The other day a student of mine had a problem with the pronunciation in French of the word surplus. He attempted to pronounce it like the English equivalent. This is totally wrong. Here are examples of the pronunciation in American English and in European French.
As you can hear, the “u”, the “r” and the final “s” are totally different. Notice how in English the tonic accent falls on the first syllable whereas in French the last syllable is accented.
In fact, the pronunciation of surplus is part of the larger topic of the pronunciation of the word plus in French.
This little incident got me thinking about the many examples in French of words that are spelled nearly identically in English but have different pronunciations.
Be wary of cognates or false friends
Because of a long history of close contact, French and English share many words. The spellings are either identical or quite similar. For example the United Nations is les Nations Unies. These words that have the same ancestry in both languages are called cognates.
There are also recent borrowings like” software”, “hamburger”, “people” from English to French. In France, these tend to be pronounced like French words whereas in Quebec recent borrowings may be pronounced as in English.
All this works in our favour, generally speaking, because we can get an idea of the meaning of a word in French because of a resemblance with English. So, in a sense, you could say that you already “know” thousands of words in French because they are somewhat the same in English. Words like “automobile”, “parking”, “bus”, “agenda”, “train”, “menu” are identical in both languages.
This resemblance in both languages does have some major drawbacks, however. First of all, the uses or meanings of these words can be quite different despite the identical or related form. An example is the word “agenda” which in French refers to a daily diary or datebook while in English it can refer to items to be discussed in a meeting. This last meaning in French would be “l’ordre du jour.”
The other thing to be concerned about is the pronunciation of cognates or false friends. Regardless of their resemblance wth English words, the words must be pronounced according to the rules of French.
You must pay special attention to these words. They are dead giveaways. Anytime you see something that looks like an English word, make sure you pronounce it properly. Something as simple as “menu” sounds different in French.
Two classic cognate pronunciation mistakes: budget and suggestion
These two words are among the most commonly mispronounced words by English speakers in French. Despite the identical spellings, these words sound very differently in both languages. In both cases pay particular attention to placement of the tonic accent.
In the French budget, for example, the vowels are different and, more importantly, the “d” and “g” are articulated separately. And the final “t” is not pronounced.
When you have that right, then you are ready for un surplus budgétaire.
In the French suggestion, the u is very different; the “gg” is made up of two different sounds and the “tion” has a sound that ends with the nasal “on.” The end result is a pronunciation quite different in French.
French speakers have the same problem in English
Just as English-speakers have problems with English-looking words in French, so do French-speakers with the same words in English. English for examples has many words where the spellings”ti” and “ci” have a sh sound, as in “nation” and “commercial.” French has the straight s sound, Not surprisingly, French-speakers tend to want to say “nassyon” and “commerssial” in English.
Conclusion: Watch out for the cognates!
Any time that you see a word that is identical in French and English, make sure that you are pronouncing it in French. This is actually easier said than done because we are so used to reading these words in our native language.
Keep all this in mind to avoid sounding like an English-speaking foreigner in French.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician and language coach in French, English and Spanish. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Essential French Wall Chart Calendar. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.