When learning a foreign language, you’re bound to face moments when a finely rehearsed conversational gambit meets with a look of blank incomprehension.
There can be many reasons why native speakers don’t understand what seems perfectly good French to you. But if you’re an English speaker talking French, very often it can be a question of vowel pronunciation.
When we speak English we swallow vowels we don’t think are important, turning them into a non-descript “euh” noise (or schwa sound). We can get through entire conversations with a series of “euh” noises, broken up by consonants and the occasional vowel sounds that are important.
In French on the other hand, when a vowel sound is pronounced it is a very distinct noise. And what that noise is will have an important impact on meaning. So it’s little wonder that if we speak French using a series of “euh” noises, we’re not going to be understood.
So if you have difficulty making yourself understood in French, the top priority is to work on those vowel noises.
The good news is that there aren’t so many – about 19, depending on how you count – and they’re not very difficult to produce.
The bad news is that if we’re adults, we’re going to need a bit of physical re-education. Over time our mouths and tongues will have got used to behaving in certain ways – and it’ll take conscious effort to make them change their habits.
And we won’t be able to rely on our ears very much either. Over time we get into the habit of not listening to sounds that we don’t consider to be very important. The result is we can become almost literally deaf to distinctions that in other languages are very important.
So because we’re not very good at listening, to begin with it’s best to focus on the physical side of things – getting our mouths and tongues in the right place – and only then focus on what noises come out.
How to pronounce French vowels
Vowel noises depend on:
- where our tongues are
- how wide open our mouth is
- whether our lips are smiling or pouting
- whether our mouth muscles are taut or relaxed
- whether or not we’re breathing through our nose as well as our mouth
We can put the sounds on a two-dimensional grid, with the x-axis for where our tongue is and the y-axis for how wide open our mouth is. We’ll use circles and straight lines to show the shape of our lips, and we’ll add a tilde symbol ∼ to indicate a nasal sound. Mouth muscles are generally more taut in French than in English, so we won’t put that on the grid, but work on holding each position strongly.
For the position of the tongue, think of a snake sticking its tongue out for the forward position; think of a dragonfly hovering in the middle of your mouth for the middle position; and think of a cat arching its back for the backwards position.
This is the grid that you end up with:
To measure how wide your mouth is, put your thumb on your chin and your index finger on your nose and then practice different degrees of opening. You can use the method to create scales, gradually opening your mouth wider each time. For example smile and say si: that’s the top left corner of the grid. Now put your forefinger on your nose and your thumb on your chin and gradually open your mouth. You’ll be making the sounds Si, C, sait, sa. As you open your mouth the tongue stays at the bottom, going down with the bottom jaw.
Si, C, sait, sa
Start again with si and instead of smiling make a round shape with you lips: you will have su:
Now put your finger on the tip of your tongue and say su. If you withdraw your tongue to the back of the mouth – think of the arched cat – you should feel your tongue vanishing and you’ll have the sound sous:
And so on.
You’ll need the help of a French native speaker to keep you on track with this exercise. With their help and plenty of practice, you’ll gradually find yourself able to hear and make the sounds for yourself. Once you can play all the sounds like the notes on a piano, French people will be able to understand you much more easily – and you’ll also understand much more of what they are saying.