Speaking French is more than just knowing the vocabulary and grammar rules. You also need to pronounce the letters correctly. Unless you started learning French as a child, you're unlikely to ever sound like a native speaker, but it's certainly not impossible for adults to speak with a decent French accent. Here are some ideas to help you improve your French pronunciation.
Learn French Sounds
Basic French Pronunciation
The first thing you need to do is understand how each letter is usually pronounced in French.
Letters in Detail
As in English, some letters have two or more sounds, and letter combinations often make completely new sounds.
Accents don't show up on certain letters just for decoration - they often give clues about how to pronounce those letters.
International Phonetic Alphabet
Familiarize yourself with the pronunciation symbols used in French dictionaries.
Get a Decent Dictionary
When you see a new word, you can look it up to find out how it's pronounced. But if you're using a little pocket dictionary, you'll find that many words aren't there. When it comes to French dictionaries, bigger really is better. Some French dictionary software even includes sound files.
Pronunciation Preparation and Practice
Once you've learned how to pronounce everything, you need to practice it. The more you speak, the easier it will be to make all of those sounds. Here are some techniques that can help you in your French accent improvement project.
Listen to French
The more you listen to French, the better you'll get at hearing and distinguishing between unfamiliar sounds, and the easier it will be for you to produce them yourself.
Listen and Repeat
Sure, this isn't something you'd do in real life, but mimicking words or phrases over and over is an excellent way to develop your pronunciation skills. My French audio dictionary has 2,500 sound files of words and short phrases.
Listen to Yourself
Record yourself speaking French and then listen carefully to the playback - you might discover pronunciation mistakes that you're not aware of when you speak.
Read Out Loud
If you're still stumbling over words with tricky letter combinations or lots of syllables, you definitely need more practice. Try reading out loud to get used to making all of those new sounds.
Depending on your native language, certain French sounds and pronunciation concepts are more difficult than others. Take a look at my page on pronunciation difficulties for lessons (with sound files) on some typical trouble spots for English speakers (and possibly others as well).
Speak Like the Natives
When you learn French, you learn the correct way to say everything, not necessarily the way the French actually say it. Check out my lessons on informal French to learn how to sound more like native speakers:
Unlike grammar and vocabulary, pronunciation is something that you can't learn by reading (although there are some excellent French pronunciation books). But you really do need to interact with native speakers. Ideally, you would do this face to face, such as by going to France or another French-speaking country, taking a class, working with a tutor, or joining the Alliance française.
If those truly are not an option, at the very least you need to listen to French, such as with these tools:
The Bottom Line
Getting a good French accent is all about practice - both passive (listening) and active (speaking). Practice really does make perfect.