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BASIC RULES OF A FRENCH ACCENT OF ENGLISH

Updated: 5 days ago




While many actors can do a simple impression of a French accent of English that borders on parody, it is a notoriously difficult one for the American actor to pull off authentically. This simple tutorial is meant to serve as a starter guide in your exploration of the French accent.



INTRODUCTION

Before we jump in, there are some finer points to discuss about the accent presented in this tutorial. It can be incredibly challenging for English speakers to pick up on the subtle nuances between different dialects of a language they don’t speak, just like non-native English speakers may struggle to differentiate between accents of English. For that reason, we’ll be attempting to capture a “broad” version of the French accent without any hint of regionalism. And it probably goes without saying, but we’ll be focusing on the sounds of France, as opposed to any other French speaking countries–though they may share many features due to their common language.


Anytime you explore an English as a second language accent, you must consider your character’s proficiency with the English language. Has your character spoken English for many years, or only learned it recently? Did they learn in childhood, or as an adult? Do they speak it everyday, or infrequently? Decisions like these will affect the accent choices you make, just like it does for real world speakers.


And they are indeed “choices”. In reality, speakers of ESL accents like French are often inconsistent when speaking English. They may speak a word a certain way in one moment, and pronounce it differently the next. This comes from the fact that many “features” of an ESL accent are arguably unintentional mispronunciations. But while inconsistency is common in real life, as actors we must endeavor to make consistent accent choices, so that our performances are repeatable. 


Now let’s get into some of the most common sound shifts you’ll want to try when attempting a French accent, beginning with vowels.



VOWELS SHIFTS

1) The “short /i/”, [ɪ] as in KIT may move to a “long /i/”, [i] as in TREE

"Bring in six images of the big ship."

Tip: This change is simple to note on your script, simply replace every “short /i/” sound with “ee”


2) [ɑ] as in LOT is lip-rounded, closer to [ɒ]

"I thought of calling Shaun this fall."

Tip: Round your lips on this sound, almost like you’re making a kissy-face. On its own, this sound change may feel British–but trust that when we add the additional features of the French accent, it will be distinct.


3) The “short /u/”, [ʊ] as in FOOT, may move to a “long /u/”, [u] as in GOOSE

"The cook put away the book after he took a look. "

Tip: Once again, focus on rounding your lips on this sound, while simultaneously raising the tongue slightly in the back of your mouth.


4) The “long /u/”, [u] in words like GOOSE, will move towards a sound foreign to most Americans. While making the “long /u/” sound [u], try to keep the tongue high in the mouth while bringing it forward toward the teeth. It may sound a little like “ew”. 

"Stu put the blue shoe on Cooper the goose."

Tip: Another way to find the same sound is to make the “long /i/” sound, [i] as in TREE, and round your lips over the sound.


5) The vowels [eɪ̆] as in FACE and [oʊ̆] as in GOAT are two part vowels for Americans; the French speaker may cut these sounds in half, resulting a sort of pure, “punchier” version of the vowel.

"As a favor, my favorite flavor was placed on my plate."

"It’s only a stone’s throw to Rio."

Tip: To practice these changes, try singing the American version of these vowel sounds in slow motion, then abruptly stop your voice before the vowel “finishes”.


6) [ʌ] as in words like STRUT and ABOVE might change based on the spelling of the word, and the speaker’s assumption that English honors the spelling (which it often doesn’t). For instance, “strut” may be pronounced “stroot”, “above” could be “abowv”, etc.

"My brother stumbled into a clump of shrubs above us. "

Tip: This sound does not “need” to change, and you should carefully choose the moments to utilize this feature–don’t alter the pronunciation so much that listeners can’t understand you.


CONSONANT SHIFTS

1) In exploring the French <R> sound, there are a number of possible versions we may hear. The most extreme version is the trilled uvular [ʀ], which is a rapid flapping of the appendage at the back of the mouth. But this sound can be difficult to reproduce for many Americans that have no practice whatsoever with this foreign sound. If that’s you, try substituting it with a “retroflex <R>”, where the tongue is further bunched or pulled back in the mouth.

"The enriched rich red rose grew rotten."

Tip: You may opt to altogether drop “post-vocalic” <R>s, or ones that come after a vowel sound within a syllable, in words like “mother” or “father”–this is often a result of the French speaker being more influenced by British English, which drops its’ <R>s, as opposed to American English, which doesn’t.


2) Initial <H> sounds are often dropped altogether.

"The happy hippo held his head high."


3) <TH> sounds will often change to [s] and [z].

"Give those things to them or they will go without."

Tip: You may also substitute with [t] or [d].


4) <CH> will soften to “sh”, while hard <J> sounds may soften to “zh”.

"Jerry chopped the cheap sandwich for the judge and jury."

Tip: The soft <J> sound is the same found in the French language, as in “je t'aime”.



MUSICALITY

French tends to be spoken much more fluidly or connected than English is, with little to no separation of sound between the words. Therefore when speaking English the native French speaker may squeeze their words together in a much more melodic manner. Practice this melody by saying the following phrase as if it were all one word on a single breath: “All Americans eat every ounce of avocado.”


The French language is also much more nasal than English, which can result in lots of nasal resonance on the French accent. Practice finding the resonance by putting two fingers on either side of your nose and attempting to feel the “buzz” of your nasal passages, and see if you can increase the buzz by shifting your resonance upwards.


Finally, in terms of the musculature of the mouth, I find that there is greater tension and roundedness on the lips for French speakers compared to American English speakers. Holding the lips in a sort of pursed position can aid in finding some of the rounded and more fronted vowel sounds of the accent.



WORDS WITH FRENCH ROOTS

Much of English is derived from French, and because of this, when speaking English the primary French speaker may occasionally revert to the French pronunciation of the word. This may happen on obvious words such as “croissant”, but also with less obvious words like “nation”, “admirable”, and “information”. 


The likelihood of this occurring with your character may directly correlate to their proficiency with the English language–the better they are at the English, the less likely this feature is to occur. When in doubt, research the French pronunciation of every word in your script that you may suspect has a French origin and try it out. It’s unlikely you’ll use them all, but adding a few here and there in your performance may help with the accent.



CONCLUSION

French is one of the most difficult accents for English speaking actors to perform naturally, without going over-the-top. Don’t be afraid of using an extreme, almost caricature version of the accent to begin with. Practice all of the sound shifts on your own text. Then, imagine the “thickness” of the accent exists on a dial from 1-10; what happens if you turn the dial down a little bit? Then a little bit more? As in life, you’ll encounter characters who exist at every point on the dial. There is no right or wrong in regards to pronunciation when performing ESL accents, only how many features may sneak through to the English pronunciation. When in doubt, opt for simple choices that suggest the French accent without going over the top.


I’ve provided some links to example speakers below; be sure to give some a listen to hear the accent demonstrated properly.



EXAMPLE SPEAKERS:

Note, Scott Alan Moffitt, The Actor's Dialect Coach claims no ownership of the material in the following links--they are provided for educational purposes only. Certain links may contain language or content not suitable for children.


Cassel, Vincent (secondary) - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwD4JZsAuew

Students react to Notre Dame burning - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F4z286QuQuQ

Parisians Try To Speak English - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwto58Wc2bg



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