Centuries of interaction and mutual borrowing have led to English and French having many words in common. These cognates, as they are called technically, are both a blessing and a curse. For the beginning learner it’s great to see words that look familiar. Some people claim that speakers of English already ‘know’ thousands of words in French because they are the same or look similar to words in English. This, I believe, is very misleading. In fact, it often leads to disaster.
The problem, as I want to demonstrate, is that these very resemblances mask many important differences. Putting aside major questions of meaning and usage for further posts, I want to look particularly at proper French pronunciation.
The problem : pronouncing the French words like English
Something I see regularly in my French Accent and Fluency Workshops is that English-speaking learners tend to pronounce French words like their English cognates. In nearly all cases, this is totally wrong.
Examples of nouns with identical spellings in French and English
I’ve added the French article to emphasize the importance of always learning the gender of nouns : un garage, une table, une nation, un tennis, un budget, une suggestion, une influence, une ambulance, une automobile, une cuisine, une correspondance, une machine, un sofa, un restaurant, une route, etc. In every one of the above examples, there are major differences of pronunciation between English and French words.
Examples of nouns with small differences of spelling in French and English
In the following list, despite small differences of spelling, one can see the resemblance with the corresponding English word : une victime, un hôpital, un hôtel, un diplôme, une université, une liste, une différence, une maladie, un docteur, un réfrigérateur, un intérêt, une banque, une monnaie, un policier, un conférencier, un appartement, un développement, etc.
The French pronunciation of three problem words
Here are three words that always seem to give problems. Readers who are not familiar with the International Phonetic Association (IPA) system for transcribing sounds should ask a native speaker for help with pronunciation of the words in question.
1. The English and French pronunciations of suggestion
Suggestion in English : /səˈdʒɛstjən/
Suggestion in French : /syɡ.ʒɛs.tjɔ̃/
As we can see from the phonetic transcription, two out of the three vowels are different and, most importantly, the ‘gg’ consonants in the middle are rendered very differently. In English the stress is on the second syllable. In French it would be on the last syllable.
2. The English and French pronunciations of budget
Budget in English : /ˈbʌdʒ.ɪt/
Budget in French : /byd.ʒɛ/
Here we see that the two vowels are different, and English has the stress on the first syllable and French on the second. Notice also that English pronounces that final -t and French doesn’t.
The English and French pronunciations of menu
Menu in English : /ˈmenjuː/
Menu in French /mə.ny/
Again we see two completely different vowels in the two words. English has the stress on the first syllable while French stresses the second syllable.
The takeaway : learn and practice the French rules of pronunciation
Be wary of resemblances. If a French word looks like an English word and it’s not a recent borrowing from English, the pronunciation may be quite different from that of the English word. You have to learn to react like a French-speaker and think how French rules of pronunciation apply.
French pronunciation has its challenges but reading French aloud is much easier than English because French spelling much more systematic and logical than English. The pronunciation rules that apply to menu, budget and suggestion apply everywhere. For example, menu sounds nearly like venu and tenu. Budget and gadget are similar. Suggestion and gestion are quite close.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician, language coach in French, English and Spanish, language workshop facilitator and organizer of French-English conversation meetups in Montreal, Canada. 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.