You may wonder: “Why should I care about the accent of a Frenchman?“
Well, I’m glad you asked.
The mistakes you make when speaking a foreign language are often caused by your mother tongue. You have a reference system attached to the language you’ve been speaking your whole life. That’s why you have an accent. That’s why you keep making common mistakes. The way you think, the way you speak, the way you articulate your tongue and mouth, all of this is linked to your mother tongue. So, if you want to lose your accent when speaking French, analyze the mistakes French people make when speaking English. Analyze their pronunciation. Where does it come from?
In this post, I’m going to show you why the French have this peculiar accent, what you can learn from it, and what you can do to improve your French pronunciation.
Thierry Henry is a retired French soccer player. He played for Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal, Barcelona, and the New York Red Bulls. He was a brilliant player, and a prolific striker. **he was my favorite player!** He’s now a pundit for Sky Sports and an assistant manager of the Belgium national team.
Thierry Henry speaks fluent English, having lived in London for almost ten years. Yet his accent makes it clear that he’s from the other side of the Channel. So, what is it exactly that betrays him?
I’m going to use the video above to show you a couple of things that tell us he’s French.
At 0’38 & 0’42, Thierry Henry uses the words “composure” and “monkey”. And he says these words à la française. The letters “om” and “on” have a different pronunciation in French and in English.
At 0’44, with the word “spitting”, his tongue is too high on the letters i. It looks like he’s saying something closer to speeteeng.
At 0’59, the word “with” betrays him. His “th” sounds more like a “f”.
At 1’40, on “if”, again his “i” is too high.
It might seem like detail, and to be honest, they are. Thierry Henry speaks good English. But all of these put together, and you get an accumulation of sounds that show English is not his mother tongue.
Haaaaave you met the IPA?
Let’s take a look at the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) to see why he makes these sounds. The IPA is basically a map of the language. It tells you exactly how to make the particular sounds of a language.
The vowels are made with a certain position of the tongue in your mouth. The IPA represents your mouth with a diagram, and each position with a vowel represents the corresponding position of your tongue:
The left side represents the front of your mouth, and the right side is the back. The higher the vowel, the higher your tongue is:
Try it by yourself with this audio version.
The first picture represents the British vowels. The reason why Thierry Henry has a French accent is because he uses the French vowels to speak English.
From a French standpoint, there’s only one sound with the letter “i”. And from a French standpoint, “om” and “on” represent the nasal vowel /ɔ̃/. But nasal vowels are a phenomenon that doesn’t occur in English. A vowel is a sound produced when you let air go through your mouth, without obstruction. A nasal vowel is like a vowel but you add air going through your nose. You can find nasal vowels in French and Portuguese.
If Thierry Henry wants to sound like a native, he has to pay attention to the i. He has to lower his tongue to make a shorter i (noted /ɪ/ in IPA). He also needs to pronounce “om” and “on” like a native English speaker. No more nasal vowels!
And to make a real difference, he would have to learn how to pronounce “th”. This sound doesn’t appear in French. So he approximates it with what he has. In this case, a “f” sound. Most French speakers usually make a strong “s” or “z” to pronounce “th”. But it’s actually not that complicated. You just need to press the tip of your tongue under your front teeth. And in some cases, the letters “th” are pronounced like a weak “d”.
And now what?!
“Well, all of this is really interesting. But again, I don’t care about Thierry Henry. I’m sure glad he was a great scorer. But it has nothing to do with my French pronunciation!!“
No worries, I’m getting there.
The mistakes Thierry Henry makes with his English pronunciation gives you a glimpse of the French pronunciation. Given what we just saw, that’s what you have to take into consideration when speaking French:
- French has only one “i” sound – no /ɪ/, it’s more like the English sound “ee”.
- “th” doesn’t exist in French. When these letters appear, it’s a simple “t” sound.
- Most “om” and “on” are nasal vowels. **I want to say all “om” and “on” are nasal, but since French has so many exceptions, I can’t be too sure!** This is a challenging sound for English speakers. One way to train yourself to produce these sounds is to say “awe”. Then maintain this sound, and force air to go through your nose at the same time. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t sound natural at first, or if you push too much air. Just force yourself to push air. Repeat everyday for several minutes. And little by little you’ll be able to control the flow of air through your nose.
If you want to dig deeper and learn more about French pronunciation, go to the wikipedia page.
Overall Thierry Henry is really good at English (btw, he’s also impressive with his Spanish). He only makes a few mistakes that betray him. With some practice, he could get to a really good level.
It’s funny to spot this kind of mistakes, because I do some of them as well. /ɪ/ is challenging, for example.
It’s really hard to detach yourself from your reference system (after all, you’ve been using it since you were born!). But the more you pay attention to IPA, pronunciation and how it works, the more you become aware of the different sounds and your own mistakes.
If you like this post but have no plans to learn French, then here’s how you can find the IPA system of any language: Go to google, and type in “[your target language] phonology”. The first or second link should be the corresponding wikipedia page.
Thank you for reading until the end. If you have any question, let me know in the comment section.