22 Feb Most Common English Pronunciation Errors made by French Speakers
The Phonological Rules of French often Influence How French Speakers Pronounce English
Many French speakers of English struggle with English pronunciation because the mouth shapes used in French don’t always overlap with the mouth shapes used in English.
Some French speakers rely on French mouth shapes to articulate in English, leading to first-language interference.
French speakers of English may also transfer some of the intonation norms used in their mother tongue to their pronunciation of English.
Those who speak French as their native language may also find it challenging to adjust to different letter-to-phoneme associations when pronouncing English. Here are some common errors among French speakers of English.
1. Missing out /h/ sounds, which are usually audible in English
In the French language, the letter “h” exists in words like homme or hiver but it is silent. For this reason, native French speakers tend not to use the soft glottal fricative when they see “h” in English. As a result, words like “hand” and “and” may merge when French speakers pronounce English.
Practice forming the /h/ sound like an RP speaker: with your tongue in a natural resting position, breathe out audibly before transitioning into the next sound. Imagine that you are sighing or using your breath to steam up a mirror.
Remember to work slowly when practising pronunciation or reading aloud to focus on making that audible “sigh” during /h/ in English.
house, him, hero, hollow, holes, hiccup, hint
2. Struggling with the English “th” sounds
It is important to remember that the same spelling can represent a different phoneme in different languages. In French, the th in bibliothèque correlates to the phoneme /t/, which is realised as a dental plosive in French, while English words with “th” such as this or think are pronounced with the voiced /ð/ and voiceless /θ/ respectively in Received Pronunciation. As these two interdental speech sounds don’t exist in French, native French speakers might replace them with /z/ or /s/, resulting in zis or sink.
When pronouncing words with /ð/ and /θ/, make sure to touch the bottom of your upper teeth with the tip of your tongue while breathing air out. Or, when you’re practising, softly place the tip of the tongue between the teeth and hiss the air out softly.
moth, teeth, through, throw
For the voiced “th” sound, while touching your tongue tip on the bottom of your lower teeth, puff the air out softly and simultaneously hum the sound with your voice turned on.
this, that, these, them
3. Confusing the tense and lax vowels in English
The vowels of English are more numerous than the vowels of French. As a result, French speakers who aren’t sure how to position the mouth for the wide range of English vowels may use French vowels to pronounce English. European French has fewer lax vowels than English. Meaning that words with the lax vowel /ɪ/ may come out as /i/.
Chris /ɪ/, crease /iː/
Instead of thinking about these in terms of long and short vowels, try thinking about /ɪ/ as being articulated very similarly to the neutral schwa (with a low level of energy and muscle exertion) and /i/ as being the same as the European French /i/.
4. Challenges with diphthongs: English’s gliding vowel sounds
Native French speakers may struggle to adjust to unfamiliar gliding vowels (also known as diphthongs) in English. These are phonemes that consist of two different mouth positions spoken within a single syllable without a pause in between them.
Diphthongs can be found at the beginning (/aʊ/ in owl), in the middle (/əʊ/ in coat), or at the ends (/eɪ/ in play) of words in English.
French speakers may need to learn how to move from one shape to another with a significant amount of movement, especially for diphthongs such as /eɪ/ and /əʊ/, which may be influenced by the speech sounds of French.
/eɪ/ same, break
/əʊ/ known, spoken
Remember that diphthongs can be written either as pairs of vowel letters, such as ea or ai, or they can be written as a single vowel followed by the glides /y/ (toy) or /w/ (cow). Familiarising yourself with common spellings can help you recognise when a word contains a diphthong. Practice moving from one vowel mouth shape to another before pronouncing entire words.
5. Syllable weight
European French syllables typically carry a relatively even amount of weight. Names like Clara and Anna place some stress on the first syllable and a similar amount of stress on the second. However, in an English accent, these names place stress on the first syllable, and the second syllable would be articulated with a quieter, shorter, and less prominent vowel (schwa). Compare:
Clara, Anna (FR)
Clara, Anna (EN)
6. Lip rounding for the central vowels
French has a central vowel that is similar to English’s schwa vowel, which is articulated with the tongue in a neutral position within the mouth. However, the French central vowel is articulated with rounded lips. French speakers who want to sound more English can practise making the lips unrounded for this central vowel.
7. Differences in question intonation
English questions that begin with how or WH words like “what”, “where”, “when” are often articulated with falling intonation, whereas questions in French are typically articulated with rising intonation regardless of whether or not the question begins with a “pourquoi” or a “comment”. French speakers of English may wish to learn the rules of English intonation to adjust fully to life in the UK or when interacting with British people. This can help French speakers to avoid misunderstandings when speaking English.
What are you doing?
8. English’s irregular O Spellings can cause a lot of problems
French speakers often see the letter “o” in English and think that it must be pronounced with round lips every time. However, the letter “o” can be pronounced in seven different ways in British English, depending on the spelling, the word origin, and the stress pattern. One of the most confusing examples of this is when “o” is pronounced as /ʌ/ in English (as if the word were spelled with a “u”):
oven, love, done
9. Navigating the English /r/ sound
Many French speakers use the French uvular fricative to pronounce “r” in English but English native speakers pronounce /r/ by bunching the tongue up in the mouth without tongue contact on the roof of the mouth. We add tension to the tongue and the tip of the tongue reaches up towards the area in the mouth where the palate rises.
rubbish, running, area
10. Missing /s/ and /z/ at the ends of words
While grammar interference certainly plays a part in this error, French speakers are often unaccustomed to pronouncing /s/ or /z/ at the ends of words, so it’s worth practising /s/ and /z/ endings in connected speech if you are a French native speaker.
Matt’s brother’s dogs are all mongrels.
Sign up for a course with British Accent Academy to reduce native language interference from French or to work on any aspect of your pronunciation, intonation, and connected speech using a Modern Received Pronunciation model.