Très Bon! Improve Your French With 6 Clever Tips and Tricks

Laura Mundow • June 28, 2013 • Language LearningComments (0)
© Ekaterina Pokrovsky - Fotolia.com

© Ekaterina Pokrovsky – Fotolia.com

1. Practice
Regular practice is paramount when you are trying to learn any language. The reason you are learning French may be to go to France and talk with native speakers. But, while traveling to France will undoubtedly enrich your ability to speak French, it’s not the only way to practice your accent. There are many activities you can participate in before you step on the plane to Paris: read French texts out loud, repeat words and sentences you hear in your audio course or on TV. Don’t be afraid to look silly! Talk to yourself in French when you are alone. Get your body involved; put yourself in front of a mirror, try to pronounce the /i/, /é/, /è/ and /a/, and see how the shape of your mouth changes, while the tip of your tongue stays against the lower teeth. To produce the more difficult French /u/, try to say /i/ with your lips rounded. If you want to practice the nasal sounds, pinch your nose – you should feel it vibrate. The French /r/, which is so different from the English /r/, comes from the back of your mouth, almost from your throat.

2. Keep it clean and pure
Unlike English, French vowels are pure, which means that your tongue should not move as much as when you speak English. Apart from the /r/, French consonants are quite easy to pronounce for English speakers, but they shouldn’t “explode” like the /p/, /t/ or /k/ at the beginning of an English word. They are released with less force. Similarly, in French, all syllables are evenly pronounced. Don’t stress syllables like you would do in English, and your pronunciation will greatly improve.

3. Listen to a lot of French
Practice alone does not make perfect. In order to pronounce better, you have to expose yourself to as much French as possible. Audio courses are a great start, and there are supplementary activities you can do as well to enhance the work you’ll be doing. With the Internet, it’s easy to listen to French radio and to watch French television. You can also watch DVDs in French with the French subtitles on, so that your mind makes the connection between the written words and the sounds. Not only is it good for your pronunciation, but it is also great for learning the vocabulary and the culture.

4. Be aware of the difficulties of French pronunciation
This is perhaps the most important tip of all. Like English, French has a very complicated history, and that history has affected its orthography. Therefore, most of the challenges a new speaker will face stem not from the sounds of French, which are not that difficult to master for English speakers anyway, but from its spelling system. English suffers from the same problems, such as silent letters, one sound being transcribed with many spellings, or one spelling being used for different sounds.
In both languages, there is no systematic relationship between a sound and a letter. This situation creates a great deal of ambiguity. For native speakers, it means that it is difficult to master the spelling system of their languages, whereas language learners struggle with the pronunciation.
The other challenge springs from the similarity between many English and French words. This is clearly good news for English speakers who want to learn French, especially for reading comprehension. The downside is that more often than not, similar words are not pronounced the same way at all in the two languages. Try to remember that words like appartement and apartment, or authorize and autorise might look alike, but they do not sound alike.

5. Learn the IPA
Learning the International Phonetic Alphabet might seem a daunting task at first. But this alphabet is an excellent tool for understanding and practicing French pronunciation. The IPA was invented in 1888 by the French linguist Paul Passy, who wanted to devise a system capable of transcribing the speech sounds of all the languages of the world. This alphabet is entirely phonetic, which means that each symbol represents a sound.
Once you have learned the symbols used to represent the 36 sounds of French, you will be able to pronounce any word written with the IPA. Good monolingual and learner’s dictionaries usually indicate the phonetic transcription of each word.

6. Relax!
Yes, French pronunciation is easier to master than French vocabulary and its dozens of thousands of words, but it is still difficult. It’s okay if your accent is not perfect, as long as people understand you. It takes a long time to be able to speak a foreign language with a perfect accent. Thus, you should focus on efficient communication rather than on perfection. After all, language learning should be fun, and not a source of anxiety.

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