It’s at the microscopic level of detail that the action takes place.
Things that seemed very simple turn out to be more complicated than first thought. Certainties unravel.
But it’s also at the microscopic level that you make the fastest progress. Correct an error in a language building block and the improvement will have an impact across the board.
Take the pronunciation of the sound a. The sound a in la or Voilà seems so easy to produce we don’t even stop to think about it.
A no-brainer at last! Except that…
French vowels aren’t English ones
Say out loud (or in your head) the English words:
car, far, bar…
That ar sound you’re making doesn’t exist in French.
So if, for example, when you say the French word le fromage you’re making a noise that would happily rhyme with the barge, or if you’re pronouncing the English word guard in the middle of the French word regarder, you have a problem.
In English we let vowel sounds be contaminated by the letters that surround them. When an a is followed by an r, we blur the two together and finish by dropping the r completely, so the noise we end up with is aaa…
We do it all the time. The sounds we make in words such as:
pear, poor, peer, bay, buy, boy, cow, core…
are all contaminated in one way or another. And none of them exist in French.
So our natural way of saying things turns out to be one long list of faux amis: siren voices leading us into error.
The difficulty that we face therefore in pronouncing the French a lies not so much in making the noise itself – it’s one of the easy ones – but in remembering to do so.
Our aim here must be not to cede to temptation or laziness… not to drift off into making English noises.
How to pronounce « a » in French
Just as most English vowel sounds don’t exist in French, most French vowel sounds don’t exist in English. The International Phonetic Alphabet was created to help map out correspondences between different languages, and while there are broad similarities between English and French, there are very few perfect matches.
That said the French a sound isn’t too hard to get. The closest English equivalent is the a sound in hat, cat, or bat. If you try to say hat, cat, or bat without smiling and drop your jaw a little bit lower, you’ll nail it.
Ça va ?
Once you’ve got that sound, all that’s left to do it is to hold on to it. French vowels don’t usually* get contaminated by the consonants that surround them like English ones do, so instead of merging the two into one, pronounce the a sound cleanly and then the consonant that follows.
*the exception is when an -n or -m transforms the vowel into a nasal sound
With r for example:
with gne (beware the forbidden English -ain noise):
The a sound also exists when o and i are juxtaposed, to produce a wa sound. So for example the word voilà contains two a sounds in the International Phonetic Alphabet transcription:
Une framboise (fʁɑ̃.bwaz)
Focus on the purity of your pronunciation of the a sound, and your French will become much more comprehensible.
For more help, check out Françoise’s dictionary of sounds.