So you want to learn to speak French. The art of perfecting your French conversation skills (and your French accent) lies not just in figuring out how to speak French. It’s also essential to practice your listening skills. And if you want to be a good listener, you have to understand that there are a ton of different French accents.
The different regions of France all have their own unique accents that can complicate comprehension for any learner. Plus, many French speakers are not originally from France!
In this article, you’ll find out why the best way to learn French is to start with comprehension skills. You’ll also learn how to decipher the more difficult accents you'll hear in one of the regions of France.
Better Listening Makes for Better Speaking
The four parts of language learning—speaking, listening, reading, and writing—are all connected. Studies have shown that when you practice one part, you are also improving the other parts.
In other words, the best way to learn French and become a great speaker is to watch a French movie, download a podcast or listen to French music. All that listening practice will allow you to learn how to speak French better! And you can't have a great French accent if you don't spend time listening.
When you listen to someone speak, you hear more than just information. You also pick up on the pronunciation of words, intonation (the sing-song patterns of a language), vocabulary, and more. The more you listen, the more likely you are to memorize and naturally use these language conventions.
Understanding Different Accents
An accent is not just about the way we speak. It’s also about what we hear.
Being able to imitate a certain accent is so difficult because as we get older, it becomes more difficult for our brains to distinguish certain sounds.
However, it’s never too late to train our brains and our ears to pick up on the sounds in a language that are different from our own so that we can perfect our pronounciation. And there are always handy tips on how to sound like a native.
And yet, contrary to popular opinion, there really is not only one way to pronounce anything. We all have accents, even though it may be hard to notice our own.
Accents Heard in the Regions of France
It's no secret that the French love their language and always have. There's a reason the Académie Française tries to protect French words like a mother guards her kids.
And while Parisians may think that they have the best French accent and speak the most perfect French, there are actually a ton of different accents in France. If you want to know how to pronounce a word, then it really depends on where you are!
France is divided into 22 administrative regions, but many linguists consider that there are around 28 different regional accents!
The best way to learn French is to practice understanding the many ways people speak French throughout the country (and world!).
Here are some of the most distinctive French accents.
The Parisian accent is often considered "standard" French and is what you may hear the most often on television. This accent is influenced by the city: quick-paced, it is as if speakers are almost swallowing some of the sounds. You may hear "J'n'vais pas y aller" instead of "Je ne vais pas y aller."
This can be incredibly difficult for non-native speakers, especially when trying to hear a sentence negated. Listen closely for the "pas" to tell that the verb is in the negative!
In addition, one of the sounds commonly attributed to Parisians is a more open sound in words ending in -ais. Rather than pronouncing "jamais" like in this phrase as "jah-may," they say more of a "jah-meh."
If you want to hear the Parisian accent in action, check out one of the most quoted French movies of all time, Hôtel du Nord from 1938. In it, a Parisian actress exclaims repeatedly, "Atmosphère!", showcasing that famous Parisian open "è" sound.
The Southeast part of France is known for the charming Southern accent of Marseille and its provençal areas nearby. Their accent is characterized as sing-songy. This is, in part, due to the sunny, warm disposition that Southerners are stereotypically known to have. Compared with Parisians, Southern French people speak French at a slower rate, which can make it seem easy to understand.
Since the majority of French speakers on television are Parisian, the lack of exposure may make it more difficult to understand. The difficulty lies in the vowels. A Southern accent pronounces the usually nasal vowel sound for -ain as a nasal “é” sound. For example, if you listen to “à demain,” it may sound more like a nasal “à demay.” Thus the phrase "demain matin" may sound like "demay matay."
Sure, with nasal vowels sounding a bit different than what you learned, it may seem hard to understand someone from Marseille. But they also speak a lot more slowly, so with practice, it does get easier.
As charming as the Southern Marseillais accent may be, it can also be seen by fellow Frenchmen as hard to understand. One reporter had incredible difficulty getting hired as a news reporter because of her Southern accent.
Quebec is of course not a French region, but it's worth mentioning since the accent is so different.
Perhaps due to the strong English presence and its proximity to the U.S., Quebecois French can sound quite different from the French spoken in France. In fact, it can be downright difficult to have a French conversation with someone from Canada if you have little experience hearing the accent.
One main difference is in pronunciation. Quebecois French has many more vowel sounds than French spoken in France. The word "moi" may sound more like "mow-ay" for example.
It may seem funny to an English speaker, but French Canadians use a ton of English words mixed in with French. Whereas the French say "voiture" for car, French Canadians say "char." A friend is usually "copain," but in Quebec it's "chum" for men, and a girlfriend is a "blonde," even if they are brunette!
Since so many different African countries have French as an official language, there are many types of African accents in French. Of course, not all African speakers of French have any accent at all. PLus, there are a ton of people of African descent are French in that they have grown up there, and they may very well not speak with an accent at all. The type of accent can depend, too, on whether you are listening to a North African person from the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia) or a person from Sub-Saharan Africa.
If the person happens to have an accent, you may notice that the “r” can be rolled much like in Spanish. Like the Southern accent, certain parts of Africa have a more sing-songy intonation that you may hear in French. While the “h” in French is usually silent, some African speakers will in fact pronounce the “h" such as in the word "haut."
If you're talking to someone who speaks another common African language, don't be surprised to hear French intermixed with Wolof, Lingala, Bambara, etc. In Democratic Republic of Congo, you may hear, "merci mingi" for "merci beaucoup"!
French conversation practice is fun because it allows you to practice another language. It's important to practice with a variety of speakers so that you get to practice listening to many different accents.
So next time you want to know the best way to learn French, remember that to speak is also to understand.