Babies are born imitators. They copy our movements, expressions, and mannerisms. Eventually, they copy our speech, each child effortlessly learning the sounds of her own native tongue.
It can be more difficult for older students learning the sounds of a new language.
English speakers in North America and around the world often have difficulty mastering new French sounds. While many sounds are the same in French and English, there are several sounds that are so different they can hardly be described in English!
Here is an overview of some of these difficult pronunciations, and some tricks that will help you to master them and be on your way to speaking French like a native francophone.
The French u sound is similar to the English oo in food. The difference is in the flavor! To imitate the French u sound, hold your tongue and teeth as if you are saying ee in teeth. Go ahead, say ee. Without repositioning your tongue and teeth, shape your lips to say oo in food. Voila! This is how to pronounce the distinctive u sound in French.
Just a note: You will need to move your mouth to speak French. French speakers move their mouths much more than English speakers when they talk. This is why people who speak French are such good kissers! All that exercise strengthens the muscles.
Nasal sounds are pretty much impossible to describe in words. They need to be heard and imitated. Here are some suggestions, though. These sounds, as indicated by the letters an, am, en, em, in, im, on, om, un, um, yn, and ym, really are nasal. You need to force some of the air up into the top of the back of your throat to properly pronounce them. You should be able to feel your nose vibrate if you are pronouncing these sounds correctly. Don’t worry if you feel silly at first. French people do this all the time!
The French r is distinctive, but there is also some room for variation. Having said that, here are some tips to help you get closer to the elusive French r. The fierce English r, with tongue curled firmly back to the top of the throat, is unique. Though the French r might seem harsh to English speakers, it is actually a much softer sound.
Make your English r sound. Feel the rattle in the back of your throat. Now pull your tongue forward in your mouth to touch the back of your bottom teeth. It might feel a bit like gargling at first, but the sound should come out as something like the throaty French r.
Don’t be discouraged if this is difficult for you! Not all of us are born imitators, and we often need some coaching to correctly reproduce new sounds.
As we speak our native languages, most of us never give a single thought as to where we place our tongues, our teeth, and our lips. When learning another language, though, we need to think about these things. Correct positioning will help you to master difficult French sounds.