When speaking a foreign language, how do you approach the pronunciation of words in your native language? Or the opposite situation… when you’re speaking your native language and foreign words come up. Do you pronounce them like a native speaker would (if you know how to pronounce French words) or do you say them the way they’re pronounced in the language you’re speaking? Let me give you some examples and how a simple pronunciation choice can impact communication. Let’s talk about how to pronounce French words in English…
How to pronounce French words in English
Note: For purposes of this post, I’m using French and English as my example languages. French is my second language and English is my native language, but please note that what I’m writing about could apply to any language.
So let me set the scene. You’re a native English speaker in mid-conversation in English with another native English speaker and a French word comes up.
Do you pronounce it the way English speakers pronounce it or do you say it with your best attempt of a French accent? Do you know how to pronounce French words? I’m talking about words like croissant, carte blanche, Paris, cul de sac, hors d’oeuvres, macaron, Notre Dame…
Are there variables that influence your pronunciation choices? Let’s talk about that. Maybe sometimes you pronounce the words like English speakers do, and other times, you say them in French.
This accent switching is most definitely a “thing” and I’ve discussed it at length with some of my friends who live abroad in non-English speaking countries.
I’ve had instances where I’ve been speaking English to people who only speak English, and when I’ve come across a French word and pronounce it like a French person would (out of habit), people mock my accent because I didn’t say it the English way. A perfect example is the word croissant. Croissant pronunciation in French is more like cwah-sah with a silent T at the end and not cruh-sont like we say in English.
When I’ve pronounced the words like an English speaker while speaking English, people have asked why I don’t say it in French. Or what I find really funny is that they think I can’t say it in French, which is crazy. I got a comment on my YouTube video about making croissants and someone literally commented about how shameful it is that I can’t say croissant properly in my intro, which I pronounced in English. Well, it’s BECAUSE I’M SPEAKING ENGLISH, that’s why I said it the English way. Most English speakers aren’t even able to nail the croissant pronunciation in French if they’ve never learned it. 😉 But anyway, that’s not the only reason.
Anyway, there are a lot of factors that play into the way someone pronounces a word, so let me break it down.
Keep in mind that there are a bunch of French words we use in English and the vast majority of native English speakers pronounce them like a native English speaker. Why? Because most native English speakers don’t speak French and have no idea how to pronounce French words, so they’re pronouncing the words the only way they know how.
This is the same in French. Most native French speakers, upon coming across an English word or place, pronounce them with a French accent when speaking French. So Miami isn’t My-am-ee like we say in English, it’s Mee-am-ee. My name, Diane, has been pronounced Dee-anne since 2012 in France. I’m not Diane here. The Di part is pronounced Dee.
Most French speakers don’t speak English to a fluent level and don’t know how to pronounce English words any other way than with their French accent.
It’s only normal… and can sometimes even be problematic.
When I first came to France to teach English, I would always ask my students to write down what they were saying if I came across a difficult word. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand what place they were asking me about. Hollywood sounded more like oly-vood and Detroit as day-twahhh. At that time, my ear was not used to how the French pronounced common places in the USA. Of course they didn’t pronounce Miami or Detroit like I would — they couldn’t say the words like a native speaker even if they tried — and it took a while to get my ears in gear.
Another more recent example was at the gym while waiting for a BODYCOMBAT class to start. Keep in mind no one speaks English to me in everyday life. All conversations are always in French. So anyway, I was speaking to a fellow gym-goer after not being at this particular class for a while due to work travel and the instructor comes over to say hi. He asks me a question that I had to ask him to repeat twice. I kept missing a crucial word in this simple convo. Even with context, I wasn’t getting it and there was an audience of other gym-goers within earshot since we were all waiting in the same area. I felt like such a clueless idiot who had put herself on display.
So then, noticing I wasn’t getting it, the instructor switched up his phrasing and I understood right away. He asked me, “Diane, tu-as fait une pause ?” I haven’t seen you recently, he explained. Ahhhh, yes. I haven’t been here in a couple of weeks. Right. I took a break, a pause from class. Got it. Phew. The conversation was then over.
The man I had originally been talking to leans over and makes a joke about my English getting rusty and I looked at him with a confused expression. He explained that the question I wasn’t understanding was “tu-as fait un break ?” but with the French pronunciation of the English word “break” (more like breck), I had no idea what the instructor was asking me. The shame, man…
If he had said break like a native speaker pronounces it, of course I would have gotten it on the first try. Total face-palm moment. I didn’t expect the English word to be thrown in and am not used to hearing it with a French accent, but now I know better. See? I’m always learning.
These days, when I don’t understand something in a casual conversation, it’s probably because the person is saying something in English. I really need to check myself and perk up my ears. This English flair leads to my ears not picking up the English word with the accent. I felt so silly after that interaction above.
And it’s happened a couple of times — a French person using an English word that I’m just not understanding with the French pronunciation. How to pronounce French words that are used in English isn’t easy! It’s proof that sometimes the pronunciation of the foreign word can majorly affect comprehension! P.S. For the record, English words in French (especially among people under 30) is pretty common and he wasn’t doing it to be fancy since he knows I’m a native English speaker. He would have asked a French woman the same question using the English word break.
Now let’s turn to why we say foreign words the way we do in our native language and when speaking another language. There are a bunch of questions to take into account when deciding how to pronounce French words and vice versa.
Factors that play into our pronunciation choices:
Is English your native language? If so, we’re more likely to pronounce foreign words in English, or with an English accent since that’s how we’ve been used to hearing them and don’t always know any other way to say them. But there are always exceptions.
Who are you speaking with? Is it a one-on-one conversation or are you speaking to a group? Is it a native speakers of the language you’re speaking or the word you’re using in the other language? Does this person know the other language and speak it with some degree of competency? Are they likely to understand you? These are all points to consider. You have to know your audience.
Do you speak the other language with a level of competency and is the other pronunciation correct? Think about it. If you’re going to botch the native pronunciation to the point of looking silly or not being understood, maybe it’s best to not even try. I’ve heard English speakers opt for their interpretation of the French pronunciation of Paris for it to come out like Par-ee because the “r” pronunciation isn’t correct. In this case it’s probably best to stick with the English pronunciation of Paris.
What’s your goal with the pronunciation? Language is meant to be understood, so if your pronunciation is going to throw someone else off, for whatever reason, do your best to be understood. That might mean pronouncing a French word the French way with a French speaker (if you’re able) and maybe stick to English with an English speaker.
Tom (my French husband if you’re new here) has actually not understood the English pronunciation of some French words the first time he heard them on TV shows. When shows have said carte blanche or some other French word, Tom didn’t even pick it up, so it goes both ways. Now he gets understands from being exposed to more English pronunciations of French words, juts like I now understand when French people say Detroit and Hollywood. They aren’t saying it their way to be funny — that’s how the words are pronounced when speaking that language.
Let’s talk about people’s names. In English, I personally try to pronounce first names the way the person introduces themselves and repeat their name to the best of my ability. Which is funny because my name is Diane, but in France as I mentioned, I’m “Dee-anne.” I don’t even try to correct people. In French, the “i” is an “eee” sound so when they see the name Diane, it’s Dee-anne. Most people can’t say Diane properly in English, so I just went with it.
I also try to pronounce French cities with the French pronunciation when I’m speaking French or if I’m speaking English with a French person (mainly my husband) and a city name comes up in conversation. Aside from that, I stick to the pronunciation of the language I’m speaking. So if my sentence is “I ate a croissant for breakfast in Paris,” I’m going to say croissant and Paris in English. It would be weird to bust out French pronunciation in English… which brings me to:
I think you run into 2 problems when you pronounce a French word with a French accent while speaking English.
- Coming across as pretentious.
- Not being understood.
The first one there is HUGE. When I slip and say French words the French way in English, I end up feeling embarrassed because people think I’m trying to show off or be fancy. Or one-up them with my linguistic baddassery. Ha. In my case, it’s none of that but it can come across like you’re some kind of snob! People don’t know where the accent came from. And number 2, well yah that’s a huge issue if the person isn’t going to understand!
This video illustrates how ridiculous it can sound when you language-switch mid-sentence:
Imagine a native English speaker saying the French words with French pronunciation from my examples above in regular conversation and how the reaction might differ between the following people:
1. To another native English speaker who doesn’t speak French.
2. To a native French speaker.
3. To a person who speaks French.
Depending on the word, #1 might not even understand the word being pronounced the French way. #2 and #3 would understand but might find the pronunciation choice bizarre or even pretentious or showy.
So in the case of being able to speak both languages, consider the following:
Is your choice of pronunciation going to help or hinder comprehension? In the example above of my French students pronouncing American place names with a French accent (because they didn’t know the native pronunciation), that wasn’t a choice. It was the only way they knew how to say the word. When I tell French people that my family lives near Miami, I say it the French way so I’m clear. It’s Mee-am-ee and not My-am-ee.
Just like many English speakers can only pronounce words like hors d’oeuvres or cul-de-sac with an English accent because they don’t speak French. And that’s more than fine. These are words we use in English so there’s no need to try to be fancy.
I’m not going to bust out French pronunciation just for fun when speaking English and I’m not going to pronounce words in English with American pronunciation when speaking French. The exceptions would be if it would affect comprehension, if I didn’t know how to say the word properly, or for learning purposes if someone specifically asks me how to say something with a particular accent.
For me personally, it’s as simple as this: When I’m speaking English, I pronounce words the American way and when I’m speaking French, I pronounce them the French way. Makes sense, non?
What do you think about how to pronounce French words in English?
What about you? Do you know the correct croissant pronunciation in French and how to pronounce French words? How do you pronounce foreign words in English? And English words when speaking a foreign language?
Julia Gray says
In short, when speaking a French word with another native English speaker, the short answer of what I do is – It depends. If it’s ‘Paris” I say the word like it is pronounced in English. Something like “Reims,” “Tour de France,” and “Notre Dame,” I pronounce like the French (with Notre Dame, the church, if you don’t pronounce it like in France, listeners may think you are speaking of Notre Dame, the university, BTW, particularly at football and basketball seasons in my part of the world!).
Hi there! The university is pronounced Noter Dame right? There are some words I’ve really only ever said in French so I get a little lost when trying to say them in English at this point. I don’t think I’ve ever had a situation where I’ve said the name of the university.
It’s “Noter Dame” despite its founding by French missionaries. Indiana also has a town called Versailles — pronounced Ver-sails. The American midwest is a treat for butchered pronunciation like Cairo, Illinois, pronounced Kay-ro.
QiaJenae Hamilton says
This article is so FULL of great ideas that it would take forever to comment. I’ll just say, that when I come across a word I know, (I took German in school) is German, I pronounce it German. When I try it in French, my sister, who took French in school rolls her eyes & says I’m exaggerating the accent, but I love sounds, so I pronounce in the language of the word, with my sib. With others, I butcher it in an American accent. I am from ChiCAHgo, after all, LOL! Yes we don’t put ketchup on our dogs, btw.
Anywho, this was such an insightful, thoughtful article, once again, DI-anne, that I so appreciate you sharing this. Also, only a goofball would make a nasty comment on your youtube vlogs and clearly hasn’t watched them all, so as to understand how you use words. You explain & apologize so much, there is no reason for anyone to write yucky stuff. Your channel is a delight & educational. I’m so grateful for it & this website.
Q, formerly from Chiicago, but now Durham, North Carolina! If you & the fam r ever up our way, I’ll take you to coffee!
Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment. Yes, people can leave weird comments over there on YouTube but I always tell myself it says way more about them than me. And then I let them roll off my back. It’s the only way!
Merci for the coffee offer. I’ll absolutely take you up on that!
QiaJenae Hamilton says
: ) That’s soooo true! Water off a duck’s back is the way to handle it, for sure! Great!
Keith Van Sickle says
Great article! I live in both the US and France and can totally relate.
I generally take the “when in English use the English pronunciation route,” except for some place names that I only know in French. But I agree that the “pretension” issue is huge and I try to avoid it wherever possible.
As for my own name, Keith, French people have trouble with the “th” sound so I go by Keet or Kees in France (depends on the person.) When I’m introduced to a new person I call myself Kees to avoid causing them difficulty.
Yup, and in addition to place names, there are certain words I’ve really only said once I’ve moved to France — just never had the occasion in the USA really — so I don’t even know the right English pronunciation. I’ve probably sounded like an ass when I’ve said “sorry if I said that wrong. It’s a word I’ve only said in French.” Like reportage, a word I only use for my work and never really said in the USA. Sciatic nerve. Well my husband’s flares up and never used it in conversation until I moved here. So yah, things like that.
Same about the name. I’ve never introduced myself to anyone here with the American pronunciation.
Thanks for reading!
Niculina McClanahan says
Oh, the stories of mishaps…man, I need a full day to comment:))! My mother tells me now that I speak Romanian with American accent and indeed, every time an English word comes up in a conversation (either in Romanian, Italian or French) my first impulse is to say it in English. If I notice a puzzled look on the other person’s face, I repeat it and changing to the other’s language. In my experience, people speaking other languages than English have a real interest to learn how to pronounce English words like natives because they want to improve their pronunciation. The same with French or any other language for that matter. I don’t know what kind of person would make nasty comments about these words as there is a general confusion around them anyway.
Languages are living things, they always import words from each other, change, adapt and add the regional character into the mix. So no one really has a complete, perfect grasp of a one particular language at any given time. My advice to you is to leave the fools be fools, don’t even bother to explain yourself because if they didn’t get it from the beginning, they won’t get it anyway. The fiercest critics of mine are people who can’t articulate at least Good Day in any other language- just really narrowed minded people who think they know better than everybody else. There is room under the Sun for everybody and you’ve got a very bright and shinny spot!
So true what you said here: Languages are living things, they always import words from each other, change, adapt and add the regional character into the mix.
It’s all about being understood and not about trying to look superior or make someone else feel bad. Here’s a story I forgot about until now.
I was in an airport recently — 4am and just got out of hospital a few hours prior — and I wasn’t sure how to say Cape Verde in English so I probably said it incorrectly to a couple I met who was traveling there. They were way too chatty given the circumstances and was just trying to be polite, asking them about their upcoming vacation. Upon hearing my pronunciation choice, the husband (who was American btw) mocked me and laughed and I was like “Sorry, I’ve never said Cape Verde in English before so forgive me…” Not even sure he realized how snotty he was. But yeah, if someone asks me how to say something, I’ll explain to the best of my ability but would never call someone out or mock them. Sheesh!
As you said, let fools be fools. If someone feels the need to assert superiority over someone else, they must be very insecure. Not my type of people!
A fascinating post, Diane. It’s something that I’ve not really thought about. Thank you!
Where I am in France, I don’t need to open my mouth. They see me and they know I’m English (ie from England) and consequently, they expect me to speak English (such is our shameful and appalling reputation). Their delight that I speak “adequate” French is enough to cover a million errors of grammar or pronunciation. That doesn’t mean that I don’t work at it, though – I do. 🙂
Among the English, I speak English and pronounce French words the way I always have done. My only problem there is that I’m so rarely among English people, I have a tendency to forget in mid-conversation and muddle the languages.
The pronunciation of English words, names, places, well-known pop groups, people, etc on French tv fascinates me. In the UK, the BBC has an excellent facility for presenters to rehearse in advance any words in any language (including English!), and I’m surprised, especially with current affairs, documentaries and news readers, that it doesn’t happen here in France.
For pop groups / well known people, I don’t understand the odd pronunciation, because if DJ’s and other presenters used the correct pronunciation in any language, the majority would know how to say these words.
Having said that, it doesn’t actually bother me. I don’t understand it, but it’s France. The French accept me, and I accept them. No problem.
And if I’m not understood / don’t understand, a smile and a question or a puzzled look is usually enough to solve it.
Mutual courtesy and a big smile seems to go a very long way for me.
Hi Barney, thanks for reading!
What you said about the smile is so true. If you just accept things how they are and do your best with a not-too-serious attitude and a kind smile, it goes a long way. My aunt and uncle were here visiting in June and my aunt’s smile and friendly attitude made such a difference in how her overall experience was in France. No stress, no language worries, just be cool and smile and all is good!
Jo-Anne From downuder says
As someone who can only speak English I found this a really interesting post.
Thanks for reading, Jo-Anne!
Juliette Giannesini says
And I have the opposite issue in France! For instance, I can’t pronounce “Nike”, “Levis” or “tupperware” the way I used to when I lived in France. I just… can’t. I do say “dweja viewed” in English though 😆
Ah yah, the brand names are pronounced completely differently. Nike rhymes with like in France!
Had a very similar problem during one of my very first exchanges when I first arrived in France 5 years ago… I had just told my lovely host that I studied theatre in college and she replied that she just loved jjjorges clownaayy, did I know him ? I panicked and said nope don’t think I’ve heard of him… After about 5 minutes trying to tell me which movies he’s been in, I finally realized she was talking about George Clooney!! Super embarrassing haha!
Now I have the same problem in reverse referring to my boyfriend Rémi … never know if I should pronounce his name in French or in English when I’m talking to other English speakers. I feel a bit pretentious rolling my Rs and all, but also it’s his name !
Yup, sounds just like me, Anne, when I was teaching. I really couldn’t understand any of the American pop culture words the kids were saying. Now I know better but I felt so silly the first year or so I was here.
When introducing your bf, I’d probably say it both ways every time to English speakers, “So this is Remi (American pronunciation) but Remi (French pronunciation) in French.” Then it’s their choice to try to pronounce the R and choose the emphasis. 😉
Yep, that’s usually how I do things when introducing myself (Morgane) to English speakers. I always say “Morgan” and then if the person wants to try pronoucing it the French way I model it for them.
Taste of France says
Long ago, there was an SNL skit with Jimmy Smits where everybody but he pronounced Spanish words (in an English conversation) with an exaggerated accent.
Everything depends on whom I’m talking to. If I’m talking to family, I don’t do the French accent on French words or they would accuse me of being a snob. Some exceptions that I cannot say the American way: lingerie (I will never again utter lawn-jer-ay) and chaise longue (I refuse to say chase lounge).
Haven’t seen the skit but probably very similar in content to the video in my post. Hilarious and really sounds ridiculous.
As a French, I have to admit that the English pronunciation of lingerie baffles me. I mean, there isn’t a syllable pronounced the right way in there!
I also always have a laugh at “Les Misérables” or “Les Miz” and how everybody pronouncing it does so with a very serious face…
Jean(ne) in Minnesota says
This happened often when my French husband and I (American) visited his family in France. I still smile at not understanding my niece when she said “Lah dee dee”, meaning Lady Di (Lady Diana Spencer). It took a lot of ‘splaining, much laughter. Great, interesting post.
Ah, I’ve never heard Lady Di pronounced by a French person. Will perk my ears up!
Thx for reading!
I teach English to French middle-schoolers. Anytime Lady Di comes up in a conversation, I have to pronounce it the French way, or else my students wouldn’t know who I was talking about.
Same with the infamous Spiderman!
As a French person who speaks fluent English and has spent a lot of time in the USA with English-speaking persons (some of whom speak French, and some not), this is a very interesting question to me.
In English, I usually stick to the English pronunciation of the French words because otherwise people wouldn’t understand me. Besides, it’s very funny to say “vinaigrette” or “maître d'” or other French words in an English pronunciation. Like your husband, I sometimes have a hard time understanding French words spoken with an English accent, and it’s always funny when I finally understand that it is a French word!
In French, it depends on the word. I always pronounce “smoothie” the English way because even French people can understand it (and also because I usually pronounce the word when I’m ordering a smoothie, so context helps). However, I pronounce “brownie” the French way because I’ve had people giving me weird looks when I pronounced it the English way.
I teach English in middle school and I’ve always found English teachers who use an English accent in French quiet obnoxious. For example, in a conversation about the TV show Friends, they would pronounce all of the character names the English way, and it’s especially weird when you say Rachel the English way in the middle of a conversation in French. Like “j’ai regardé l’épisode de Friends où Rachel et Ross rompent”.
I always pronounce Stephen the French way in Stephen King. But one thing that pisses me off is people pronouncing “Simply Market” the French way “because we live in France!”. Pronouncing “simply” with an English accent is easy enough, anyone can do it; unlike words like “brownie” or “smoothie” which require a bit of practice from a French speaker before being able to pronounce it correctly….
Such a great post, as always ! Thank you Diane for sharing your experience.
I’m a French woman living in the US and here is my problem : when I go to the “French” bakery here and order a “viennoise” or a “pain au chocolat”, what I am supposed to do (or to order the “creme brulee” in a French restaurant) ?? I try to go for the English pronunciation, but I do’nt get it quite right and I feel it’s even worse than being the usual arrogant French person with the French pronunciation. I end up repeating at least three times and just showing the thing. (One time, I was so embarrassed I just took what they gave me – apparently I was saying “tarte aux noix” like “tarte au chocolat” ?!)
And I introduce myself as “Lori” just to make things easier. I only say it the French way if the person asks about the French pronunciation.
This post and video were very interesting ! As a French native speaker, bilingual in English and having lived in France, the UK and the US, I can really relate to this problem.
I also tend to stick to the accent and pronunciation of the language I’m speaking except for a few select words as mentioned by other commenters such as some first names or specific foods or things.
A few anecdotes showing that comprehension is the most important :
– when working in the US there was another French colleague working on the team and each time I pronounced ‘Florian’ the French way when referring to him I was met with blank stares. I had to switch to calling him Flo (which he went by) or americanize the way I referred to him.
What really still sticks with me in terms of annoyance with accents switching is a college class trip to a factory when I was studying in France (were were all French speakers ) and the guy doing the presentation was talking about the importance of safeguarding ‘le oh-ah-oh’. He kept repeating this over and over, so I ended up asking what that was. I was met with disbelief and jeers by my peers and presenter as he was saying ‘Know-how’ with the worst French accent you can imagine. This was extremely frustrating as I got lots of ‘I thought you spoke English’ and general stares making be feeling really embarrassed and annoyed that he was not using the perfectly normal word/expressions in French that describe the same thing : ‘propriete intellectuelle’ or ‘secrets de fabrication’ or ‘secrets industriels ‘.
Thanks for all the videos and thoughtful observations.
Lastly, I found it fun to discover some words that I’d never seen written until much later were actually French pronunciations of English words such as the silent block on a car. In French its said like “sigh-len-blok” which I just accepted as being a weird word but made much more sense once I saw it written down.