English vs French Pronunciation in 8 Points

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

What are the differences between English and French pronunciations? Let’s focus on the rhythm, intonation, modulation etc… with many audio examples.

French and English pronunciations are not that different. By this, I mean English is closer to French than it is to Mandarine Chinese for exemple…

The French and English languages share a lot of sounds – I explain all the French sounds in my free French pronunciation audio lesson. Many French sounds are found in the English language. Some sounds are drastically different, like the dreaded French R pronunciation

However, what differs a lot between French and English pronunciations are the rhythm, the tonic accent (or lack of it), the pitch, the modulation… In this free French audio lesson, I’ll explain in details what to particularly watch out for when you’re an English speaker studying French.

This free French lesson – like many on French Today’s blog – features audio recordings. Click on the link next to the headphones to hear the French pronunciation.

Please note that my native language is French. I did my best to push my English pronunciation when recording audio examples, but I’m not a native English speaker… However, the object of this lesson is to show you how French pronunciation differs from English pronunciation, so even if my English pronunciation is not perfect, my French pronunciation is… and the audio examples will help you understand the difference between the two languages.

1 – French has an Even Rhythm

French rhythm is even. All our syllables have the same length, we don’t have a much longer syllable or acceleration within a word, like it’s the case in English.

So, when you speak or read a long French word, pronounce it slowly, one syllable at a time, saying each syllable with an even rhythm.

Now let’s hear the audio example:

Compare: “a preparaaaaaaaaation” with “une préparation“.
The syllable “ra” is much longer in English, but all the syllables are even in French.

2 – No Tonic Accent In French

What does “tonic accent” mean?
A tonic accent it the habit of stressing one syllable over another, sometimes to differentiate between two words. Listen to the audio example below:

Example: to conquer and to concur.
Same sounds: the stressed syllable makes the difference.

Compared to English, there is no tonic accent in French.

This is important because many methods will tell you French stresses the last syllable of a word. But this stress is so very light compared to the tonic accent you apply in English that in my opinion, it shouldn’t even be mentioned to English speakers. It’s more confusing than anything else!

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3 – French Has a Low Pitch

In general, the voice pitch of French is on the lower side: a French voice tends to be more low pitched than high pitched.

This is something you can easily change in the way you speak French: try to lower your voice a bit, especially if in English you have a high pitch voice.

Example: to help you understand, I’m going to record this sentence in French, with my French voice pitch.
Then I’ll do my best to say it in English with an English voice pitch :-)

Aujourd’hui, avec Anne, nous sommes allées au supermarché.
Today, with Anne, we went to the supermarket.

4 – A Smaller Intonation Range in French

In French, the intonation range is rather small: our voice doesn’t go way high nor go way low. Our voice goes up a bit for questions, or to express emotions such as surprise, but nothing compare to English where there is a much larger range of intonation, and people often go up or down with no particular reason – especially in British English!

Here again I’ll take an example in French and English: I’ll record both sentences with emotions.
Yet see how in French my range is much smaller.

Le chat est monté sur le toit !
The cat climbed onto the roof!

5 – French Words Flow

Because of all the liaisons and glidings, silent letters and even silent words, the French words flow into each other.

English is more clipped in comparison to French. For sure, some words gilde into each other like “what’s going on”, yet there’s much less gliding in the English language than there is in spoken French.

Je ne sais pas ce qui se passe. Mais Pierre ne me rappelle pas !
I don’t know what’s going on. But Peter is not calling me back!

In French, you may breathe a bit after a logical group of words, but mostly the breathing is done at the punctuation marks. Which brings me to my next point.

6 – Respecting Punctuation

Punctuation is very important in French.

I was always surprised when I read out-loud with my English (adult) students to find out most of them didn’t stop at the punctuation marks. In the same paragraph, students would often read one sentence into the next, without stopping at the period for air!

In French, maybe because the French words flow into each other with all the liaisons and glidings, punctuation is super important. It shows you where you can stop and breathe!

Important when you read, but important when you speak as well.

French Punctuation is your ally: you can stop for a long time at a period to think about what you’re going to say next. It’s natural in French to stop at a period, and stopping there won’t interfere with the conversation.

In English, the language may be more clipped and the words may run less into each other, but whole sentences do, which to me, is quite confusing: when English speakers speak fast, I don’t know where one sentence ends and the next one starts!

It’s difficult to illustrate this point with an example. Download my free French audiobooks, to get a better sense for the flow of the French language in a conversation.

7 – No Modulation In French

In French pronunciation, we never do this sing-songy modulation sound that English (in particular British English) often does to insist on one word.

Listen to “roof”, “Ann” and “on” in these English sentences I’ve recorded for you:

The cat climbed onto the roof!
Today, with Anne, we went to the supermarket.

Today-ay, A-Ann
I don’t know what’s going on. But Peter is not calling me back!

8 – French Emphasis

So, if you don’t modulate your voice for emphasis in French as you do in English, how would a French person insist on a word you ask?

Well, for starters we don’t do it nearly as much as you do in English! I don’t know why, but we just don’t isolate words as much in French as you do in English.

To put the emphasis on a word in French, we’d probably exaggerate that word by clearly enunciating each syllable of that word. Here’s my last audio example. Listen how I pronounce the word “formidable”.

Je suis finalement sortie avec Pierre hier. On a passés une soirée formidable.
I finally went out with Peter yesterday. We had an amazing evening.

What do you think? Can you think of other ways French and English pronunciation differ? What is really difficult for you when it comes to French pronunciation?

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 25+ years in the US and France. Based on my students' goals and needs, I've created unique downloadable French audiobooks focussing on French like it's spoken today, for all levels. Come to Paimpol and enjoy an exclusive French immersion homestay with me in Brittany.

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