French Accents


If French is your native language, you may be using the French “sound system” when you speak English.  The “mode” or starting position in French is different from English. English front vowels are longer and more tense than French vowels. Schwa exists in both French and English but is used differently in each; in English it affects stress. Using stress patterns and rhythms right is crucial in English.

You may not have learned much about this if you studied English as a foreign language. Often the sound of English is the last thing students learn; it would be a lot easier if it were the first! There are some pronunciation differences that don’t have great impact; and some may give you a charming accent; but others can interfere with your ability to communicate.

Schwa exists in both French and English but is used differently in each. Click To Tweet

You may get feedback that listeners can’t understand you, or you may often have to repeat yourself. You may find this upsetting; French speakers are very proud of their language and enjoy the way it sounds. Perhaps you’ve gotten feedback at work that your speaking style seems rather intense, ardent, pushy, or impassioned, even though you don’t mean to always project that personality. You may have heard that your sound is rolling, or wave-like, and hard to follow. These, and other problems, result from applying what you know and use successfully in French, to English, where it doesn’t work as well.  You are applying a set of French “sound rules” to English, which has its own sound rules.

Some common interference points between French and English:

  • Vowel differences, in particular the most forward vowels, make a big difference, so work on articulating those more carefully and with longer duration.
  • A few consonant differences epitomize the French accent, e.g. substituting [th] for /s/ /z/ and /f/.
  • French forms /r/ differently from English; fortunately  the French /r/ can be used as a stepping stone toward the English ones.
  • Stressed and unstressed syllables play a huge part in the rhythm of English words, and very little in French, even though the “schwa” was probably “invented” by the French, as were liaisons. We just use them for different purposes. French uses the schwa sound as a vowel in its own right, but in American English, schwa occurs most often as a substitution for unstressed syllables.
  • French intonation patterns tilt upward and occur at the end of sentences, while English intonation often starts higher and steps downward until it arrives at the end of the statement.

Together, we will diagnose your current pronunciation habits, define your goals, determine your skills and knowledge in target areas, and plan an approach that will guide your accent reduction practice, and lead you to a better sound in English.

Repeating yourself all the time in English? Contact me to talk about the possibility of customized online classes.

Peggy Tharpe teaches, coaches, and publishes about English pronunciation and intonation. She believes that if you understand why something is happening, you're better able to address it and change it. She teaches the "why" of pronunciation as well as the "what" and "how".