Understand Fast Spoken French: How we emphasize syllables [French vs. English]


French pronunciation is difficult. For example, we tend to stress the syllables in French words differently than you would in English!

Here’s how you can start to subtly change the way you emphasize the different syllables in French words, so you can sound more fluent when you speak French.

C’est parti !

1) The rule for emphasizing syllables in French

In French:
On accentue la dernière syllabe du groupe de mots.
= We emphasize the last syllable of a group of words.

For instance:

  • Une baguette (two-syllable word, the second syllable is just a tiny bit longer than the first one.)
  • Le chocolat (= chocolate, with a silent “t,” a three-syllable word.)
  • La chocolatine (a four-syllable word, also called Le pain au chocolat.)

A “group of words” can be one word, or two words or more. They’re linked together by:

  • One breath → Less than around nine syllables
  • One meaning → Not cut at random, it has to make sense

For instance:

  • Une baguette de pain = a bread baguette, or simply a baguette.
  • Le pain au chocolat

Both of these are “groups of words,” with only a final stress on the last syllable. As if they were one single word each. It would be hard to cut them in the middle with a stressed syllable, since they’re so short. It would sound robotic and strange. Especially since they’re very common groups of words, fused together by habit and use.

Une virgule (= a comma) can be used to force a separation between different groups of words.

You can find more rules, explanations and examples on this other source.

2) The rules can be pretty vague

The point of knowing the rule is that you can practice and train your ear, until you don’t need the rule anymore. Many French people don’t even realize we’re stressing the last syllable – but they do it naturally.

Oftentimes, you can choose where to place your stress, where to cut between groups of words. Let’s take the sentence:
Il nous reste une baguette de pain et deux pains au chocolat.
(= We have one baguette and two small chocolate breads left.)

It’s more than 10 syllables, you have to cut it into different groups of words. You can choose to place the stresses on:

  • Il nous reste une baguette de pain et deux pains au chocolat.
  • Il nous reste une baguette de pain et deux pains au chocolat.

If French people speak so fast, it might be to get more syllables in the same breath. So with fast spoken French pronunciation, where we eat some letters, we could have for instance:
J’ai plus d’pain au choco, ! = I don’t have any pain au chocolat left, come on.

can mean “over there” or “right now,” but in this last example it’s more of a filler word to express frustration. Filler words are very often in a group of their own.

Emphasizing syllables can be a way to emphasize a meaning, an intent. For instance:
Tu viens demain, hein? = You’re coming tomorrow, is that right ?
→ Stress on “demain” = “Remind me, is it tomorrow that you’re coming?”

Tu viens, demain, hein ? = same thing, but cut differently with a comma
→ Stress added on “viens” = “Reassure me, are you really coming, tomorrow?”

It might seem like a lot to take in, but don’t worry too much. Once you know about the rule, all it takes is practice: you only have to listen and imitate how other French people speak, even if it’s on TV.

In the meantime, emphasizing the “wrong” syllables will simply be a mark of your accent, and accents are cute.

The rule of today’s lesson also comes from the Parisian French accent, the one you’ll hear most on TV or movies (or with Comme une Française). But other French accents can emphasize syllables differently. A French person from Alsace or the Martinique can have their own accent too.

3) More examples

Non, c’est pas une ficelle, c’est une baguette de pain. = No, it’s not a ficelle bread, it’s a baguette bread.

Un aéroport = an airport
Un éléphant = an elephant
Un oiseau chanteur = A songbird.

Un parking (= parking lot) → Notice that it’s not how you’d stress that word in English; the French pronunciation rule applies even when the French word originally comes from English!

Elle est partie à la gare. = She went to the train station.
Or: Elle est partie à la gare. → Alternate cut, slightly emphasizes that she left.
Or even: Elle est partie à la gare.Other possible cut, emphasizes that she was the one who left to the train station.

In any case, we’d always emphasize the last syllable of a word, only.

And now you can dive into the other problems of speaking and understanding Spoken French!

Click here to get your next lesson:

À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!

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Join the conversation!

      • Bonjour Guillaume,

        Loup is pronounced [loo], the letter p is not pronounced, and louvier is pronounced [loo-vee-yay]

        I hope this helps.

        Comme une Française Team

  • Comme tu nous as dit Géraldine, quand on
    écoute les français en parlant eux-mêmes
    on entend la bonne prononciation. Comme
    ça, petite â petit, on apprend et on fait des
    progrès. Merci beaucoup pour la leçon et
    pour les explications très utiles.

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