French pronunciation can seem pretty intimidating.
The sounds are tricky, and letters that look familiar from English can sound entirely different.
While French is definitely very different from English, it’s not that much harder.
Although all those silent letters can seem confusing at first, once you learn the rules and patterns, you’ll realise that French pronunciation is actually a lot more logical and regular than English pronunciation.
One of the main things that causes problems for French learners is that the alphabet is similar to the English alphabet.
Because we’re so used to reading in English, we associate the letters in the English alphabet with specific sounds. But in French, these same letters often represent different sounds than in English.
Many (but not all) languages have alphabets. Some, such as Spanish and Turkish, have alphabets where each letter corresponds to exactly one sound. This makes reading them easy.
Speakers of other alphabetic languages, such as English, are not so lucky.
Think about the word ending -ough in English The words cough, though, through and bough are written the same way but have four different pronunciations!
Some sounds, like the common “th” sound in English, don’t even exist in other languages, which explains why French speakers learning English often say “one,” “two,” “tree”.
For English speakers learning French as a second language, things are no different. There are some entirely new sounds, and without acquiring these sounds, your pronunciation can sound just as foolish!
However, this is no major challenge; it just requires focused practice.
There is a lot of good news for people who already use English and who are acquiring French.
In order to even begin learning about pronunciation in a new language, you need to be aware that what you read and what you pronounce are not always the same, as we know is the case with English and French.
What does this mean for you as a French learner? Well, effectively it means that there are actually more sounds in French than there are letters in the French alphabet.
Some of the letters (such as vowels) can have more than one possible sound, depending on the context they appear in. We find the same thing in English.
To this end, there is a useful tool called the International Phonetic Alphabet that you can use to identify different sounds. You don’t have to use this, but it can be quite helpful for learning to pronounce words.
In the examples below, each sound is represented by its phonetic alphabet symbol and then followed by examples of French words which use it. You can use the embedded audio to see how each one sounds.
Vowels are sounds produced with no obstruction to the air leaving the mouth. Many of the basic vowels are very similar to those of English. The first five are very fast, with no movement of the mouth:
Other vowels have no real equivalent in English and so require more focus and attention to learn:
Perhaps the trickiest vowel sound for English speakers is:
This sound very easy to produce once you isolate it and distinguish it from /u/ as in “through” but learners tend to mix these two sounds up a lot.
This vowel is extremely important because, without it, you'll will confuse very common words such as tout (all) with tu (you)!
Listen to both sounds carefully and see if you can hear the difference. The first sound you'll hear is /u/ and the second one is /y/.
The nasal vowel sounds can also prove challenging for English speakers because they are entirely new – we don’t use them in English.
Although it might not sound this way at first, the final “n” sound that you hear in nasal vowels is not pronounced with the tip of the tongue.
No contact is made between the tongue and the top of the mouth. Instead, air is released simultaneously from the nose and the mouth.
It is very easy to know if you are pronouncing these vowels correctly. Practice the vowels with a finger pressed against one side of your nose. If you’re doing it right you can feel a vibration!
It may help you to know that in French, syllables tend to end with a vowel sound, whereas in English, they often end with a consonant sound.
This is also true with nasal sounds. So, for example, pain has a nasal vowel, but peine does not.
A semi-vowel is produced by a rapid, upward movement of the tongue during pronunciation. Semi-vowels are similar to diphthongs (combination vowels) in English such as in “boy” and “cow”, where more than one vowel sound is pronounced at the same time.
Next, let’s look at the consonant sounds in French. Many of these sounds are the same as in English. We’ll look at those first:
A few consonant sounds in French are particular cases and can be a little confusing for English learners because they aren't associated with anyone single letter in the English alphabet:
Finally, there are three consonants that deserve special attention in French. In English, when these three consonants are stressed, they are aspirated. This means you blow out air when you pronounce them.
Hold a piece of paper in front of your mouth and say the word ‘paper’ with a loud voice.
The paper moves, right?
In French, aspirating these consonants can be used to show anger, but otherwise, they are never aspirated
Finally, at long last, the French ‘r’ sound.
As you probably already know, the French ‘r’ sound is quite different from what you’re used to in English.
The letter ‘r’ has many, many different pronunciation styles, and the ‘r’ we’re used to in English is actually far rarer than the ‘r’ sound in languages like French and Spanish.
In French, the ‘r’ sound is a glottal fricative. This means the back of the tongue is pressed against the upper throat as air pushes up around it. It is not a vibration.
To practice this sound, try gargling in your upper throat with a liquid, then try the same action again but without liquid.
It is especially important to practice this sound with a tutor, and to concentrate on consonant pairs which combine the ‘r’ with other consonants, for example:
Doing this will help you develop better flow in your speech so that you don't become hesitant or stuck when you have to use words with the ‘r' sound.
Word stress in English is all over the place. Sometimes, word stress can even be the sole factor in determining the meaning of a word (think of the verb ‘record’ and the noun ‘record’).
In French, however, things are considerably simpler. The stress is always on the last full syllable of a word:
Be aware though, many word endings are not full syllables, meaning the vowel is not pronounced as clearly:
With a little practice listening to French, you'll soon develop a natural understanding of these word stress patterns and you'll be able to easily apply them in your own speech.
Just as word stress is easier to determine in French than in English because there is less variability, sentence stress differs in the same way.
In English, typically only nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs receive stress. Think about the sentence:
The stressed words, ‘likes’, ‘cook’, ‘dinner’, and ‘daughter’ are louder, longer, higher in pitch and have clearly pronounced vowels.
Now let’s look at the French translation of this sentence:
In this sentence, all of the vowels are more or less clearly pronounced. No one word or vowel is significantly louder, longer or different in pitch to the others.
Begin by listening in order to recognise sounds, then practice producing them.
Remember, recognition comes before production. If you can’t hear the difference between an English ‘r’ and a French one, you will not be able to produce it effortlessly.
Don’t be intimidated and think you have to learn how to every sound perfectly before you engage in a casual conversation in French.
As far as mastering its pronunciation, French is no different from any other language. It takes time and lots of practice, but it's far from impossible.
So stick with it, practice consistently and follow the tips outlined here and you’ll soon get the hang of it!
Which French sounds do you find the most difficult? What do you do to practice your French pronunciation? Let me know in the comments!
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