10 French Pronunciation Difficulties for English Speakers

December 4, 2021 by Mylene in Pronunciation Lessons  ▪  

french vs. english pronunciation

Each language has its own melody. Speaking French means mastering the sounds of the language but not only. It’s also important to master the melody of the French language. When learning a language, we naturally tend to relate the sounds and sentence structures to our own native language. This is why French learners, depending on their mother tongue, experience different challenges and difficulties when learning French pronunciation. Below, I’ll share the list of the main French pronunciation difficulties for English speakers when learning French pronunciation. That being said, here are 10 pronunciation difficulties I have based on my own teaching experience with French learners.

You’ll find these pronunciation difficulties down in order of importance:

  1. syllabic rhythm
  2. the vowels
  3. the emphasis
  4. the liaisons
  5. the enchainements
  6. the vowels u / ou
  7. the vowels é / è
  8. nasal vowels
  9. the sound /r/
  10. voiceless consonants

1. Syllabic rhythm

In French, we pronounce syllables and not words. Each syllable must be pronounced with the same duration.

Example:

  1. com-
  2. por-
  3. te-
  4. ment.

2. French vowels

The syllable ends with a vowel

80% of syllables end with a vowel in French. Here, I’m referring to phonetic vowels.

Example:

  1. om
  2. o
  3. e
  4. en

Within this word:

  • 3 syllables end with a pronounced vowel: com, te, ment
  • a single syllable ends with a pronounced consonant: por

Why is French pronunciation different from English?

To better understand the pronunciation, you need to change the way you usually pronounce words. The syllable ends with a vowel in French whereas an English speaker tends to pronounce a consonant at the end of a syllable.

je commence: there are 3 syllables: je-co-mmence

In this case, the rhythm of the word changes and the pronunciation of the vowel “o” will also change.

Listen carefully:

You should not anticipate the consonant in French.

How do you pronounce French vowels?

The syllable is clear and short in French. In English, the syllable is longer and can be stressed. You should not pronounce two sounds in French but only one sound. You must avoid the diphthong at the end of the word. The diphthong is a type of vowel whose timbre changes when the sound is pronounced. In French, there is no variation of the pronounced sound.

Example:

To pronounce a diphthong in French, there must be a semi-vowel. You can find out more about the presence of semi-vowels in this article.

3. Emphasis

Where are French words stressed?

The accent is not fixed in French. The emphasis is on the last syllable of a group of words. There is not an actual accent in the words but in groups of words.

Example:

There are 3 groups of words in this sentence:

  • il y avait des moineaux
  • et des étourneaux
  • dans le jardin

The emphasis is on the last syllable of each word group:

  • il y avait des moineaux
  • et des étourneaux
  • dans le jardin

4. The liaisons

To pronounce syllables and not words there are some tips that you should take into account for better French pronunciation. One of those tips is “liaisons“. Liaisons are used to link words together. Please note that the liaison takes place within a rhythmic group. You cannot pronounce liaisons between two different groups.
Example:

5. The enchainements

Just like the liaisons, the enchainement will make it possible to link the words between them. The enchainement is a natural phenomenon, there are no rules to learn.
Example:

6. The vowels u/oU

Some sounds do not exist in English, such as the vowel u (sound /y/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet). English speakers learning French must therefore learn to pronounce this vowel.

Here are some tips to show you how to pronounce this sound:

  • Concentrate on the position of the tongue. The tongue touches the teeth to make this sound.
  • Pronounce a single sound and not a diphthong. The vowel u must be sharp and short.
  • Pronounce a closed sound. The mouth should be slightly open.

7. The vowels é and è

In French, there are pairs of vowels called “open” and “closed”.

  • Open vowel: the mouth is more open, the sound is higher
  • Closed vowel: the mouth is more closed, the sound is lower

English speakers usually tend to pronounce an open é at the end of the group.

Example :

8. Nasal vowels

If your mother tongue is English, you must pay attention to the following two points to be able to pronounce nasal vowels correctly:

  • point 1: pronounce a vowel orally. You must not pronounce the consonant n.
  • point 2: know when to pronounce a nasal vowel.

Example :

  • immenseimportant : in the first word im is not a nasal vowel; in the second word im is a nasal vowel.

9. The /r/ sound

The sound /r/ is the most common consonant in the French language. This sound is different from the sound produced in English.
There are three different pronunciations depending on the position of the letter r in the syllable:

  1. after a consonant at the start of a syllable: the sound produced is loud (example: trop)
  2. at the beginning of the syllable: the sound produced is medium (example: tarot)
  3. at the end of a syllable: the sound produced is very soft (example: tort)

10. Voiceless consonants

The consonants at the beginning of a word are aspirated in English, which is not the case in French. In French, speakers must completely relax the consonants at the end of a word.

Example: soupe, the consonant p is very sweet.

A visual guide to summarize the differences

A visual illustration to summarize the main difference between French vs. English Pronunciation.

10 difficulties french vs english pronunciation infographic

Keep improving your pronunciation

Learning the pronunciation on your own is very complicated. You need someone to point you out and explain where your mistakes lie. To go beyond these English and French differences, I propose to accompany you in your learning. Book a study session to receive personalized advice.

Suggested Reading

The Rhythm of the French Language + Video + Exercises

learn the french rhythm

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