Even though French is a softer language, you still need to enunciate and have proper diction. It’s important as language learners to not fall into the trap of thinking that speaking with a French accent means slurring your speech to soften what you’re saying.
The following virelangues (tongue-twisters), aside from being fun to muddle through, will help you pick up little tricks to getting the accent down and leaving common American-English speech-patters behind.
French vowels are all very distinct, but tend to meld into one another for non-native speakers. As the most characteristic aspect of sounding French and acquiring a proper accent, focusing on the vowels first-and-foremost will give you the biggest payoff. The following four tongue-twisters showcase different vowel pairs (that is, vowels that are produced similarly as in ‘ay,’ ‘ee,’ and ‘eh’) and force you to produce them accurately and quickly!
It’s also important to note that French vowels do not change in pronunciation based on what sounds/consonants come before and after them like in English. Whereas ‘Canada’ is prounounced “cAnUHdUH” in America, the French ‘ah’ vowel stays true to itself no matter its placement: “cAHnAHdAH”.
Sans souci six sangsues suçant au sang six cents sots.
Si six cents scies scient six cent saucisses, six cent six scies scieront six cent six saucissons.
As-tu vu le ver vert allant vers le verre en verre vert ?
Un chasseur sachant chasser sait chasser sans son chien.
Nasal vowels don’t exist in English and so can be extra challenging for native English-speakers working on perfecting their French accent. As a general rule, any vowel followed by the letter ‘m’ or ‘n’ is made nasal by the presence of said ‘m’ or ‘n’. In turn, the ‘m’ or ‘n’ is not actually pronounced, but simply acts on the preceding vowel to make it nasal. Any consonants immediately following the ‘m’ or ‘n’ tend not to be pronounced either as they act as a unit (ie vingt).
Note that ‘i’ and ‘u’ are pronounced the same when nasalized as are ‘e’ and ‘a’: “en” and “ans” sound exactly the same, for example.
Vincent vint sans vin et Vivien vint sans ses cent vingt vins.
Vingt beau blonds boivent vingt bons vins blancs sur un banc blanc.
Si mon tonton tond ton tonton, ton tonton sera tondu.
Once you have mastered producing accurate French vowels and nasals, the last step is adjusting the way your constants are produced. While it may seem like a ‘t’ is a ‘t,’ English and French do, in fact, have nuanced differences in the ways their speakers produce these sounds.
We tend to be pretty heavy-handed with our constants in American English and use more of our tongue while producing these sounds. Many of our consonants are also aspirated, meaning we push extra air through our mouth when we speak.
All French consonants are non-aspirated and use the very tip of the tongue in production. Practice lightly tapping your tongue against the back of your front teeth for all of the following consonants: ‘l,’ ‘t,’ ‘d,’ and even ‘s’. Doing this will make articulation much easier and even help to speak faster!
Les chaussettes de l‘archiduchesse sont-elles sèches, archi-sèches ?
Trois tortues trottaient sur un trottoir très étroit.
Cinq chiens chassent six chats.