Learning French is one thing: you learn your French vocabulary and French grammar, write your flashcards, make your adjectives agree, memorize your verb conjugations, practice your spelling - and you can write perfect French. But then you open your mouth - and you sound like a bad imitation of the Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau.
Speaking French means mastering pronunciation. And that is more difficult than simply learning French greetings and saying “bonjour”, “merci” and “bonne nuit”. Studies have shown that babies become focused on the sounds of their mother tongue even before they are born; the older you are, the harder it is not only to form different sounds, but to hear the subtle differences between two similar sounds when listening to a language.
But cheer up! There are enough French dialects and accents that a certain variation in the pronunciation of words is not unusual. And the most important thing is not 100% correct pronunciation - it’s getting it just enough right that everyone understands you.
How To Pronounce French Vowels 1: Simple Vowel Sounds
Vowels are the bane of English speakers trying to learn a second language. This is because few English vowels are pure.
Remember that classic film, “My Fair Lady”? (If you don’t, go out and rent it, borrow it or stream it.) Apart from featuring a rather horrid Cockney accent by Audrey Hepburn, it also shows a professor of Phonetics shuddering at the amount of vowel sounds in one “oi!”. Most English accents don’t have just one sound within a vowel, but several. Linguists call these diphthongs.
Just think of how O is pronounced in English. Notice how your mouth closes a bit in a W sound a the end? Or how the A in “spade” rhymes with “may”? (If you don’t speak with one of the “standard” English accents, just bear with me. And you have diphthongs, too, I assure you.)
The French language has very few diphthongs, and those are generally easy to spot as they are usually written with two letters (see below). So, if you speak with British pronunciation or American pronunciation, you will need to learn to shorten your vowels and make them purer when you speak French.
Here is a little pronunciation key for the usual French vowels:
|Vowel||English equivalent sound||How you can modify it to sound more French|
|A||Similar to the A sound in “lawn”||For the French A, open your throat more, but don’t make the sound too long|
|I||same as the English letter E, or ee as in “seed”||Again, don't make it too long|
|O||like in “location”||Open the throat more and make the mouth rounder|
|U||like the German Ü, “you”||Take that tiny sound right after the Y in “you” and tighten your lips more|
|Y||he Y sound in yellow, not in spy; or an “ee” sound if followed by a consonant||That’s it, basically.|
The variations of the vowel E
Beginners can easily get confused at the different ways that the French pronounce the letter E. You can listen to the different pronunciations on this site.
The letter E is often pronounced like the letter combination “eu”. This is closest to the German “ö” than anything the English language can produce. It’s nearest perhaps to the “ur” or “ir” sound in “survey” and “girl”, or the E in “angel” but open it up a lot and form your lips into an O sound.
It is pronounced that way at the end of words (”le”, “te”), or in words with a two-consonant + e + one consonant group (”mercerie”, “pelleteuse”…) and between two single consonants (”menuisier”, “cerise”)
Another way to pronounce E is like in the English word “set”. This is the case between two single consonants in a one-syllable word (”mer”, “cher”) or before a two (or more) -consonant set (”serpent”, “envers”), or at the beginning of words (”express”, “expérience”).
Yet another way to pronounce E is like “eh” with an Australian accent (take a moment to really sit back and imagine it.) Remember to keep it short! This is how it is pronounced when it is written with the accent aigu.
At the end of words, barely pronounce the E. It’s just a soft way of letting French words fade out rather than ending abruptly. This is standard French; there are French regional accents where it is spoken more strongly, like an “eu”.
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How To Say French Vowels 2: French Accents and What They Do
Fortunately, very often, E gets an accent that tells you exactly how it should be pronounced. When you learn French, it’s easy at first to ignore the little strokes on top of the vowels. However, they are important, and you should pay attention to them as they are an integral part of the spelling of French words. They modify the value of the vowels.
There are three accent marks in the French language:
- The accent aigu (acute accent) : é. Only used with the letter E. Almost like the A in “same”, but lose the Y sound at the end and close up your throat. You might want to close the sides of your mouth a little more, too.
- The accent grave (grave accent): è, à, ù, is only placed on those three letters. It opens and lengthens these vowels somewhat: eeeh, aah. The use on ù consists exclusively of the French word où (where), where it actually shortens the “ou” (”oo”) and sets it apart from “ou” (or).
- The accent circonflexe (circumflex accent): ê, î, â, ô, and the letter û. The only vowel that cannot get a circonflexe is Y. The circonflexe greatly opens and lengthens the vowel, more so than the accent grave. It is common in certain verb conjugations and often pops up in a French word that used to have an S after the vowel, such as hôpital (from the same root as the English word hospital), hôte (see English “host”), “gîte” and others.
- The tréma, or diaeresis: only on the letters ï and occasionally ë. It shows that a vowel is pronounced separately in a double-vowel group: Noël (noh-elle) or maïs (mah-ees).
When you learn French, remembering what these little strokes are for will help you pronounce French nouns and French verbs correctly.
How To Learn French Vowels 3: Nasal Sounds and Diphtongues
These sounds are both the most iconic in the French language and the easiest to mispronounce when you are a beginner French student. When pronouncing nasal vowels, try to make the sound, not so much in your throat as in your nose. To practise, try closing your mouth and speaking though your nose. It won’t get you the exact sound yet, but will help you practise that nasal component and get a feel for it before your next French classes.
The basic French nasal sounds are:
- On: say an O through your nose; the n is a silent letter and only there to show it is a nasal.
- An, am* / en, em*: Open up the “on” into an A or schwa. Technically, the “an” spelled with an “a” are more open in the throat that those written with an E. In conversational French, though, they are often interchangeable, even for a native speaker.
- In /im*/ain: say an I through your nose.
- Un: In daily speech, French people barely differentiate “un” from “in”; however, there is a subtle difference. Try saying “uh” nasally.
*the spelling with the M is used before a P. If the P comes at the end of the word then it is silent.
French has two diphthongs:
- Oi: careful, this diphthong is pronounced “wa” and not like the English “oi” or “oy”. (Except in the Quebec dialect where they pronounce it “wè”.)
- “Il” and “ille”: if preceded by a vowel, they are pronounced “eey”:œuil (ö-y), pareille (pah-rey).
Learn to Speak French Consonants: Note the Difference
When reviewing the French alphabet in your French class or French online lesson, remember that not every consonant is pronounced exactly like in the English language. For example:
- C is generally pronounced like a K except in front of an E or an I, where it’s pronounced like the S in English: carapace = ka -ra-pa-s, précis (pray-see).
- G like in “garden” except when it is between two vowels, in which case it sounds like the English J without the D sound in front of it: “gomme” (gom) but garage (gah-raj) and luge (lüj).
- H is mute. There is often a slight glottal stop at the beginning of words starting with H, but the sound is never, ever pronounced. However, French grammar occasionally acknowledges it is there: while certain words beginning with an H get treated as though they start with a vowel (l’homme, l’hysterie), others acknowledge the H and don’t contract or do the “liaison” before it (un hibou. Un haut arbre.)
- J like the English J, but say it without the D sound at the beginning. (Juge, jouer)
- L those who speak English say the L with the tongue near the teeth. In French, try putting your tongue a little further back on your palate. It gives the L a slightly different intonation that makes you sound like a francophone. Listen to French sound files and you will hear it.
- Q almost always appears followed by U. Together, they form a K sound (quelle, question, enquête…)
- R The French R is not rolled as in Italian or Scots, but it isn’t quite the English R either. When you say it, try rolling the R sound not with your tongue, but at the back of the throat. Listen to Edith Piaf, a French singer. She rolls her Rs rather theatrically, but this paragon of French music can show you th difference to the Italian R if you are willing to listen carefully.
- W like the English pronunciation of the letter V (wagon).
An addition to the French alphabet: the symbol ç
In your beginner French course, you might have noticed that the French C is sometimes embellished with a little tail: ç. It is derived from the Visigoth script version of the letter Zet.
The C with a cedilla is used in the middle of words to indicate that the letter C should be pronounced differently - namely like an English S instead of K: placard (plah-kar) and glaçage (icing, as in a cake) and, of course, français.
How To Pronounce Certain Letter Combinations In French Speech
When reading French phrases out loud, here is how you should be pronouncing the following letter combinations if you want an authentic French accent:
- Eu like the German “ö”, but shorter. See the first pronunciation for E above.
- Er at the end of a sentence is pronounced like the “é”
- Ou like English “oo”, but shorten the sound.
- Ai like the è (maire, faire, laisse)
- Ei like the è (peigner, Seine)
- Gn - in the middle of a word, this corresponds to the Spanish ñ, sounding a bit like the “ny” in “Bunyap” or "ni" in “onion”: “peigne” (peh-nye), chignon (shee-nyon)
- Ch is the equivalent to “sh” in the English language: “chat” (shah, cat), “cheveux” (sheu-veu, hair)
And now, one more thing. If you want to learn French, you have to realise that many of the endings are not pronounced at all. The dictionary will use the phonetic alphabet to tell you how to pronounce things correctly; however, it pays to remember: -ent endings in French verb forms are usually silent, as are endings in vowel + s and vowel + t.
Read about the wonderful world of French slang!
All french courses london (or wherever you are based) you will cover many of the above lessons in the language.