling charcuterie that when I don’t know the answer I just hacher ma tete …. his look of abject horror reminded me that hacher is chop and that I meant hocher. I’m expecting a guiatine any moment!

    • MELewis · March 13, 2014

      Off with her head! If I had a photo of all the French faces I’ve inadvertently shocked or amused over the years…. Funny story, thanks for sharing!

  2. Colin Bisset · March 13, 2014

    So many. When I asked for planches of ham in the boucherie, that caused much merriment. But I also managed to confuse a cafe in Paris for a whole week – they would bring me two items when i’d asked for one, or the other way around. Never thought there was much confusion between une and deux but i seemed to manage it…Thanks for saying the rrrr’s aren’t so important. That’s a big relief!

    • MELewis · March 14, 2014

      Planks of ham — now that’s a hoot! Funny about the confusion in numbers, perhaps you need to work on your vowels? Or just add a finger sign for emphasis!

  3. Greg · March 14, 2014

    When I was just starting out learning Mandarin I found being understood really difficult. As well as the pronunciation there is a tonal aspect to the language. I remember saying dish names in restaurants about 5 or 6 times before they would go “Oh! You want the *exactly what I just said 5 times*!”
    So demoralising! Haha

    • MELewis · March 14, 2014

      Kudos to you for persisting long enough to get what you wanted. And for having the courage to undertake Mandarin as an adult. French is challenging enough – cannot even imagine how far you have to twist your ear!

  4. Carrie · March 20, 2014

    Thank you for the tip re: emphasis – I will be passing this on to my kids!

    • MELewis · March 20, 2014

      Mais de rien…Hope it helps them!

  5. susannye · March 25, 2014

    ME – When I first moved to Switzerland I was forced to turn my school-girl-hadn’t-spoken-in-10-years French into something useful. I remember standing in front of a vegetable stall at the market in the first few week. I wracked my brain for the word for beans and out popped legume.After asking me 2-3 time which legumes the vendor, a transplanted Californian, set me straight and promptly sold me a handful of beautiful haricot vert. I visited her stall every week and she sold me veggies and tutored me on the names. Take care – Susan

    • MELewis · March 26, 2014

      What a lovely story! In Switzerland it seems you often run into transplants – even at the veg stall. Thanks for reading and sharing your tale.

  6. Pingback: S’endormir sur ses lauriers | FranceSays

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