Different languages have different melodies. To speak French efficiently you need to understand the melody of the French language. Melody is a very special kind of “glue” which holds the sounds together. Attempting to arrange the sounds with the wrong “glue” will result in structures of the wrong kind which will be unintelligible.
Let’s imagine a communication between a native speaker and a French learner. The words, the grammar, the individual vowel and consonant sounds produced are all of acceptable quality, but the French speaker doesn’t understand what the French learner is saying. The problem is that the French learner’s speech is mostly unintelligible. He/She doesn’t use the melody and the patterns of the French language.
Each French speaker might interpret a sentence differently but there are some basic rules for different types of sentences. To help you gain mastery with the French intonation, we’re going to address the following points:
- What is intonation?
- The main purposes of intonation
- Intonation: four main levels
- Declarative statements
- Yes-no questions
- Information questions
- Imperative sentences
- How to learn the French intonation?
You’ll also find a list of audios to play with different intonation examples. If you’d like to know more about other topics related to pronunciation in French you can connect with me on YouTube or Instagram.
What is intonation?
Intonation is produced essentially by vocal cord vibrations. It can be defined as the “melody” of language. Intonation means the pitch or tone of the speech. In French, each syllable has generally one tone.
One phonetic sound can have different sounds. For example, all /y/ sounds are not articulated in the same way within a word:
- phonetic environments
So even if you can pronounce a sound individually it doesn’t mean you can pronounce the same sound within a sentence. You need the proper intonation to be understood.
The main purposes of intonation
Processing sound is one of the most complex jobs that we ask our brain to do as explained by neurobiologists. Regardless of the language, many studies show just how much importance the human brain assigns to hearing.
Here are the four essential purposes of intonation:
The four main levels of intonation
Intonation levels can be used in many situations to show interest, express feelings, ask questions, or reveal attitude. There are essentially four different levels of intonation when communicating in French:
- Extra high: e.g. end of a question.
- High: e.g exclamation.
- Medium: e.g starting point of a statement.
- Low: e.g end of a declarative sentence.
As in a song, the voice hardly ever stops on a syllable. It slides throughout the four levels, more or less quickly, in imperceptible degrees.
For example the sentence “il part demain” can be pronounced with three different intonations:
Intonation in French with declarative statements
French words coded with intonations and gestures can turn sentences into different meanings. Let’s start with sentences that neither ask a question nor express a command.
These statements consist of a series of rises in pitch, all of which attain approximately the same level. It is the last syllable that represents the peak.
- Rises in pitch occur at fruitier, trouve and pommes.
- The voice drops at the end to show that the sentence is finished (“range“).
When we speak quickly the rhythmic group and the intonation change. Let’s see the same example when we pronounce the sentence quickly.
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“Yes/no” questions in French
Questions which require an answer consisting of either “yes” or “no”.
Yes/no question may be formed in different ways:
yes/no questions: informal
Yes/no question are signaled by a sharp rise on the final syllable (“guette“). The declarative statement remains otherwise unchanged.
Listen to the difference:
Questions starting with “Est-ce que”
The intonation is higher at the beginning “est-ce que”, the rest of the statement remaining unchanged.
The subject pronoun and the verb are inverted. (Formal)
The intonation is low at the beginning (“as”) and high at the end of the question (“guette”). The listener knows we’re going to ask a question because the verb comes first.
Intonation and information questions in French
These questions require an answer other than “yes” or “no”. These are called “information” questions.
Information questions begin with a high pitch on the question word (où, pourquoi, comment, etc.) and then gradually fall.
More than one rhythmic group
There is a high intonation at the beginning and at the end of the question. Each rhythmic group starts on a higher pitch (ex. “acheté”, “une baguette”) than the end of the preceding one (“une” is higher than the beginning of “acheté”).
Intonation with imperative sentences in French
Imperative intonation is similar to exclamative intonation, that is, a sharp fall at the end.
One rythmic group
For imperative phrases, the highest tone is at the start of the rhythm group (ex. “ne”). It goes down quickly until the end.
More rhythmic group
In the next rhythm group, the initial pitch is a little lower than the initial of the previous group.
How to learn the French intonation?
It is much easier to learn elements that are relatively easy to define for example French vowel and consonant sounds. In many cases, learning the right intonation and rhythm seems to be an after-thought.
Taking private French lessons is a great way to address students’ “deafness” to the melody of a foreign language. You need to practice intensively the newly-learned articulatory patterns in order to develop a “feel” for them and to be able to produce these sounds in the long-term.
Thanks for reading!
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