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French Words

How to learn French pronunciation in 5 easy steps

Have you started to learn French Pronunciation? Are you loving studying this Romance language?

Yes, like most French students you probably are but what you are also likely to have in common with them is the difficulty to pronounce some French words correctly.

Don’t worry though, in this blog I will walk you through the main difficulties and give you some tips to overcome them. You’ll soon sound like a real native speaker.

Yes, you will, and remember as French natives say “Impossible n’est pas français”(impossible is not French. In other words, nothing is impossible)!

Why is so it difficult for English speakers to pronounce French words correctly?

First of all, let’s try and think of the reasons why you’re struggling to pronounce French words properly. Understanding the cause will help you practice better and therefore improve.

 

      A. Spelling

The difference between the way a word is spelt and the way it is pronounced is undeniably one of the main reasons why some French words are so difficult to say. French spelling doesn’t always follow a phonetic spelling pattern.

And that’s without mentioning all its silent letters (both vowels and consonants), its nasal sounds (that don’t even exist in English…) and all its various accents which make its spelling tricky to pronounce. So, how do you work it out?

Well, good job you’ve found this guide to help you out!

 

     B. Linguistic evolution

Every language evolves: new words appear to adjust to our everyday lives (by this, I mean new words are used to name new objects, for example), the spelling of some words remains the same as it always has been but their pronunciation differs.

This is, for example, the case with silent letters at the end of a word. Indeed, they used to be pronounced but since 1200 this slowly stopped. We can think of the silent e at the end of a word for example.

It used to be pronounced but, now, it only is if has an accent.

Now, let’s analyse in more depth why some sounds are difficult to be pronounced by English speakers. No doubt though that after having read this French pronounciation guide and after having practiced a little bit, you will manage perfectly fine.

 

  1. How do you pronounce French letters?

Before even thinking of pronouncing words, you have to master how to pronounce French letters. Did you know that even though the French alphabet has 26 letters, there are at least 38 different phonetic sounds in French?

That’s because when you combine two or more letters, you produce a new sound.

A. So first thing first, I have written the alphabet and how to pronounce each letter.

Get practicing!

Letters of the French alphabet and their respective sounds

LETTERS SOUNDS
A a
B be
C se
D de
E uh
F ef
G jay
H ash
I e
J gee
K ka
L el
M em
N en
O o
P pay
Q ku
R air
S s
T te
U [y]
V vay
W duble vay
X eeks
Y egrek
Z zed

 

   

 

 B. Interesting facts about the French alphabet

Did you know that there are six vowels in French? A, e, i, o, u and y. Like most English speakers, you probably do struggle with the vowel U as its sound has no equivalent in English.

Moreover, you can create new sounds by combining vowels. Here are some examples:

au, eau like in aurore (dawn), marteau (hammer)

ou like in ouragan (hurricane)

ai like in aimer (to like, to love)

oi as in oiseau (bird)

eu and oeu as in bleu (blue) and oeil (eye)

 

  1. Nasal sounds

Let’s carry on with one big difficulty for English speakers to pronunce: the nasal sounds. Like I mentioned previously, if English doesn’t have any nasal vowels, French has plenty.

But, stop threatening, it is not as hard as it seems!

But what exactly is a nasal sound? Well, basically, when you pronounce vowels individually, air flows through your mouth.

However, when you combine vowels with m or n (which are nasal consonants), and therefore transform a normal sound into a nasal one, air doesn’t only flow through your mouth but also through your nose.

This is the reason why these sounds are called nasal.

Here is a little exercise for you to feel the difference. Put your hand close to your mouth and pronounce the sound a as in attraper. Now, do the same thing with the sound am as in camp.

Do you feel as much air on your hand the second time? No. That’s because in the second case, air goes both through your mouth and nose.

A common mistake made by English speakers is to pronounce the vowel and the consonant (m or n) separately rather than as a one and unique sound.

This is simply because there isn’t any word with nasal vowels in English but plenty with nasal consonants. So remember: a nasal vowel is not an oral vowel + a nasal consonant. It is a different and unique sound.

How would you read this sentence? Un bon vin blanc. A bit tricky, isn’t it?

Here are the different nasal sounds and the way to pronounce them to help you out.

 

NASAL SOUNDS EXAMPLES
Am, an, em, en Camp, chant, embout, enfant
Ien Chien
Im, in, aim, ain, ein Impossible, intestin, main, bain, rein
Om, on Concombre, bonbon
Um, un Sébum, un

 

  1. Silent letters

Which letters are usually silent in French? Unlike in English where most letters are pronounced, in French most final consonants are usually silent and so is the “s” marking the plural form of a word as well as the “h” at the beginning of a word.

Ok, so what’s the point in having letters written in words if you are not going to pronounce them? I see what you mean but they actually have their importance. They are used to mark the feminine or the plural and to ease reading words in a sentence (make a liaison). There also are etymological reasons. Some silent letters are there to create other words belonging to the same family such as plomb and plomberie.

A.Silent final consonants

See below a grid with the different silent consonants in French and an example each time. Just to make it crystal clear, in this table you will find letters that you don’t actually pronounce at all or that change the pronounciation of the letter before it. For example, the letter z in “nez” in not pronounced “zed” but it changes the sound of the letter e which is not pronounced “uh” there but “é”. Understood? Perfect, let’s start then.

Letters French words and their translations
B Radoub (dry dock)
C Banc (bench)
D Pied (foot)
F Nerf (nerve)
G Hareng (herring)
Gt Doigt (finger)
H Aneth (dill)
M Parfum (perfum)
N En (in)
P Beaucoup (a lot)
Mpt Compter (to count)
R Foyer (home)
S Toujours (always)
W Bungalow (bungalow)
Z Nez (nose)

 

 

B; H at the beginning of a word 

The letter h is important when it comes to liaisons. Indeed, in most cases, h stops the liaison from happening. Therefore you won’t do the liaison between the “s” and “a” in the following sentence:

“J’adore les / haricots verts”.

“J’adore les / haricots verts”.

Don’t worry though, it’s not that much of a big deal if you make a mistake with h and its liaisons. We’ll still understand you!

 

 

  1. Liaisons

Il est beaucoup trop émotif.

To make their conversation smoother, French people do what we call a liaison. In other words, they pronounce two words that follow each other as one like in the following example:

What do you notice? Yes, you’ve got it! “Il” and “trop” finish with a consonant whereas “est” and “émotif” both start with a vowel.

Here the liaison is on “il est” and “trop émotif”

So, here is the rule: if a word finishing with a consonant is followed by one starting with a vowel, then you have to do the liaison.

 

.

  1. Letter combinations

I have attached the International Phonetic Alphabet on the following link. It is taken from the University of Toulouse, France

http://w3.uohprod.univ-tlse2.fr/UOH-PHONETIQUE-FLE/DOCS/DOC01.pdf

Let’s start our explanations with vowels and then move onto consonants.

       A. Vowels

       a. The letter Œ:

This letter, well combination of letters, doesn’t exist in English. It comes from the Greek diphthong of which became oe in Latin and then œ in French.

This same letter can be pronounced in three different ways.

International Phonetic Alphabet Its use French words
[ø] Nœud (knot), Bœufs (beefs)
[œ] When the letter œ is followed by u and then r or f ur (heart),  œuf (egg)
[e] Not used anymore Œsophage (oesophagus).

It used to be pronouced ésophage.

     b.Combinations of letters with A

The first vowel of the alphabet can be combined with different letters as you can see below.

International Phonetic Alphabet Combination of letters French words
[e] Ai Paire (pair)
[o] Au, eau Automne (autumn, fall), château (castle)

     c. Combinations of letters with E

E can be combined with other letters but there again, in one case, the same combination can have different sounds. Let’s have a look.

International Phonetic Alphabet French words
[ø] Heureux (glad)
[œ] Filleul (godson)

E can also be combined with the letter R. You’ll see this combination at the end of some infinitive verbs such as jouer (to play) or rigoler (to laugh).

      d. Combinations of letters with O

When combined, the O makes sounds that will appear rather difficult to you as an English speaker as they don’t exist in English. You are therefore not used to hear them nor to put your tongue in the right place.

International Phonetic Alphabet Combination of letters French words
[oi] Oi Oiseau (bird)
[u] Ou Oublier (to forget)

B. Consonants

As you will see in the following examples, consonants can also produce a different sound depending on which letters they are followed by. 

     a. Combinations of letter with G

This can be a tricky one as it can make hard or soft sound.

International Phonetic Alphabet Combination of letters French words
[g] Ga, go, gu (hard sound) Garage (garage), goéland (seagull), guide (guide)
[ə] Gi, ge (soft sound) Girafe (giraffe), gêner (to embarass)

[ɲ]

 

Gn Poignon (moolah, dosh → slang)

     b. Combination with the letter L

When the L is doubled up, its sound becomes [j] as in bille (marble).

     c. Combination with the letter T

Last but not least: the letter T. When it is followed by the vowel I, it makes a soft sound. It is then pronounced [s] as in opération (operation).

 

Conclusion

Now that you are aware of the different challenges French pronunciation can throw at you, it should be easier to master it. All it takes is a bit of practice. Enjoy your learning adventure!

Side Note: Want a light introduction to French Courses Online? Check Out Our French Courses Online for Beginners

Read Next: French Adverbs: The Definitive Guide

1 Comment
  • Carl
    5:02 AM, February 2018

    I really liked the presentation.

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