The 9 French words that foreigners never quite pronounce right

As a foreigner trying to wrap your tongue around French, some words will be more of a challenge than others - as one Australian Formula 1 driver found.

The 9 French words that foreigners never quite pronounce right
Photo: AFP

Aussie racing driver Daniel Ricciardo is part of the Renault Formula 1 team and it seems that his French colleagues have been having some fun with him.

The below video shows them giving him a quick French test, where it slowly becomes obvious that they have picked for him all the words that foreigners find famously difficult.


And while les pneus (tyres) might be handy for a F1 driver, we're not sure how often he's going to need l'écureuil (squirrel) in his professional life.

So, in sympathy for poor Daniel, here's our look at some of the worst tongue-twisters the French language has to offer.

1. Le pneu

Contrary to English words like pneumonia and pneumatic, in French the p is pronounced in le pneu – a tyre.

Pouvez-vous m'aider, j'ai un pneu crevé? – Can you help me, my car has a flat tyre?

The cathedral in the city that is the capital of Normandy. Photo: AFP

2. Mille-feuille

This is well worth learning because if you can manage to ask for one in the patisserie you get a delicious flaky pastry and custard confection.

The double l in the feuille makes a 'y' sound in this pastry which literally translates as '1,000 leaves' – a reference to the layers of flaky pastry.

3. Grenouille

Two reasons not to call your French neighbours frogs: firstly they may not like it and secondly you'll almost certainly pronounce it wrong.

There's something about the combination of the rolling r and the double l 'y' sounds that Anglophones find very difficult.

4. L'eau

This sounds like it should be a simple 'oh' sound, but it's one that Anglophones frequently don't get quite right when ordering.

Rather than just asking for water, we find it's simpler to order une carafe d'eau or un pichet d'eau if you want tap water or une bouteille d'eau minérale if you want mineral water, just so everyone is clear about what it is that you want.

This body part often causes some trouble. Photo: AFP

5. Se débrouiller

This is a handy little verb, meaning to manage or to get by, a sensation familiar to most new arrivals in France.

Comment est votre français? Je me débrouille – How is your French? I get by.

Just look out for the rolling r and the 'y' combo again when you're getting by. 

6. L'écureuil 

If you're living in a French city you might not have much use for the word for squirrel, but it is something of a tongue twister. If it helps at all, a lot of French people find the English word 'squirrel' quite hard to pronounce, so at least it's even.

7. Rouen

But if you're planning on moving to a city, don't make it Rouen.

Not that there's anything wrong with it of course, it's a lovely city with a lot of employment opportunities. It's just that you'll never be quite sure whether you live in rouan, wran, roin, roan, rooouen. There's even some debate among the French on exactly how to say it.

8. L'oeil

Another puzzle is the word for eye, and if you can think of adapting your sentence to talk about two eyes les yeux that is considerably simpler.

Oh, and if a French person invites you to jetez un oeil (throw an eye) it's not an invitation to throw body parts around, they're just asking you to take a glance or run your eye over something.

9. Serrurerie

The French word for locksmith has been the despair of many an Anglophone. In fact if you accidentally lock yourself out of your home we hope you've left a key with a neighbour.

It's the repeated rolling throaty 'r' that seems to be the problem, as the below video demonstrates.

And this is before we even get started on the many French words that are virtually identical in pronunciation to other words with a very different meaning.

So if you want to learn the difference between kissing and screwing in French, or how to avoid accidentally telling your mother-in-law that you have a sore dick, click here.




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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.