How can you realistically imitate a French accent?

So, my main area on interest within linguistics is the study of the individual sound systems of different languages and the rules governing them. It may sound pretty dry, but it can lead to some pretty impressive party tricks. For example, by knowing about the sound systems of different languages you can emulate them. In other words, you can have a pretty convincing fake accent. In fact, accent coaches, who work with actors to create accents and other to reduce them, tend to have linguistic backgrounds with a focus on studying the sounds of language. So I thought with this post I’d go over how to imitate a French accent by looking at the individual sounds that are different between the two languages.

Just to be clear: I’m using English as a target language here because English is my native language and everyone who’s asked me about it has spoken English natively. I’m in no way implying that English is the “best” language, or that English speakers don’t have accents. (You should hear how I butcher Mandarin. It’s pretty atrocious.) If you have any other languages you’d like me to write posts for, let me know in the comments. 🙂

Marcel Marceau (square)
Marcel Marceau can’t help you on this one, sorry. Mostly because you’ll have a hard time finding examples of authentic French in his performances for some reason… 
I’m going to assume that you want to sound like you’re from Paris and not Quebec (Not that Quebec isn’t great! Man, now I’m jonesing for some President’s Choice snacks.). There are a couple sounds you’re going to have to learn:

  1. Instead of the English “r”, as in “rat”, you’re going to have to use what’s called the “gutteral r”. (Okay, it’s actually called the voiced uvular fricative, but that’s a little bit harder to say.) Basically, when you say the sound, you want to vibrate your uvula, that little punching-bag-looking thing  at the back of your throat. Try doing it in front of a well-lit mirror with your mouth open until you can figure out what it feels like.
  2. Instead of the English “ng”, as in “cling”, you can use a “ny”, as in “nyan cat“. No, seriously. This will be a little difficult, since  we only really use that sound at the end of words, but practice a bit and you should be able to pick it up. Or you can just go with go with a regular “n” sound.

Now the good news! There’s also a couple of sounds we have in English that don’t exist in French, and they’re the one’s that are slightly harder to say, so you can save yourself some time and trouble by switching them out.

  1. The “th” sound, like at the begining of “thin” or “the” is actually really rare in world languages. French speakers tend to replace it with “z”.
  2. The sounds at the beginning of “church” and “judge” are also not a thing in French. You can use the sound at the beginning of “sheep” for the sound at the beginning of “church” and the “s” in “vision” for the “j” in “judge”.
So that’s the consonants.
The vowels are significantly different than they are in English. You’ve got all sorts of things like nasalization and rounding in places where you, as an English speaker, are just not expecting it. And, frankly, unless you’ve got a really good ear, you’re going to have a hard time picking up on the differences. Long story short: I’m weaseling out of explaining the vowels entirely and using a Youtube video. (I’m also doing it so you can get some native speaker data, which I think you’ll find helpful.)

That does give me space to discuss intonation, however. Intonation is probably the single biggest difference in the way English and French sounds. In fact, intonation is one of the very first things that babies pick up, before they even start experimenting with individual sounds. Unfortunately, it’s also one of  the most difficult things to learn. Here’s a few pointers, though:

  • French intonation isn’t as concerned with individual syllables. Rather, you tend to get whole phrases (rather than individual words) in the same intonation pattern. This is what gives French its sort of smooth, musical quality.
  • Instead of a slow rise and slow fall, like we get in English, pitch in French tends to rise slowly until the very final syllable of a sentence, where it drops suddenly. It looks more like the graph of an absolute value than polynomial, in other words.

There’s a ton more to be said about French phonology, and a lot of it has already been said, but this should be enough to get you started on approximating a French accent. Good luck!


3 thoughts on “How can you realistically imitate a French accent?

  1. British actor David Suchet (perhaps known better as Mr. Hercule Poirot of BBC fame) is perhaps the best and most famous imitator of a French accent. He also studied head and body movements accompanying sounds and words, for an amazingly believable imitation of a Belgian (well, a French speaking Belgian). Despite his French sounding surname, his native tounge is UK British, and his Poirot accent is totally learned. Interesting post!

  2. In my experience, French speakers don’t replace all “th” sounds with /z/. They only replace the voiced one with /z/ and the voiceless one becomes /s/. And even then not all French speakers have that strategy. I’ve met just as many who do /f/ and /v/ instead. There are even some who choose to get the dental part right, instead of the fricative part, and use /t/ and /d/.

    1. Absolutely; there’s as much variation in accents as in every other part of language. And it sounds like you’ve had a fair amount of experience with native French speakers, so I bow to your great empirical knowledge on this subject. 🙂

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