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Learn French Pronunciation with Beyoncé, Britney, and Adele! Posted by on Sep 8, 2016 in Music, People, Vocabulary

No, no, the title of this article isn’t just a bunch of click bait. All of these stars have sung in French, and today we’re going to look at their pronunciation errors to correct yours! See, French can be fun 😉

Images of stars taken form Wiki commons.

Images of stars taken form Wiki commons.

It’s not uncommon for singers to release songs in a foreign language. While English music is popular all over the world on the radio, hearing one of your favorite foreign singers sing in your own language gives you a nice, welcoming feeling. It’s kinda refreshing, and their efforts don’t go unnoticed. It’s also a great way to attract a new audience that otherwise may not listen to English music – think the reverse with t.A.T.u.: they would most likely be unknown outside of Russia if they hadn’t release some of their singles in English. Same goes with Shakira (but we’ll get to her in a bit…). Celine, too.

Because these singers release music in a foreign language in other countries, you may not have heard some of them. Did you know Christina Aguilera has an entire album in Spanish? The Spice Girls and Nsync have also recorded songs in Spanish. Even Beyoncé got in on the fun, recording “Irreplaceable” in Spanish a while back. Make sure to click the links!

Do you remember that catchy song from the 90s called “Kiss Me” by Six Pence None the Richer? They released it in Japanese! Avril Lavigne recorded parts of her single “Girlfriend” in 8 languages. Certainly you’ve heard Rihanna’s “Work” by now. That’s not gibberish she’s speaking – it’s actually a mix of Patois and Bajan Creole.

How about French? Can you name any artists that have recorded in French? The Beatles sang a few lines in French in their song Michelle, and Lady Gaga sang about wanting someone’s love and revenge in “Bad Romance.” (But wait, there’s more! Both of these artists have also recorded in German, as well!)

It’s no secret that French pronunciation is no walk in the park what with special rules for elision and final consonant pronunciations, just to name a few. Sometimes these rules are illogical and complicated, and there are exceptions after exceptions. The fact that non-native speakers would even want to sing in French should be praised, but it also makes sense why their pronunciation could be a little off. Even after many years of practice, you’re probably still going to have a slight accent, and that’s just fine! What I’m focusing on today is common mistakes I often hear in pronunciation that have been carried over to song by these popular artists. Included are pronunciation notes, clips by the artists, and the same phrases spoken by a native speaker.

 

beyonce

The year was 2004. I was starting my junior year in high school while Jean-Baptiste Maunier was making a name for himself after staring in the wonderful film Les Choristes. The following year, the film was nominated for 2 Oscars including Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song. For the Oscars, the nominated song, “Vois sur ton chemin” (Look to Your Path), was performed with a full chorus and Beyoncé as the lead singer. I love me some Queen Bey, but I don’t think she was the right choice for this piece. Let’s take a look at a few lines from the piece.

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What?: “Donne-leur la main…” (Give them the hand…)
Listen:


What’s wrong?: Beyoncé’s pronunciation of “leur” is off, and it’s easy to understand why. This “eur” sound does not exist in English. The closest sound we have would be the “ur” in “fur,” but even still, it is very anglicized. In this clip, Beyoncé completely forgoes the sound and instead says “loo.” My best tip for this sound would be to say a word that has this sound (peur, fleur, leur…) slowly and exaggerate it the -eur. After a while, you’ll be able to say this sound without any effort!

 

In French, if there is a vowel combination followed by the letters M or N, the vowel is nasalized (and the M and N are not pronounced as they would be in English). Since the word main follows this structure, Beyoncé doesn’t need to pronounce the final N.
Native speaker:

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What?: “Sens au cœur de la nuit…” (Feel in the middle of the night…)
Listen:


What’s wrong?: There are 3 things to point out here: “Sens” is a bit of a tricky word. As a noun meaning sense, the final S is pronounced (Yes, I know that goes against everything you’ve learned about final consonant pronunciation). From the verb sentir meaning to feel, sens is the second person singular imperative (the command form). The full line in the song is “Sens au coeur de la nuit l’onde d’espoir ardeur de la vie sentier de gloire” (Feel in the middle of the night the wave of hope, the passion of life, the pathway to glory). Here, Beyoncé is pronouncing the final -S when she doesn’t need to.

 

Secondly is the pronunciation of cœur, which she begins with a kyuh sound. The yuh she’s saying is the same sound as leur in the first example.

Finally, and I used to see this a lot with my students, is the word de. Very often, you’ll hear a non-native speaker pronounce this more like the English word day. The problem? There’s another French word that is pronounced that way. As close to English approximation as possible:
de – duh
des – day
Native speaker:

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What:Une lumière dorée brille sans fin tout au bout du chemin” (A golden light shines endlessly at the end of the path)
Listen:


What’s wrong?: Beyoncé says lumière more like loomyou.  She needs to correct the -ière ending. If you’ve seen Beauty and the Beast, you should know the character Lumière – a much better pronunciation. The French R is a whole nother can of worms that could fill up its own article. Something I was taught that resonated with me was to say the word Loch (as in Loch Ness monster). Where your throat touches on the -ch sound is where the French R needs to come from. Practice a bit until you can ‘control’ that part of your mouth, and pretend like you’re going to gargle. Once you have that movement down, start saying Ra Ra Ra with it. Voilà.

 

Queen Bey’s pronunciation of brille is another common mistake. English speakers want to pronounce the final E as long English A. Just as with de being pronounced as des, this causes a problem since the mispronounced word has another meaning. With a long English A, the word sounds like brillait – the same verb in the imparfait. Be careful!

The final -S in sans is not pronounced unless it is followed by a word that begins with a vowel. This is called elision. The same goes with the final -T in tout – because the next word here starts with a vowel, the T should be pronounced in this word.

On the word du, Beyoncé is singing the word de.
Native speaker:

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adele


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know who Adele is. If not, welcome to the world! This Grammy-award winning singer/songwriter knows how to pull at your heart strings and make you drunkenly text your ex. She’s best known for her original material, but she’s also done some great covers that have been praised by fans and critics alike. One of those covers was “Promise This,” originally recorded by Cheryl Cole. The song’s title plays off the children’s song “Alouette,” and the word is repeated a few times throughout the song. In the original, Cheryl mispronounces a few things. In her cover, Adele mispronounces the same words.

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What?:Alouette… Déployer les ailes.” (Lark…spread your wings.)
Listen:
Adele:


Cheryl:

What’s wrong?: Three problems with Adele’s pronunciation: the first time she sings alouette, she changes the schwa sound in the end to an o- sound (aluetto). With the word déployer, she pronounces the “ploy” as it would be in English. In French, these letters make a ‘plwah’ sound.

 

For “les ailes,” there should be elision between the -s and the -a, making a -z sound. Adele pronounces ailes like allez. The correct pronunciation is closer to the name for the English letter L.

 

Cheryl pronounces alouette and déployer correctly but has the same problem as Adele with ailes.
Native speaker:

 

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britney


Britney is back with her 9th studio album, Glory, which just debuted at #3 this past week. Her songs are just as dance-y as usual, but what surprised me was seeing French listed in the track list. The last track is called Coupure Electrique (Blackout / Power Outage). The song is completely in French, but it’s not her only foray into foreign languages on Glory. She also sings a passage in Spanish on “Change Your Mind.” Her Spanish sounds quite good, but it’s clear she worked more on her Spanish than her French…

Want to hear her Spanish? 

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What?: “J’oublie le monde quand tu fais… fais-moi l’amour.” (I forget the world when you make… Make love to me.)
Listen: 


What’s wrong?:
Just like the word brille with Beyoncé, Britney changes the final -e in oublie to a long English A sound, making it oubliais. This is something my beginner students would do a lot, but that had to be stopped early 🙂

 

Another thing my students would do a lot is what Britney does with the word quand. Qu- in English is generally a kw- sound, and that habit carried over to this word when Britney sang the word.
Native speaker:

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girls


Maybe I’m cheating a bit here since Cheryl Cole was also in this group, but these 5 ladies did a song entirely in French called “Je ne parle pas français” (I Don’t Speak French). They released the same song in English, called “Don’t Speak French.” As a whole, I have to say their French is quite clear, but there are a few things I’d like to point out.

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What?: “Mais avant que tombe le générique, il me faut ma réplique.” (But before the theme song starts, I’ll say my comeback.”
Listen:


What’s wrong?
: In the word générique, there are 2 accent aigus. This accented letter is similar to our long English A. If you listen carefully in the clip, the girls are only pronouncing the first é correctly. The second one is sung as more of a neutral schwa sound. I have to admit: I’m guilty of this too, and I’m very aware of it after I’ve uttered it. When I pronounce two accents aigus in quick succession in the middle of a word, sometimes I neutralize the second one. I just need to be more careful – and so does Girls Aloud!
Native Speaker:

**

What?: “Je parle pas français, alors laisse la funky musique faire parler nos corps, d’accord ?” (I don’t speak French, so let the funky music make our bodies talk, ok?)
Listen:


What’s wrong?:
English adopted the word corps from English, but the exact pronunciation didn’t carry over. I’ve heard some native speakers pronounce the P, but most keep it silent. That’s not what I’m focusing on here, though. The O by itself in French is what’s called an open-mid back vowel. In English, it’s often a close-mid back vowel. So the pronunciation is just a little bit different in terms of openness in the back of the mouth. Corps and d’accord should have the same o sound, but if you listen to the clip above, you’ll hear that they’re being pronounced differently. Be sure to check out the native speaker saying the two words below to hear how they’re different.
Native speaker:

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lana


Indie pop star Lana del Rey is known for her meaningful lyrics and sultry voice. I remember being drawn to her right away the first time I heard “Summertime Sadness.” It’s good stuff. In an interview with British tabloid The Sun, Lana reveals that Carmen is about “a doomed woman who sells her body on the streets” in Coney Island. Pretty sad situation, but a beautiful song nonetheless. She also sings a few lines in French in the song (and even uses the conditional! <3).

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What?: “Mon amour, je sais que tu m’aimes aussi” (My love, I know you love me too)
Listen:


What’s wrong?:
Lana sings in very clear French, but I just wanted to point out the vowel she’s singing in the word “amour.” I’ve previously written about the difficulties of the French U sound for native English speakers – we often approximate it to the ou sound (like in soup). This ou sound is what should be pronounced in the word amour, but Lana’s pronunciation is being said from the front of the mouth rather than the back. Drop the tongue when you say that word, Lana, and it will be the correct vowel!
Native speaker:

****

shakira


Shakira has been entertaining audiences for more than 2 decades, and when she started performing in English, her international career skyrocketed! I remember when “Whenever, Wherever” came out, everyone was obsessed with her. Since then, she’s taught us what sound a shewolf makes, how to waka waka for Africa, and most importantly that her hips do not, in fact, lie. Shakira taught herself English through poetry (!), and in 2011, she surprised French audiences with a Spanish cover of Francis Cabrel’s “Je l’aime à mourir” (I Love Her to Death). After some verses in Spanish, she sang the original French lyrics.

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What?: “Elle a gommé les chiffres des horloges du quartier; Elle a fait de ma vie des cocottes en papier des éclats de rire” (She erased the numbers on the clocks around here; She’s transformed my life into paper hens, bursts of laughter).
Listen:


What’s wrong?: Nothing. Nothing is wrong with her pronunciation. Maybe a native would be a better judge, but I listened to the French over and over to see if anything just popped out, and I only have one comment. Shakira’s French pronunciation is essentially flawless: she sings the O correctly, she nasalizes where she’s supposed to, displays no problems with elision, and she has the French R down pat. That’s the comment I need to make, though. Her pronunciation is so careful that she does the gutteral R ‘harder’ than natives generally do when singing. To make that kind of sound in the throat can take away from a song’s line (ever wonder why native French speakers roll their Rs when singing opera?). I’m not saying anything bad about her pronunciation at all, just throwing out that the Rs are often softer when sung by a native. Check out same line by the original singer to hear what I mean:

Native speaker:

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Qu’en pensez-vous ? (What do you think?) Can you think of any other singers who sing in French?

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About the Author:Josh Dougherty

Just your typical francophile. If you have any topics you'd like me to discuss, feel free to let me know!


Comments:

  1. Flying Fashionista:

    Belinda Carlisle of the The Go Go’s produced a completely French album, aptly named…Voila! Love her and that whole album! This was and awesome article..thank you!

  2. Jeremy Westcott:

    Debbie Harry [Blondie] – Heart of Glass. From memory there was a verse in French in some versions of the song but even the French translation wasn’t great…

    David Bowie – Heroes. I think I remember a pretty awful French version of this when I was in France in the late 70s?


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