When you are close enough to hear people speaking,
but not close enough to hear the words they are using,
you can still tell if they are speaking English or another
language. That’s because each language has
its own rhythm. French and English differ in significant
ways in their rhythm. By trying to develop a French
cadence when you speak French, you will automatically
sound less American.
English words each have their own stress; that is,
stress can fall on any syllable of the
word. It cannot be predicted, which is why many
English learners have a great deal of difficulty with
it. And sometimes changing stress can change the meaning
of the word. Say these words with the stress on
the first syllable and then on the last syllable.
You’ll notice a change in meaning:
In addition, English is a stress-timed language.
That means that the stressed syllables of words come at
regular intervals in a sentence. For that to happen,
since stress can occur anywhere in a word, those syllables
that are not stressed can be reduced to make everything
fit. So, frequently, vowels are reduced to sounds
like “uh” and “i” to take up less
time. Notice the changes in the vowels of these
related words. Say them out loud. Tap your
fingers to match the rhythm and notice that there are
some long beats and some short beats:
French, on the other hand, has very predictable
stress: it’s always on the last syllable.
In addition, French is a syllable-timed language.
That means that each syllable gets equal time, whether
it is stressed or not. (Although stressed syllables
are a couple of nanoseconds longer). Vowels are
never reduced. Listen to the following words and
compare them with English:
Click here to look at some graphs of the words
orthographique and orthographic.
The bright bands of yellow, orange, and pink show the
vowels. Notice how the French vowels are all about
the same size while there is considerable variation
in the English vowels.
Another important fact about French is that there is
a marked preference in the language for open syllables;
that is, syllables that end in a vowel. French
syllables can begin only with the following sounds:
s, a stop or a fricative, a resonant, a semi-vowel.
Not all of these sounds have to be present, but they
must be in that order relative to each other.
So, in order to sound more French, keep these rules
about syllables in mind: