English and French are two languages that are bound not just by proximate geography, but by history, culture and more.
The English language wouldn’t be what it is today without its considerable French influence following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, and of course nowadays thanks to the power and influence of countries such as the US, the English language helps make up new words in the French language.
But despite all the crossover and closeness of the two languages, there are still words in English that truly confound our French-speaking friends.
Read on below to see the 10 hardest English words to pronounce for French people with common mistakes and tips on how to help with pronunciation as well.
For our list, we have foregone the obvious examples of words that are inherently long or complex. Words like “antidisestablishmentarianism” are tricky to pronounce for most people, French-speaking or not. Instead, we’re focusing on difficulties presented by specific linguistic differences.
1. “Breathe” — the “th” sound
Breathe – [briːð]
- The “th” [ð] sound is voiced and made with the tongue against the front teeth, which is not common in French pronunciation.
The first tricky pronunciation point for French speakers is the “th” sound in English. In French, they do spell words with this combination of letters, including people’s names — think former soccer star, Thierry Henry, for example — but in French the ‘h’ in this combo is invariably silent.
In English, however, French speakers are not only forced to sound all the letters, but to do so in a ridiculous-feeling motion of sticking the tongue out of the mouth.
So, words like “breathe” are tricky, with the “th” often being replaced with a “s” or a “z” sound instead.
Breathe pronunciation tips
|Mistake: Replacing “th” with a “s” or “z” sound.||Tip: Practice by placing the tongue lightly between the teeth and blowing air out for the “th” sound.|
2. “Restaurant” — the rhotic “r”
Restaurant – [ˈrɛst(ə)rɒnt] (British), [ˈrɛstrənt] (American)
- The rhotic “r” [r] is pronounced clearly in English, unlike the guttural French “r”.
This one might seem a peculiar choice for our list, given that the word “restaurant” has its origins in the French language. It comes from the verb ‘restaurer’ which means to restore, refresh, or replenish.
It first referred to a special kind of nourishing soup, but soon was used to describe places where people could get refreshing food and drink to eat. So, why is it such a struggle to say this word in English?
The answer lies in the special rhotic “r” of the English language. It is pronounced a lot more firmly and clearly than in French, where “r” comes as a more guttural sound from the back of the throat, never having the chance to form into the more familiar English “r” that many know.
Just as the French “r” is hard for English speakers, it seems the difficulty goes both ways.
Restaurant pronunciation tips
|Mistake: Softening the “r” sound too much, making it guttural.||Tip: Focus on pronouncing the “r” by curling the tongue slightly back, without making it too harsh.|
3. “Voice” — the “v” sound
Voice – [vɔɪs]
- The “v” [v] sound in English is more pronounced and vibrant compared to the lighter French “v”.
Words like “voice” and “violin” are made very difficult for French speakers because of the different ways that the two pronounce the “v”.
French does have words with “v” in them, such as the well-known “voila” for example.
However, the French “v” is far lighter and comes with less vibration than the English one, which can make reproducing these words accurately in English more of a challenge to French speakers.
Voice pronunciation tips
|Mistake: Making the “v” sound too light, similar to a soft “f”.||Tip: Practice by placing the upper teeth lightly on the lower lip and vibrating the lips as you voice the “v”.|
4. “Boat” — the many diphthongs
Boat – [boʊt]
- The diphthong [oʊ] combines two vowel sounds, which is less common in French and can be difficult to replicate.
English speakers take for granted how simple short words like “boat” are to pronounce for them.
For French speakers, as well as people in other languages, even these seemingly straightforward words are loaded with devilish detail, in this case a diphthong — a combination of vowels that makes up one sound.
These are far less common in French, and so cause confusion in those where letters and combinations of letters, especially vowels, are pronounced differently.
Boat pronunciation tips
|Mistake: Not blending the diphthong “oa” smoothly.||Tip: Practice by starting with an “o” sound and transitioning to a brief “a” sound, making it one fluid motion.|
5. “Banana” — the “schwa” sound
Banana – [bəˈnænə]
- The “schwa” sound [ə] as in the first and last syllables is a more relaxed, neutral vowel sound not emphasized in French.
English speakers do love their “schwa” words. These are words that end in vowels that are pronounced, but just not very strongly.
It sounds like an “uh” sound, and can be created by almost any vowel ending.
Take a word like “zebra” as an example, it ends in “a” but that is not an “AH” sound, but more of a casual “uh” — zee-bruh. This is the schwa.
French speakers are more precise with their nouns, and often rather elegantly leave vowels at the ends of words unpronounced, especially the letter “e”.
It makes saying “banana” rather tricky, where in French they say “banane.” They tend to over pronounce the final “a”.
Banana pronunciation tips
|Mistake: Overpronouncing the final “a” instead of using a schwa.||Tip: End the word with a softer, more subdued “uh” sound, almost like a hum.|
6. “Twelfth” — clusters of consonants
Twelfth – [twɛlfθ]
- The consonant cluster [lfθ] can be challenging due to the rapid succession of different consonant sounds.
French speakers are not alone in their frustration at consonant clusters such as those found in the word “twelfth.” Words like these are an assault on the brain and the mouth.
There’s just too much going on, and it becomes too easy to omit a key sound. To correctly pronounce “twelfth”, one must nail the “l” and the “f” and the “th” all in one syllable, and in rapid succession.
A similar example is the word “sixth”.
Twelfth pronunciation tips
|Mistake: Omitting or mixing up sounds in the consonant cluster.||Tip: Slowly pronounce each consonant (“l”, “f”, “th”) separately, then gradually speed up to combine them smoothly.|
7. “Squirrel” — the “qu” combination
Squirrel – [ˈskwɪrəl] (British), [ˈskwɜrəl] (American)
- The combination of “qu” as [kw] and the rhotic “r” [r] can be challenging for French speakers to articulate.
The “qu” combination in French tends to form a more standard “k” type of sound, but in English it is a more confounding “kw” sound that can be very tricky for French speakers to master.
Why does the word “squirrel” stand out in this?
Well, “squirrel” is made even harder for French speakers because not only do they have to deal with the “qu” right after an “s” but then it is once again followed by that difficult rhotic “r” sound that we mentioned further above.
Squirrel pronunciation tips
|Mistake: Struggling with the “qu” sound and the rhotic “r”.||Tip: Practice the “kw” sound by saying “k” and “w” quickly in succession, followed by rolling the “r” slightly.|
8. “Colonel” — the random silence
Colonel – [ˈkɜrnəl] (American), [ˈkɜːnl] (British)
- The word is pronounced quite differently from its spelling, with the “l” being silent and the “o” sounding like [ɜr].
Once again, we have a word that does exist in French, but once transferred to English becomes quite infuriating.
In the French language, “colonel” is pronounced quite a lot as it sounds, but in English it’s a whole other story. To start, the first “l” is silent, but then the remaining letters are pronounced “ker” rather than they appear: “Co’o”.
If you were a French speaker trying this word in English for the first time, you can imagine the confusion upon hearing just how different it has become when traversing the English Channel.
How does “col-oh-nel” in French become “ker-nuhl” in English? Bizarre!
Colonel pronunciation tips
|Mistake: Trying to pronounce it as it’s spelled.||Tip: Remember it as “kernel” and practice this simplified pronunciation.|
9. “Borough” — the ever-changing “ough”
Borough – [ˈbʌrə]
- The “ough” [ʌr] presents a unique pronunciation challenge, differing from its French counterpart.
Next, we have a classic problem with English pronunciation that brings a lot of struggle to the classrooms and other learning spaces of France, namely the “ough” combination.
“Borough” is perhaps one of the best and trickiest examples for French speakers because not only does it contain the ever-shifting “ough” pattern, but also a rather strange “buh” to sound out the “bo” (another schwa-type sound).
If you look at the following “ough” words, you’ll start to see just how irritating this combination can be for our French cousins:
Every one of these words has a different pronunciation depending on its “ough” element. Quel horreur!
Borough pronunciation tips
|Mistake: Mispronouncing “ough” and the initial “bo” sound.||Tip: Think of it as “bur-uh”; practice by saying “bur” followed by a soft “uh”.|
10. “Worcestershire” — the global nightmare
Worcestershire – [ˈwʊstərʃər] (British), [ˈwʊstərʃɪr] (American)
- The middle “ces” is silent, and the overall pronunciation is significantly condensed compared to its spelling.
Finally, we come to the place name that flummoxes French speakers, not to mention some English speakers from the far side of the Atlantic Ocean, and that’s “Worcestershire.”
The presence of the middle “ces” section, and seemingly left out entirely when pronounced correctly, is enough to drive people mad.
Other examples include “Bicester” (pronounced ‘bister’) and “Leicester” (pronounced ‘lester’).
Breathe pronunciation tips
|Mistake: Attempting to pronounce every letter.||Tip: Simplify it to “Woos-ter-sher” (British) or “Woos-ter-sheer” (American), focusing on smoothly transitioning between syllables.|
Historical Linguistic Influences
The connection between English and French languages goes way back, essentially all the way to the Norman Conquest in 1066. This event led to many French words being added to English.
Over the years, English changed a lot, taking these French words but often changing how they sound. This is why some English sounds are really hard for French speakers – they’re quite different from what they’re used to in French.
For example, the English ‘r’ sound and some vowel combinations came from this mix of languages.
Knowing this history can help French speakers understand why some English words are tricky to pronounce and help them learn these sounds better.
While English and French share a long history, this doesn’t always make pronunciation easier for French speakers diving into English.
The unique sounds like the rhotic ‘r’, challenging diphthongs, and perplexing spellings like in ‘Worcestershire’ can be tough.
But understanding why these words are hard to pronounce is key. It’s a mix of historical influences and distinct phonetics.
For French speakers, tackling these words is more than just a language lesson – it’s a peek into the intertwined past of English and French. With practice and a bit of patience, mastering these challenging pronunciations is absolutely achievable.