As a French language learner, one of your top language goals is to sound fluent. Even if you don't know every single French word out there, your accent and how you speak can be the key to sounding fluent sooner than you may think possible.
Fluency isn't just about knowing words and grammar rules. How you sound when you speak is also an important part. This isn't just your accent, but how you choose to stress or unstress syllables and whether your voice goes up, down, or stays flat at certain parts of a sentence.
Proper French pronunciation is different from proper English, Spanish, or even Mandarin pronunciation, but part of being a French language learner involves focusing on it. It's all just apart of learning a foreign language!
Why Working on Your Accent is Important
Many language learners think that if they just know the words and grammar, then native speakers will understand them just fine. Who cares if you have an accent? Being able to speak and understand foreign words is important.
Unfortunately, this isn't really the case. Pronunciation, especially intonation, is a vital part of speaking a language. If you try to speak French using the same pronunciation rules and intonation as your native language, many French speakers will be almost as confused as if you hadn't spoken French at all. While they may understand bits of what you're trying to say, they may not get all of it.
5 Tips for Improving Your Accent
Having an accent in French isn't the end of the world, but you should try to mimic the proper pronunciation and intonation as closely as possible. This will help others understand you and improve your French language skills drastically.
#1. Use French Intonation
You've seen it mentioned here before, but intonation is vital if you want to make sure your French is clear and understandable. It may sound like a complicated concept, but it isn't.
Intonation is the rise and fall of your words. French, fortunately for language learners, is rather simple in this aspect. In English, intonation is much more complicated as changing the intonation can lead to entirely different words. Take a look at the word "record". When the second syllable is spoken with a rising intonation (re↗cord), it's a verb meaning to set down in writing or register. When the second syllable is spoken with a falling intonation (re↘cord), it's a noun meaning an account in writing.
French learners will be happy to know that French is a much, much easier language in this regard. French is generally spoken with a flat, unstressed pattern. There are a few exceptions, especially when it comes to questions, but in general, French is spoken evenly and without any distinct intontation like in English or even Spanish.
#2. Don’t Be Afraid of Repetition
As a language learner, you're no stranger to repetition. It's the best way to practice your chosen language, particularly if you don't live in a country where your target language is spoken. However, some language learners don't enjoy repetition work and do everything they can to avoid it.
While this is totally understandable, repetition really is the key to perfecting your accent. Find an audiobook in French and repeat after the speaker. If you can buy the book as well, follow along and try to read along with the audiobook.
Another good repetition exercise is to find music in French and try to sing along. Disney songs are a great way to do this as you probably already know the melody, so you'll only need to focus on pronunciation. You can also find a podcast in French and pick a few phrases every now and then to repeat.
#3. Use Online Resources
In today's modern age, French language learners have no excuse to not work on their accent! There are so many online resources available that will expose you to the language and how to improve your accent. Just do a quick Google search and you'll see there are so many options available.
Getting your news in French, listening to music, and watching movies are all good ideas, but that's not where the possibilities end. After all, to perfect your pronunciation, you'll need to actually speak the language with someone.
While you should be careful online, finding an online French language exchange is a great opportunity. There are forums and even online clubs that host monthly Zoom meetings where language learners can meet online and practice speaking in their target language together.
I found an online penpal in high school and when I finally had the opportunity to go to France, it was so much fun to meet up with her and practice my French in person. Before then, though, we would often send voice messages over Instagram and send post cards. It was a good way to practice both my written and spoken French, but it's important that you're careful and never share personal information. Even if you're sure the person on the other end is real, it's still better to be safe than sorry.
#4. Learn to Recognize Common Mistakes
No matter what language you speak natively, there are some common pronunciation mistakes that seems to occur in most French language learners. Learning to recognize these mistakes, however, will help you be able to avoid them and improve your French.
The French R and the French U are two of the most troublesome letters for foreigners, so spend a little extra time on them. This will help you feel more confident when speaking and drastically improve your pronunciation of words that use these letters.
Nasal vowels can also be difficult, especially for language learners who don't have nasal sounds in their native language. Fortunately, nasal vowels are easy to master with a bit of work.
The French H often causes confusion as well since it may be pronounced one of two ways in any given word. It's always silent, but sometimes it acts as a consonant and isn't linked or contracted while other times it acts as a vowel. While memorization is really your best and only bet here, the good news is that you shouldn't encounter too many words that begin with H and after you learn the most common ones, you don't need to worry.
French rhythm is another thing to keep an eye on and practice. This, you can do in your own home and with words you already know, though, so don't stress. French rhythm is very even, meaning that each syllable should be pronounced with the same stress level and the same volume. This ties back to intonation and is something that every French learner should focus on.
#5. Be Okay With Mistakes
No matter how much you practice or how hard you try to avoid making a mistake, the truth of the matter is that you will mess up. Even professional translators make mistakes! The important thing to remember is that you're learning and as you learn, you're going to mess up. You'll need to be okay with that.
Fortunately, learning French doesn't have to be scary. Many French people are more than eager to help you out with pronunciation or practice talking with you. They may even ask if they can practice their English (or another language, if you speak a third one) with you. It's all part of the language learning process.
Be Brave! Ayez Courage!
Learning a language is all about putting yourself out there. You'll find that it takes work, but it's also fun and opens a lot of new doors. Practicing your pronunciation is all part of learning French and so long as you're willing to step out of your comfort zone, put in some effort, and laugh at your mistakes, learning French won't be all that scary after all.