There are some words in French that people who’ve been studying the language for years still have a hard time getting right. If you avoid talking about squirrels in French (les écureuils… AY-CUE-RUYH? What is this madness?) or, when you see the word “chirurgie” (surgery), you begin to feel a growing sense of dread, don’t be discouraged. You’re not alone. Even though you may never have a 100% flawless accent, there are certain pronunciation mistakes you can fix easily to sound like an almost-native speaker. Check out our top tips below!
By Sophia Millman
The Silent -ENT
Many French students feel tempted to to pronounce the -ent ending for “-ER” verbs conjugated in the first person plural. You might think that “elle passe” and “elles passent” should sound different, but they don’t. They’re identical. The s that makes “elles” plural is silent and so is that -ent. “Il pense” and “ils pensent”? Identical. This rule applies to every conjugated verb with an -ent at the end so you don’t have to worry about when to use it! Afraid you might be messing up other silent letter combinations? Read through this comprehensive list.
The Double S
In English the S in both “desert” and “dessert” sounds like a z. In French, this isn’t the case. It’s le DE-SSSERT not DE-ZZZERT. If you’re talking about a desert in French, “le désert,” you pronounce the S like a Z since there’s only one S. It sounds a little bit like “le DAY-ZAIR.” (Careful, the t is silent. See the link above!) Again, this rule applies to every word. Any time you see a double S, make a sound like a snake, not a bee.
You may know that nasal vowels are pronounced by passing air through the nose and mouth. In English, we generally pronounce our vowels using only the mouth, so it can feel pretty awkward to suddenly start making nasal sounds in French. A lot of learners shy away from making these sounds, and a lot end up making the same sound for all three nasal vowels. But to a French person’s ear, this sounds very wrong! The nasal a (which you’ll see written as an, am, en, em) does not sound the same as the nasal i (ain, aim, ein, in, im, un) or the nasal o (on, om). So, in the word above, there are three nasal vowel sounds, but they shouldn’t all sound the same. Don’t worry if you can’t hear the difference between these vowels yet. Try watching some videos on YouTube about the vowels to begin practicing! Here’s (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5pFy_pu-Tw) a good place to start.
The P before a consonant
In English we don’t pronounce the P before consonants in words like “pneumonia” or “psychology,” but in French this P is often pronounced. It’s roughly “la P-SEE-CO-LO-ZHEE.” You want to say the p and the s fast enough together that you don’t hear a vowel between the two. Ask a French speaker to help you with this, and you’ll easily be able to hear the difference between their pronunciation and ours. Also, check out this linguist’s video where she breaks down the concept in pretty technical terms. It’s not the most exciting explanation, but it’s very helpful.
Liaisons are one of the hardest things about French pronunciation. What’s a liaison? When a word ending in a normally silent consonant is followed by a vowel or silent h, the consonant is pronounced (sometimes). This is why it’s difficult to know where one word ends and the next begins in French. Unfortunately, some liaisons are required (it’s grammatically incorrect not to make them), some you must never make, and some are… well, optional. In the case of “chez elle,” you can’t say “Shay ehl.” It’s always “Shay-Zehl.” There are too many rules to write out here, but this straightforward guide will allow you to learn them all in no time.
The Silent H
So now that you’ve learned about liaisons, and you know the H in haricots (beans) is silent, you might want to say, “Lay-ZZZar-ee-coh.” Lots of French people (not just learners!) make mistakes like this. The problem is, there are technically two Hs in French. Yes, it’s another “What the Fuck France?” moment. The French “h muet” (mute H) is not only silent, but non-existent. Words that begin with this H act as if they begin with a vowel so you do make a liaison in front of them. But then there’s the dreaded h aspiré… all liasons in front of it are forbidden. How do you know which H is which? Well there are some rules, but you have to get out a dictionary and look up any French word starting with an H if you want to be absolutely sure.
The Two Hardest Sounds
Ever wanted to talk about locks or locksmiths in French? Hopefully not, but if your answer’s yes, you probably felt literal pain as you attempted to say “serrurier.” Why is the word so difficult? Well, it’s got two R sounds in it and the French “u” sound–neither of which exist in English. There’s no quick fix for mastering the French R, but imitating some native speakers on YouTube will definitely help you. Try out this video or this one. As for the “ou” versus “u” sound in French, you can start here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oaFM81EK8hU.