As a bilingual country, most (if not all) Canadians encounter French at some point throughout their lives, whether at home, in school, work, or in their travels. When it comes to reading, writing, or understanding the language, English speakers who have studied the language may feel perfectly comfortable—until, of course, it comes time to speak it aloud! Unfortunately, though anglophone students in Canada often spend years in school learning French, many feel hesitant to speak it due to difficulties with their accent.
One key factor is our ability to clearly hear speech sounds distinctions in other languages. By the time many people begin learning French, they have all but lost the ability to discern important speech sound distinctions that are necessary to intuitively acquire a proficient accent. As speakers age, and begin to master their first languages, they become increasingly desensitized to speech sound differences that are not important to their first language.
For example, while English has both the /p/ and the /b/ sound, as in “pat” and “bat”, Arabic has only /b/. Thus, while an infant growing up in Lebanon will clearly hear a change between /p/ and /b/ sounds, the same child a few years later may not notice any difference because it is not important to understanding Arabic. On the other hand, an adult English speaker will hear this sound difference very clearly, but will likely be oblivious to sound distinctions specific to Arabic. While this may streamline the understanding of one’s mother tongue, it presents a challenge when attempting to learn a language later in life.
Just like English and Arabic, there are important sound differences to keep in mind in order to speak French clearly and with a proficient accent. Here are three key differences to keep in mind in order to improve your confidence speaking French.
The French "R"
While the pronunciation of “r” in French may differ between dialects, perhaps the most common version is called a “voiced uvular fricative”. Let’s break that down.
• The word “voiced” refers to a speech sound where the voice is “on” while you say it. For example, the “v” sound is voiced. If you say “vvvvv” and touch your throat or “Adam’s apple”, you can feel your vocal folds vibrating throughout. If you say “fffff”, on the other hand, you won’t feel any vibration because “f” is a voiceless sound.
• The word “uvular” refers to the uvula—a piece of tissue that hangs from the soft palate at the back of the mouth. Look in the mirror and say “ah”. See that bit hanging down? That’s your uvula!
• The word “fricative” refers to a speech sound that involves pushing air through a narrow opening to create noise—“s”, “f”, and “sh” are examples of other fricatives in English.
• So, to say a French “r” or a “voiced uvular fricative”, we need to bring the back of the tongue to the uvula to create a narrow opening, and gently push air through that opening with the voice on.
• If you’re feeling lost, here’s a tip: say “ugh”, as if you’ve just missed the bus. “UGH!” This “disgusted” sound is typically produced as a voiceless uvular fricative, so try to keep your voice on to make it “voiced” and you’re almost there!
Rounded Front Vowels
Most languages have vowels that use rounding of the lips to change the sound. For example, in Canadian English, the “aw” sound as in “hot” does not use any lip rounding. That’s an unrounded vowel. Now say “hoot” and watch your mouth—now your lips are rounded! Say the same word while smiling really widely, and you’ll hear that it sounds quite different because your lips are no longer rounded.
• Rounded vowels in English all use the tongue at the back of the mouth:
• Try saying “boat”, “boot”, “book”, “bowl”. These are called “rounded back vowels”.
• Now, say “beat”, “bet”, “bait”, “bat”—no lip rounding! These are “unrounded front vowels”. They use the tongue at the front of the mouth, with spread or neutral lips.
• French has rounded back vowels, too, like in the words “beau” and “boue”, as well as unrounded front vowels like in “si” or “c’est”. Unlike English, however, French also has unrounded front vowels. This means that the tongue is toward the front of the mouth, like in the English vowel “ee”, but with the lips rounded.
• Try saying “eeeee” and, without moving your tongue or jaw, round the lips. If you did it right, you should have a high rounded front vowel like in the French words “tu”, “du”, or “but”.
• You can also try keeping your lips fully rounded while saying “tee”, “dee”, “bee” and if you make sure not to move your lips, you should have a beautifully articulated “tu”, “du”, and “but”.
• There are two other rounded front vowels to remember: the “eu” in words like “peu”, and the “oeu” in words like “oeuf” (or “soeur”). Try saying the English syllables “pay” and “eff” (like the letter “F”) with rounded lips to approximate these vowels.
Another important distinction to notice between French and English is the use of nasal vowels. English sounds like “m”, “n” and “ng” (like in “ring”) are called “nasal” consonants, because they involve channeling the airflow through the nasal cavity. This is achieved by lowering the soft palate, which we looked at earlier for the uvula, so that the air can go up into the nasal cavity. When we say words that end in these sounds, the vowel before gets a little bit “nasalized” as our soft palates are getting ready for the “m”, “n”, or “ng” sound.
• Try saying “mod”, “moat”, “mutt”.
• Then say “mom”, “moan”, “mung”. Listen for the difference in the vowels!
• You may notice the the vowels in the second set of words sound a little bit nasal. These are vowels are “nasalized”.
• Now, try saying the second set of words again (mom, moan, mung), but stop just before you get the the final “m”, “n” or “ng”, slightly exaggerating the nasal quality. Now it’s starting to sound French!
• In French words ending in “n”, like “main”, “maman” or “mon”, the final “n” is typically not pronounced, but instead the vowel before it is nasalized. This means that the soft palate is lowered during the vowel to let some air go through the nasal cavity, creating a nasal vowel.
Of course, there are many other differences both big and small, but by practicing just these three types of sounds you can already start to improve. The best place to start when working on your accent is to listen. Listen closely to native speakers, and start to open your ears to these sound differences you may not have noticed before—and, of course: practice, practice, practice!
Well Said Toronto Speech Clinic offers one-on-one French accent consulting services by trained, bilingual speech-language pathologists. If you need assistance to improve your confidence and ease in speaking French at work, at home or all over the world, we’re here to help.