How are accents formed?
The reason people have different accents is down to how our mouth makes different sounds. From birth we hear different phonemes (the smallest unit of sound like t, d, p…) being used around us and our brains begin to hardwire to those sounds. It then becomes harder and harder for us to adjust our accent.
With practice – listening and repeating over and over again – it is, however, possible to improve your accent in a new language.
Below is a link to a well laid out article with sound-bites that I found after reading through many overly complex articles about the International Phonetic Alphabet for French. Basically if you can master all of these sounds you will have a pretty good accent! Give it a try… go on, no-one is listening. Unless you are on the bus. Then they are and you’ll look mildly deranged.
Sound bites for the French International Phonetic Alphabet!
5 French phonetics you should focus on
You will notice that many of the sounds are not too hard for anglophones (b, d, f…) but I would draw your attention to a couple of tricky phonetics which are harder for native English speakers and require practice:
/u/ —- couper (to cut or chop), choux (cabbage), où (where). Anglophones would tend to say ‘oo’ as in ‘loop’ (especially Scots!) but in French this is a more rounded sound made with the middle or back of the mouth. I get the families in my sessions to practice being gorillas! ‘OU OU OU’! Listen to the sound bite in the above article again and again and you will get there!
/ʁ/ —- rue (road), rouge (red). The rolling R….rrrrhhh. Closer to ‘loch‘ than ‘racket’. So maybe a phonetic Scots might master?
The two above French sounds combined make two awful words for us Brits… roue (wheel) and the city of Rouen! Practice these and you are good to go 🙂
This is one of the reasons we sing ‘Les Roues Du Bus’ (The Wheels on the Bus) at my Mini French sessions! “Les roues du bus tournent, et, tournent toute la journée!!” Learning to perfect our accents through singing.
Here are another three phonetics to focus on. Three vowels that do not exist in English:
/y/ —- tu (you), vu (saw), une (one: feminine indefinite article)
/ø/ —- le (the: masculine definite article), bleu (blue), œufs (eggs)
/œ/ —- veulent ([they] want, seul (alone), danseur (danser)
So for these three vowels just listen to as many words with these sounds as you can and practice, practice, practice.
Say it with me, “un bon vin blanc”!
Oral & Nasal Vowels
French vowels can be classified as either oral or nasal. Ok… so if a vowel is ‘a speech sound produced by humans when the breath flows out through the mouth without being blocked by the teeth, tongue, or lips’ – Cambridge English Dictionary – (if the air was to be blocked you’d end up with a consonant) then a nasal vowel is one where the air flows out through the nose as well as the mouth. Not really a sound we make in English. Unless we are really bored. (I hope you are not making a nasal vowel sound while you read this…)
The 4 nasal vowels
As they point out in LanguageGuide.Org “Normally when a vowel or vowel combination is followed by the letters m or n, that vowel is nasalised. When this is the case the letters m or n are not pronounced.
/ɛ̃/ – vin (wine bet you knew that one), pain (bread), vingt (twenty)
/œ̃/ – parfum (perfume), chacun (each one)
/õ/ – long (long), ombre (shade), on (3rd person pronoun used as ‘we’)
/ɑ̃/ – enfant (child), France, dans (in)
Practice sound-bites from LanguageGuide.Org
There is no way to make phonetics a massively interesting topic BUT you do need to master the tricky ones to improve your accent. Get listening to these resources or stop any French people you hear in the street and ask them to say “un bon vin blanc” or “un chien brun dans le bain” 10 times. I am sure they will be fine with that 🙂
Coming Soon! A set of phonics activities and printables for kids to hone their French accent…make sure you are signed up to the Mini French Community for a notification when it is ready.
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