French Pronunciation Part 1: Vowels

Tongue Twister

From my time studying Spanish, I realised that people usually had bad pronunciation for one of two reasons.  The first reason – the one that I couldn’t understand – was that some people just don’t care about pronunciation.  If the only reason you want to learn French is to be able to order a baguette and check in to your ho(s)tel, then I guess pronunciation isn’t really that important.  In most cases you probably don’t even need to speak any French to be able do this.  But if you actually want to have conversations with people, perhaps make an acquaintance or even a friend, then good pronunciation will make things easier for everyone.

The more common reason I found that people had bad pronunciation was that they actually wanted to sound like a foreigner.  This I can understand, because accents are sexy and people want to hold on to their identity.  It’s the same reason that Italian Australians are making pasta by hand whilst their cousins back in Italy buy it from the shops.1 The thing these people don’t realise, is that even if you try really hard, you’re probably not going to lose your accent.  Think about how many people you know who have learnt English as a second language, but sound like a native speaker.  The few people you might be able to think of have probably lived in an English speaking country for many a year.  Do not worry about losing your accent.  If you try to hold on to it in the beginning you’ll probably end up sounding like a simpleton.

Now, on to the lesson…

Pronunciation is one of the hardest parts of French, and vowels are where most of the difficulties exist.  But, the good news is that you don’t need to nail it to be understood.  You will also pick up most of it when you are learning your vocabulary if you use Memrise and say each word aloud when you learn it.  So read this, but don’t dwell on it. If you do really want to spend some extra time solely on pronunciation, focus on the vowels and check this out.

The following sentence is a pangram.  It uses every letter of the french language in one sentence:

Portez ce vieux whisky au juge blond qui fume.

Put this sentence into google translate and click the speaker symbol in the bottom right corner to see how it sounds.  Delete words so you can hear each word on it’s own, or put full stops between words to slow down the audio.  It’s not perfect pronunciation but it gives you a good idea.  Practice until you can say the whole sentence.  This gives you a good view of the pronunciation of the French language, but there are a lot of sounds missing.  What follows below are a few rules about the pronunciation of vowels.

  • e and eu sound like “eu”: le.
  • è, ê and ei sound like “eh”: tête.
  • é (at all times), and er and ez (when at the end of a word) sound like “ey”: été.
  • au, eau, and o all sound like “o”: chaud.
  • i, î, and ï all sound like “ee”: lit.
  • oi sounds like “wa”: boire.
  • Vowels followed by M or N have a nasal sound, except when followed by another vowel: un and une, or plan and plane.

One sound that doesn’t quite exist in English is the U sound.  There is a very subtle difference between the U and the OU sound.  If you can’t get this difference it usually wont matter, but there are times when it will.  Notice the difference in pronunciation between beaucoup which means many and beau cul which means beautiful arse.  It is the same difference in pronunciation between au dessous de which means below and au dessus de which mean above.

I had a lot of trouble differentiating between the U and the OU sounds when I first learned them.  Whenever you speak to a native french speaker, get them to check your pronunciation.  If you can’t get it, it helps to ask them to demonstrate how it’s supposed to be pronounced, then to demonstrate how you have been pronouncing it.  It helped me to first learn how to pronounce rouge, then use the same sound with other words.

As I said earlier, don’t dwell on pronunciation.  It is boring and unfulfilling.  As long as you care about your pronunciation and try to pronounce each word as best you can, you will improve with time.

BONUS:
I showed this to a native French speaker and the first thing they did when they heard Google Translate speaking was type this in:

Sale pute suce ma grosse bite.

Notes:
1: I can’t back this up with facts.

Learn French in 30 days

I am going to try to become conversationally fluent in French in 1 month.  Is it possible?  Yes, definitely.  People have done it in far less time than that.  But is it possible for me…

I do have a few things on my side;

  • I’ve got the time that is required;
  • I’ve learned some spanish before (the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn new ones);
  • I already know some very basic French; and
  • I have a French girlfriend who can help me.  

On the other hand I have a terrible memory (just ask my friends), and this time I want to learn more French in 1 month than all the Spanish I learned in 4 semesters at university.

Luckily you don’t need to know that many words to become fluent in a language.  The below example is for Russian, but the numbers are similar for most languages.

the 75 most common words make up 40% of occurrences
the 200 most common words make up 50% of occurrences
the 524 most common words make up 60% of occurrences
the 1257 most common words make up 70% of occurrences
the 2925 most common words make up 80% of occurrences
the 7444 most common words make up 90% of occurrences
the 13374 most common words make up 95% of occurrences
the 25508 most common words make up 99% of occurrences

Luckily French and English have similar roots, so I already know around 1700 words.  I’m not going to bother actively trying to learning these as I should be able to guess them when I need them.

So how many words do you need to learn to become proficient?  If you know the most common 3000 words of most languages, you will be able to read the popular newspapers.  To have a conversation you only need to know about 1200.  That is why my mission is to learn 1200 words in 30 days – 40 words a day.  The best way to do that that I’ve found is with a website called Memrise.  The website was created by Ed Cooke (A Grand Master of Memory) and Greg Detre (Princeton neuroscientist specializing in the science of memory and forgetting).  These guys know a thing or two about memory, and they have incorporated these things into the website.  That should take care of the vocabulary.

As for the grammar, it’s not necessary to learn all of it.  To make things easier I will start with learning just the present tense “I” and informal “you” conjugations.  I will do this for the 3 types of regular verbs and the 24 or so most common irregular verbs.  Once I’ve learned this,  I should be able to use almost any verb in the present tense as long as I know the infinitive.

For the past and future tenses I will use the help of auxiliary verbs.  These verbs – such as to be, to want, to have (done something), to go, to be able, etc – allow me to use other verbs without conjugating.  The exception is “to have”, which will require me to learn one more conjugation for each of the regular verbs and a handful of irregulars.  But, learning this will allow me to use almost any verb in the past tense.

To learn the sentence structure of the language I am going to use the help of Tim Ferriss.  In his book 4 Hour Chef (which I highly recommend to everyone), he gives a few sentences that when translated and analysed, can show the basic structure of the language.  Tim gives the full set in his book, but here are some that I pulled from learn-spanish-smart.com:

  1. The apple is red. La manzana es roja.
  2. It is John’s apple. Es la manzana de Juan.
  3. I give John the apple. Le doy la manzana a Juan.
  4. We give him the apple. Le damos la manzana a él.
  5. He gives it to John. El se la da a Juan.
  6. She gives it to him. Ella se la da a él.

Once I understand the function and the order of each word in those sentences, I should be able to construct my own sentences.

Phew… That was a mouthful.  Only time will tell if this is going to work or not.