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Why is she putting french fries on my tray?
I try ordering again.
She comes back with a larger portion.
What did I miss?
I asked for a bottle of water and she’s convinced I want french fries?!
The Problem with my French Pronunciation
It’s March 2014 and I’ve been studying French twice a week for less than four months. My friend Asma (also in my French class) and I decide to put our new skills to the test and head to Bordeaux for the weekend.
Asma is less confident with her French so she leaves all the talking up to me. Nervous but excited, I jump at every opportunity to converse in French.
Day one went something like this:
Je voudrais cette baguette, s’il vous plaît. (I would like this baguette, please)
Success! The lady at the bakery understands and hands me my baguette. My confidence levels shoot up. I know exactly how to construct my question and my pronunciation seems to be bang on.
Later on, things get a little trickier. Asma spots a cute pink butterfly-shaped doormat in the window of a home decor store. When we go inside for a closer look we realise it’s damaged, Asma asks me to find out if they have another one.
As I locate the assistant, I think to myself, how am I going to explain this one?
In basic French and I manage to ask:
Il y una papillon par terre, est-ce qu’il y a un autre?
To French ears I’m saying, “there is a butterfly on the floor, is there another one?”.
At this point I’m expecting the assistant to burst out laughing instead, she looks at me, puzzled. But as soon as I repeat papillon par terre (butterfly on the floor), she grins and knows exactly what I’m referring “ah oui! le tapis?” (ah yes! the rug?)
Word of the day: tapis, ‘rug’. I won’t forget that word in hurry.
At this point, I’m feeling even more confident. Even with my limited vocabulary, I’m still being correctly understood.
In my head, my French pronunciation is infallible. All I need to do is focus more on learning vocabulary.
Day two. Sunday. It’s our last day and the shops close much earlier than we expect. I’m thirsty, and we haven’t eaten yet. The only place open now is McDonald’s, or as the French call it “MacDoh”.
“It’s France, I can’t go to McDonald’s!”
My internal struggle doesn’t last long when I realise we have no other choice.
Overwhelmed by the massive specials board, I slide up to the counter and order a bottle of water, une bouteille d’eau, s’il vous plaît”. Which sounds something like oon boo-tay-yeh doh, seel voo pleh.
I repeat my order three times, only to be met with various sized portions of French Fries. It seems like she understands me yet something is definitely amiss. Is it my accent? What could she possibly think I’m saying?
Do me a favour and repeat this aloud oon boo-tay-yeh doh. What does it sound like?
Apparently, it should sound like this:
In a thick French accent, the server responds in English. “Oh, I thought you were asking for a ‘potato’ not une bouteille d’eau”.😆
Wow! I wasn’t expecting that.
Pronunciation lesson 101, annunciate! I must’ve said une bouteille d’eau so fast that she thought I was speaking English!
This brief encounter made me realise how important pronunciation is and how it can influence you being correctly understood.
After this brief encounter, I started to consciously annunciate when I spoke. Not only that, but I started to pay more attention in differentiating the sounds between all those crazy French-accented vowels.
At least I’m not the only one have troubles with pronunciation.
Nailing your French pronunciation is hard enough without the additional stress of these so-called homophones.
Homophones are words that sound alike but have different meanings. In English, we have loads of them like “knew” and “new,” “their” and “they’re,” and “guerrilla” and “gorilla.”
Somehow, I managed to create a new homophone mixing two languages!
In French, there are plenty of homophones. For example:
au – means ‘at the’ or ‘to the’ is the contraction of à and le (masculine singular indefinite article)
aux – means ‘at the’ or ‘to the’ is the contraction of à and les (plural indefinite article)
eau – means ‘water’
While these three words are pronounced the same, only one of these homophones will make sense when you ask for une bouteille d’eau.
We have the same problem with the following words which have same pronunciation yet have different spelling and meaning.
Moi and mois – ‘me’ and ‘month’
Soi and soie – ‘self’ and ‘silk’
Pois and poids – ‘peas’ and ‘weight’
une amande — an almond
une amende — a fine
It can be difficult telling these apart when spoken since they’re both feminine. It’s much easier seeing them written down thanks to the vowel differences.
Just be careful you don’t say, J’ai reçu une amande pour avoir conduit trop vite (I received an almond for driving too fast). Even as I write this Google Docs knows I’ve used the wrong word.
The Case of Confusing Minimals Pairs
Another one which always trips me up is, dessus and dessous. Because there is one phonological element which is different, this called a ‘minimal pair’.
Dessus means on or on top of whilst the opposite is dessous meaning under, beneath, or below
There is very little distinction in the pronunciation between these words, you just have to listen really carefully.
Listen to the subtle differences between
How to Improve your French accent and pronunciation
So, how do we avoid embarrassing situations like this?
My top tip for avoiding confusing homophones is to pay attention to the context of the phrase. Eventually, you’ll be able to notice the difference in the pronunciation of these words if you practice and listen enough to the language.
An excellent method in practising your French and overcoming the problem of comprehension and vocabulary is to take Babbel pronunciation and sound twins courses.
If you’re not familiar with Babbel, it’s is a subscription based web and mobile app that you can use to learn up to fourteen different languages.
For me, it’s pronunciation. So it’s awesome to see that they have a dedicated course to pronouncing the accented vowels like e, é, è, ê and ë.
Even homophones are covered! Babbel has an excellent series of audio-comparative exercises where you can both see and hear the words in context. And to make sure you’ve nailed the pronunciation, just turn on the speech recognition feature.
Whether you want to focus on improving your writing or brush up on travel vocabulary, Babbel has a course for it no matter whichever you level you’re at.
It’s also reassuring to know that all courses are designed by professional linguists who adapt lessons to your native tongue.
If you’re serious about learning languages, I recommend giving Babbel a try. They offer a free demo course so you can sign up today and see for yourself. As a reader of my blog, Babbel will give you an additional 6 months FREE when you sign up for 6 months. Limited time only! Visit Babbel’s website for more details.
Have a play around with their user-friendly interface and browse through their extensive collection of courses, each designed to help you nail your French (and 13 other languages).
My personal favourite is their idioms courses, but that’s just mon grain de sel (my two cents worth.)
Many thanks to Babbel for providing me with a complimentary account. They did not request a favourable review, and all opinions here are, as always, my own.
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Over to you!
Are you learning French? What do you find the most difficult?
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