Pronunciation is vital to making yourself understood: if you want to communicate effectively in a foreign language, you need more than just a good grasp of grammar and a wide vocabulary. Rhythm, intonation and the ability to articulate are equally vital when you are holding a conversation but, having said that, the goal is not to achieve perfect pronunciation. Don’t be afraid of expressing yourself! Lots of people clam up and are reluctant to speak because they want to be sure that their diction is impeccable, and this is a real shame. If you want to get it right, the first thing to do is to learn the basics of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Why? Well, quite simply, lots of books provide a phonetic transcription of tricky words. But you won’t always have the chance to hear a word spoken in French.
There are some French words which have a reputation as being difficult to pronounce (accueillir [to welcome], vraisemblable [likely], aiguille [needle], oignon [onion], paon [peacock], etc.). If you’re having trouble, remember that some online dictionaries (www.larousse.fr, etc.) offer the option of hearing the word spoken in French. This is always a useful feature if you are in any doubt. To perfect your own pronunciation, listening to native speakers is a must. Consider watching french films or listening to French songs. The advantage of songs is that it’s really easy to find the lyrics on the internet (check out www.paroles.net or www.lacoccinelle.net, for example). Once you have the words written out in front of you, you can improve your pronunciation by reading along as you listen to your favourite tracks – sing your heart out! Films can be a bit more difficult, as the subtitles provided for the hard-of-hearing usually cut the dialogue short. Another option is to listen to audiobooks read by volunteer readers (try www.litteratureaudio.com, www.audiolivres.info, etc.)
If you come to learn French in France, you’ll be able to listen to locals speaking naturally. As you progress, you’ll start noticing some regional variations.There are several french dialects. In Eastern France, the number vingt [twenty] is pronounced [vɛ̃t]. Don’t ask me why that is – normally, it’s people from the South who pronounce every letter! For example, if you hear someone pronounce the ‘l’ in persil [parsley], it’s highly likely that they come from the South of France. In Antibes, we pronounce the final consonant of some town names, like Biot and Vallauris. A final thing to note is that the Southern French accent is more lilting and open than accents you’ll hear elsewhere.