French Language Blog

An Introduction to French Phonetics Posted by on Mar 9, 2015 in Grammar

One of the hardest things for advanced French language learners to grasp is how to sound like a native speaker. Your accent largely depends on the age at which you first learned a language. But what can be even trickier than working on the perfect pronunciation of each word is mastering the rhythm of the language. Mastery of la phonétique, or French phonetics, requires the understanding of three elements: stress placement, individual sounds, and intonation. Today, we will be focusing on stress placement, called  l’accentuation.

French is a very musical language and there’s a reason for it:  syllables are not usually stressed. This means that you pronounce each word at roughly the same volume. In English, of course, the stress we put on a certain syllable is important for word recognition. Also, stress on particular words is used for various purposes, such as to highlight the importance of a word or increase its intensity. This makes English sound harsher and choppier.

In French, generally speaking, only the last syllable of a rhythmic group (which just means a group of syntactically-related words in sentence) can be stressed. This is called l’accentuation. It’s important to mention the difference between English and French in this regard: In English, individual words retain their individual stress patterns in phrases. In French, however, phrases (or “chunks” of phrases in the same rhythmic group, such as a prepositional phrase) are treated like individual words — the stress is only put at the end.

Here are some examples:

In English, you would say: “I’m VIsiting the caTHEdrale.” Notice how different syllables of different words are stressed? In fact, the stress is what makes an English word intelligible.

In French, however, you would say: “Je visite la cathéDRALE.” Only the final syllable of the final word is stressed.

Similarly, you could say “I’m SKIing.” Again, in English, the last syllable of the last word in a phrase does not need to be stressed.

In French, you would say, however, “Je fais du SKI.” Because “ski” is a word made up of only one syllable, the whole word is stressed.

Can you think of other examples?

Next week, we will continue our discussion of la phonétique with l’intonation and l’accent tonique. A plus!


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About the Author: Elizabeth Schmermund

Bonjour tout le monde! I'm a freelance writer, doctoral student, mom, and Francophile. I'm excited to share some of my experiences living in France, as well as the cultural nuances that I've learned being married to a Frenchman, with all of you. To find out more about me, feel free to check out my website at A la prochaine!