The French language is rhythmic, mellifluous, a treat to the ear... if spoken correctly.
You, the beginner French learner, have yet to be assailed with anything that would hinder your progress at learning French words and phrases.
Speaking French words and phrases, on the other hand...
The fact is, French vocabulary is made up of sounds that simply don't exist in English, such as their U sound.
Turn about being fair play, English speakers excel at the TH sound, that doesn't exist in French, so we're even, right?
While both languages make ample use of the letter R, the French speak it as though they were getting ready to spit on you!
Considering their ill-founded reputation for rudeness, that is perhaps not a good visual.
Still, a poll of people studying French report that that guttural R is near impossible for them to master.
Should we count all of the words with those two letters in our survey of most mispronounced words?
To do so wouldn't be fair, as there are far more than ten of them, but we can discuss all of those words as categories of themselves.
Are you ready? Allons-y!
Mastering the French U
No doubt, in your very first French class, as a beginner, your French teacher drilled you on pronouns – most likely in conjunction with conjugation of the verb être:
Je suis, tu es, il est...
Let us stop you right there: already there is a pronunciation error.
It is quite common for beginners to misspeak the letter U as ou, similar in sound to 'who' in English. They get an E for Effort, but unfortunately, there is already an OU sound in French.
Pronouncing the single letter U as you would the letter combination OU would surely earn you puzzled looks.
The French pronoun You - tu should be uttered with lips rounded and pursed, left slightly open.
Do you remember making a fish face when you were a child? Whether you pinch your cheeks or not, you can still achieve the French U sound by making your fish face!
Your tongue lays flat on the floor of your mouth in making this sound, thus the pronoun tu is ideal to practice speaking the French U.
Here is a more expanded list of words for you to practice with:
- musique – only the first U, not the second one!
- but, bût
- du, dû
Surely you recognise the first three words on this list, right? That is because they come to us from French!
Try to resist speaking them in received pronunciation; the goal – le bût! - is for you to practice that particular letter's sound in French.
You did notice that two of the words on that list are the same, but for the accent, right?
Accents do not change the way that letter or word is spoken; it only changes the meaning of the word itself.
But = purpose; bût = goal
Du = some; dû = owed
Such distinctions are very important to your comprehension of written French!
Pronouncing the French R
In some French regional dialects, the more guttural the R, the more eloquent the speaker.
As in English: the more explosive the P, the better the diction!
Thus it should come as no surprise that some native French speakers sound as though they intend to clear their throat mid-word.
To properly pronounce the letter R in English, you must arch your tongue to the roof of your mouth, its sides touching your molars, and its tip pushed down below your lower front teeth.
The position of your tongue in saying the French R is nowhere near there. In fact, your tongue is not involved in making that sound at all!
Unlike in English, or even the Spanish R, which is frontal – using the front of your mouth and tongue, the French R is all in your throat.
The French R is quite similar to the Scottish ch sound, as in Loch.
It might help for you to take in a drop or two of water, but try not to swallow it. You will use it to help keep your throat closed to the proper position in order to make the sound correctly.
Once you've gotten that down, try to say these words, some of which you might recognise from your early French lessons:
As with every aspect of language learning, correct pronunciation takes time and practice. In the case of these two French letter sounds that don't exist in English, it might take a lot of practice!
How to Say Double L Words
This word set is actually rather tricky, because sometimes the two Ls make a ye sound, and sometimes, they just sound like the letter L.
For example: elle, balle, molle, mille, ville, tranquille.
How do you know when to say -le and when -ye is called for?
The general rule is: if the double L follows any vowel except I, it is pronounced as an L.
The other part of the rule, how the double L sounds after the letter I, is nowhere near so clear cut.
Surely you know how to say fille – fee-yeu? Why don't other words with similar spelling in French, such as mille and ville follow the rule?
Rather than search any dictionary for the answers to this question, you may need this handy tutorial.
You might also want to make flashcards with tips on how to pronounce them, using the international phonetic alphabet, if you are comfortable with it.
Other Common French Words Often Mispronounced
So far, we have effectively established that French pronunciation is not the easiest aspect of the francophone language to master.
As an intermediate speaker of French, or even if you are just now starting your French for beginners class, please rest assured: proper pronunciation will come with practice.
Don't let pronunciation of words deter you from learning the language of Molière!
Now, let us look at words that stump even advanced French speakers.
1. Rouen: with all of its vowels, pronouncing this French city's name confounds even native speakers!
Some liken it to the sound a goose makes; others say wroo-ain, wroin.
Properly said, it should sound like: rrr ooo ahn.
2. Bouilloire, the French word for kettle, is a similar tongue twister.
It is based on the verb to boil – bouiller, with -oire added: bou-y-oir-reuh. Try to say it yourself!
3. Pneu: this French word for tire is the root of what we know as an English word; pneumatic.
When you speak English, the P is silent, making it new-matic. When you speak French, you must pronounce that first letter, making it uniquely difficult to say it correctly.
You must be careful to not utter only one or the other starting consonant, lest you risk your sentence meaning little to nothing.
Peu means little and neu means nothing.
4. Froid: oddly enough, this basic French word meaning cold is often mistaken for foie, which means liver.
No doubt that pesky R has something to do with that common mistake; surely getting good at saying the French R will remedy that situation.
5. Grenouille, and other words ending in -ouille
Again it seems the collection of vowels all in one place is doing its best to stump those determined to learn French!
The French word for frog is not that hard once broken down into syllables: gre-nou-ille, in other words, grr-new-yeuh.
As for other -ouille words, perhaps that is why the French usually eat pâtes instead of noodles!
The first word is more directly translated as pasta; noodles in French is nouilles.
Now, for our prizewinning word that even a native speaker of French is sure to mispronounce...
6. Serrurerie, the French word for locksmith, boggles the mouths of nearly anyone who grew up speaking the English language. Why?
Not only does this terror of a word contain four of those guttural Rs but, smack in the middle of them, comes that confounded French U!
Could there be a more cruel word the French could throw at us?
Please don't decide to learn Japanese or learn Chinese simply because a few letters cause your mouth to work in ways it never has before!
Read our article to learn the ins and outs of French grammar.
Our Bit of Encouragement
The thing about French phrases you learn – from your every French lesson, even from dictionaries is that so many new words look like English words.
The important thing to remember is that spoken French involves a distinctly different accent; French pronunciation not the same as English pronunciation.
The best way to speak your second language with the maximum of fluency is to apply yourself to it as much as possible.
Listen to French audio: music, podcasts, movies; the BBC has a very helpful collection or French lessons that you can avail yourself to for free!
Otherwise, try something more structured with online French courses.
Learn how to speak those difficult letters and words: sounding them out is a good way to start, but practicing your fish face in front of the mirror might work too!
You may even sing the French alphabet as you drive to work; that will help you practice those difficult letters – there are plenty of French video on YouTube for you to sample.
French speaking is not terribly difficult.
How to learn it is up to you; you know your learning style best. However, we would urge you to practice, practice, and practice some more, until you can find French people to speak with.
Bet they don't give you any strange looks when they hear your speech patterns after all that work you've done!
Learn about the top 10 most common French grammatical errors made in spoken French.
Don't worry, search for and get yourself down to 'french lessons online' and you will improve your accent in no time!