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Get ready for beginners’ French
Get ready for beginners’ French

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1 The ‘music’ of French

Would you recognise someone speaking in your own language with a French accent? What are the distinguishing elements that make an accent sound ‘French’? Perhaps you have visited a French-speaking country and heard conversations in French. What does that sound like?

Activity 1 The sound of spoken French

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

Listen to the audio clip below. You will hear snippets of spoken conversation recorded in a bar in France. Listen without trying to understand what the people are saying – as if you’re listening to a piece of music. What are your overall impressions? Can you tell immediately that the language spoken is not English, or your own language? How exactly can you tell? What is the ‘music’ of the language like? You can make some notes below if you’d like, before revealing the discussion.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Audio 1 French bar conversation
Audio 1 French bar conversation (note: audio contains overlapping voices and background noise with no main dialogue, so there is no transcript)
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Discussion

Your thoughts on these questions will be specific to you, and might also depend on how close your own language is to the French language. People often think that French speakers talk much more quickly than in many other languages. Do you think that’s true?

Here are some other questions you might’ve considered:

  • Did you find that people’s voices were monotonous or musical?

  • Did the pitch of people’s voices vary, from high-pitched to low-pitched (think about the difference between soprano and bass singers), or did it sound more constant?

  • Did you notice any variation in how loudly people speak?

  • Does it sound like people interrupt each other at all?

These are all factors which can vary from one language to the next, but also from one speaker to the next. As a language learner, you will develop an ability to notice how people speak French, and to imitate them.

If you want to hear some more variety, you could try this activity again using different sources. For example, you might listen to one of the national radio channels in France live on the internet for a couple of minutes, and note down your observations. If you are interested, Radio France channels can be found at radiofrance.com [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (make sure to open the link in a new tab/window so you can easily return here). Look out for links labelled écouter (meaning ‘listen’) to tune in.

In order to understand spoken French (and speak it yourself of course), you’ll need to concentrate on the two key aspects of spoken language: pronunciation and intonation. You may recognise someone speaking your language with a ‘French accent’ because they pronounce words a bit differently to a native speaker. Listening to a conversation between two French people will demonstrate how the intonation works, the way sentences ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ and the overall rhythm of the utterances – what’s meant by the ‘music’ of the language.

It is this difference in intonation between French and other languages that often gives the impression that ‘French people speak more quickly than we do’ when in fact, we just need to train our ears to track the new sounds. When you’re more familiar with French, it gets easier to pick out the key information being communicated, because it won’t seem like such a ‘blur’ of sound anymore. When you speak French, incorporating the appropriate pronunciation and intonation will make you easier to understand too.