English words the French simply can’t say

English-learners might get off lightly when it comes to grammar but pronunciation problems can leave them in a proper pickle. Here are the toughest of all words for French people to get their lips around.

English words the French simply can't say
A confused squirrel, no doubt trying to pronounce his own name. Photo: Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr
We've already held up the mirror to ourselves and revealed the hardest words for English speakers to pronounce in French.
Now the tables have turned.
We've collected what readers deemed to be the most difficult words for French people to pronounce while speaking English.
You'll probably notice a few themes here, particularly with the letters TH, H, R, and I. And for the French readers, we've even added a few tips to help you out.
Let's begin.

(Photo: Laszlo Ilyes/Flickr)
This is a rare double-banger — not only is it impossible for French people to pronounce (skwee-woo?), but the French word for squirrel – écureuil – is also extremely tough for us foreigners. Luckily for us all, squirrels don't come up in conversations too often.
Our tip to the French: Avoid the word at all costs. 

(Photo: Shutterstock)
Facebook follower William Hosey said he's noticed the word thorough is a tough one. “My wife is French and an excellent speaker and translator,” he says. “However the “th” at the beginning and the “rough” at the end make it difficult. They see the “rough” at the end and try to pronounce it “ruff”, instead of “row”.”
Tip for the French: Avoid. Use the word proper and properly instead of thorough and thoroughly.
While this may not be one of the most commonly mispronounced words, we love the story from Al Rivera on Facebook. She told us she used to have a French chef who would call them “broonies”. We bet they still tasted good though.

(British model and actress Lease Hurley. Photo: AFP)
It's not only the word Liz, but any word featuring the short i sound (bin, hit, sip, live, etc). But we particularly like the example of the word “Liz”, shared with us by Facebook follower Liz Bennett. “I get called 'Lease' all the time,” she wrote. Don't worry, Lease, it will get better with time.
Our tip to the French: Keep calling her Lease. She'll find it endearing eventually.

(Photo: William Warby/Flickr)
In all fairness, when testing out this list of words in our office, even our native English speakers stumbled on the phrase “three thousandths” (sree-sows-ence). But if we stumbled, the French seem to face plant. Look at all those horrible th's and s's. It's no surprise people can't say it. Luckily, it's not a common word. But “thousand” is, and often proves difficult all the same. 
Tip to the French: If an English speaker makes fun of your pronunciation, ask them to say it. They might just fail too. We did.

(Photo: Tiffany Bailey/Flickr)
Yes it's true, the French don't have much time for the 'umble H. They'd rather enjoy 'appy 'ours in 'otel bars without 'aving to think it. But a reader favourite in pronunciation was the double barrel H word – hedgehog. Or as some French people say, edgeog. 
Our tip to the French: Keep saying edgeog, it's very charming.

(A blue moon occurs rarely. Photo: Shutterstock)
Those pesky Rs again. English teacher Crystal Gibson says her French students always struggle with “rarely”. And who can blame them? The French roll their Rs, and rarely has two very unrolled Rs very close together. 
Our tip to the French: Say “Not often”.

(Photo: Michael Dales/Flickr)
And lastly, a few readers pointed out that when some French people say “focus”, it can sound similar to “f**k us”. Very disturbingly so. To make matters worse, notes blogger Oui in France, business language can become a minefield: “I want to focus hard on next week’s presentation…” Beware.
Our tip to the French: Pronounce the first syllable like the French word “faux”.
That wraps up our list. Honourable mentions to the words: South, thriller, and depth, which were all brought up by readers too but which we found to be too similar to other words above. 
Finally our editor still can't get used to being told to “take the shits (sheets) out of the washing machine” by his French partner.

Member comments

  1. (I’ve given up Susan) my neighbour had me in fits when she had to mime “ships, chips and sheep” Ended up drawing them. They all sounded the same!

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Le Havre rules: How to talk about French towns beginning with Le, La or Les

If you're into car racing, French politics or visits to seaside resorts you are likely at some point to need to talk about French towns with a 'Le' in the title. But how you talk about these places involves a slightly unexpected French grammar rule. Here's how it works.

An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre.
An old WW2 photo taken in the French port town of Le Havre. It can be difficult to know what prepositions to use for places like this - so we have explained it for you. (Photo by AFP)

If you’re listening to French chat about any of those topics, at some point you’re likely to hear the names of Mans, Havre and Touquet bandied about.

And this is because French towns that have a ‘Le’ ‘La’ or ‘Les’ in the title lose them when you begin constructing sentences. 

As a general rule, French town, commune and city names do not carry a gender. 

So if you wanted to describe Paris as beautiful, you could write: Paris est belle or Paris est beau. It doesn’t matter what adjectival agreement you use. 

For most towns and cities, you would use à to evoke movement to the place or explain that you are already there, and de to explain that you come from/are coming from that location:

Je vais à Marseille – I am going to Marseille

Je suis à Marseille – I am in Marseille 

Je viens de Marseille – I come from Marseille 

But a select few settlements in France do carry a ‘Le’, a ‘La’ or a ‘Les’ as part of their name. 

In this case the preposition disappears when you begin formulating most sentences, and you structure the sentence as you would any other phrase with a ‘le’, ‘la’ or ‘les’ in it.


Le is the most common preposition for two names (probably something to do with the patriarchy) with Le Havre, La Mans, Le Touquet and the town of Le Tampon on the French overseas territory of La Réunion (more on that later)

A good example of this is Le Havre, a city in northern France where former Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who is tipped to one day run for the French presidency, serves as mayor. 

Edouard Philippe’s twitter profile describes him as the ‘Maire du Havre’, using a masculine preposition

Here we can see that his location is Le Havre, and his Twitter handle is Philippe_LH (for Le Havre) but when he comes to describe his job the Le disappears.

Because Le Havre is masculine, he describes himself as the Maire du Havre rather than the Maire de Havre (Anne Hidalgo, for example would describe herself as the Maire de Paris). 

For place names with ‘Le’ in front of them, you should use prepositions like this:

Ja vais au Touquet – I am going to Le Touquet

Je suis au Touquet – I am in Le Touquet 

Je viens du Touquet – I am from Le Touquet 

Je parle du Touquet – I am talking about Le Touquet

Le Traité du Touquet – the Le Touquet Treaty


Some towns carry ‘La’ as part of their name. La Rochelle, the scenic town on the west coast of France known for its great seafood and rugby team, is one such example.

In French ‘à la‘ or ‘de la‘ is allowed, while ‘à le‘ becomes au and ‘de le’ becomes du. So for ‘feminine’ towns such as this, you should use the following prepositions:

Je vais à La Rochelle – I am going to La Rochelle

Je viens de La Rochelle – I am coming from La Rochelle 


And some places have ‘Les’ in front of their name, like Les Lilas, a commune in the suburbs of Paris. The name of this commune literally translates as ‘The Lilacs’ and was made famous by Serge Gainsbourg’s song Le Poinçonneur des Lilas, about a ticket puncher at the Metro station there. 

When talking about a place with ‘Les’ as part of the name, you must use a plural preposition like so:

Je suis le poinçonneur des Lilas – I am the ticket puncher of Lilas 

Je vais aux Lilas – I am going to Les Lilas

Il est né aux Lilas – He was born in Les Lilas  


Islands follow more complicated rules. 

If you are talking about going to one island in particular, you would use à or en. This has nothing to do with gender and is entirely randomised. For example:

Je vais à La Réunion – I am going to La Réunion 

Je vais en Corse – I am going to Corsica 

Generally speaking, when talking about one of the en islands, you would use the following structure to suggest movement from the place: 

Je viens de Corse – I am coming from Corsica 

For the à Islands, you would say:

Je viens de La Réunion – I am coming from La Réunion 

When talking about territories composed of multiple islands, you should use aux.

Je vais aux Maldives – I am going to the Maldives. 

No preposition needed 

There are some phrases in French which don’t require any a preposition at all. This doesn’t change when dealing with ‘Le’ places, such as Le Mans – which is famous for its car-racing track and Motorcycle Grand Prix. Phrases that don’t need a preposition include: 

Je visite Le Mans – I am visiting Le Mans

J’aime Le Mans – I like Le Mans

But for a preposition phrase, the town becomes simply Mans, as in Je vais au Mans.