When you're learning French, French pronunciation can seem pretty intimidating.
The sounds are tricky. And letters that look familiar to 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.
In this post, I'll take you through some of the key aspects of French pronunciation that'll help you understand native speakers and sound more like one yourself:
- Why is French So Hard to Pronounce?
- The Basics of French Pronunciation
- How to Pronounce French Words and Sentences
- 3 Tips to Improve Your French Pronunciation
If you're determined to master French pronunciation, I recommend French Uncovered, my in-depth online French course for beginners that teaches you through the power of story.
The course features…
- In-depth French pronunciation lessons
- Notes on the pronunciation differences between colloquial spoken French and standard French
- European and Canadian French audio so you can practice pronouncing and understanding both accents
To find out more about French Uncovered, click here.
It's worth taking the time to master French pronunciation in the early stages. It'll make it so much easier to get your French to fluency faster.
So let's get into it.
Why Is French So Hard To Pronounce?
One of the main things that causes problems for French learners is that the alphabet is similar to the English alphabet.
Because you're so used to reading in English, you 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:
- Firstly, French words are generally pronounced the way they appear. You need to get used to the different sounds that each letter represents, but once you do, French is pretty consistent.
- Secondly, just like in English, there are patterns for learning pronunciation. For example, have you ever realised that every word in English that ends with “–tion” or “–sion” has the primary stress on the syllable just before it? Pro-nun-ci-A–tion. In French, every “tion” or “sion” word is stressed at the very end, so this word becomes pro-non–cia–TION.
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. The same thing happens 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:
- /a/ – like in the English word ‘car’
- pas (not)
- la (the (feminine))
- /ɛ/ – like the first part of ‘way’ in English
- elle (she)
- être (to be)
- /e/ – very similar to /ɛ/ but somewhere between English ‘way’ and ‘hen’
- Note: For some speakers, /ɛ/ and /e/ are the same sound /i/
- déjà / already
- désolé / sorry
- /o/ – like English ‘go’ but with more rounded lips
- une eau (water)
- un euro (euro)
- /u/ – like English ‘you’ but with more rounded lips
- où (where)
- pourquoi (why)
- /ɛ:/ – like the English word ‘head’
- une fête (a party)
- un rêve (a dream)
Other vowels have no real equivalent in English and so require more focus and attention to learn:
- /ɑ/ – pâtes
- /ø/ – œufs (like “uh” but with the lips rounded)
- /œ/ – seul (similar but less rounded)
- /ə/ – cela (similar but with the mouth nearly closed)
Perhaps the trickiest vowel sound for English speakers is:
- /y/ – jus (produced like /u/, but as a front vowel, meaning the mouth is drawn back toward the tongue)
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 don't exist 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's easy to know if you're 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.
- /ɛ̃/ – vin (like “van” in English, but the key is to not “release” the /n/ at the end of the word)
- /õ/ – monde
- /ɑ̃/ – enfant
- /œ̃/ – un
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.
- /ɥ/ – huile (like in the English word ‘swing’)
- /w/ – ouest (like in the English word ‘west’)
- /j/ – dieu (like in the English word ‘yellow’)
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:
- /b/ – bateau (like in the English word ‘boat’)
- /d/ – dîner (like in the English word ‘dinner’)
- /g/ – gare (like in the English word ‘gift’)
- /f/ – flic (like in the English word ‘fall’)
- /l/ – lait (like in the English word ‘lazy’)
- /m/ – mêler (like in the English word ‘mix’)
- /n/ – nous (like in the English word ‘nice’)
- /s/ – sac (like in the English word ‘sack’)
*Note: Always pronounced /s/ when beginning or ending a word but /z/ when placed between two vowels)
- /ʃ/ – chat (like in the English word ‘machine’)
- Note: ch in French is always soft, not /tʃ/ as in the English word ‘chocolate’.
- /v/ – vous (like in the English word ‘vile’)
- /z/ – zoo (like in the English word ‘zoo’)
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:
- /ʒ/ – japonais (rare in English, as in ‘treasure’)
- /ɲ/ – poignet (as in the second syllable of the word ‘onion’)
- /ŋ/ – camping, smoking
- Note: These -ing words often do not have the same meaning as in English. A jogging in French is a tracksuit.)
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.
- /p/ – papier
- /t/ – terre
- /k/ – coup
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're 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.
- /R/ – rue
To practice this sound, try gargling in your upper throat with a liquid. Then, try the same action again but without liquid.
It's 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.
How To Pronounce French Words & Sentences
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:
- He likes to cook dinner with his daughter.
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:
- Il aime préparer le dîner avec sa fille
3 Tips To Improve Your French Pronunciation
#1 Listen to Lots of French
You won't improve your French pronunciation without plenty of French input. In this case, that means lots of French listening. There are plenty of ways to do this:
- Listen to French podcasts: these are perfect if you're on the go a lot and find it hard to fit French learning time into your day. With podcasts, you can listen any time, any where, no matter your French level.
- Watch French movies: once you've reached an intermediate level in French, you can immerse yourself in the language and culture through French movies.
- Listen to story-based French listening material, like French Conversations: you'll listen to and learn to catch fast French, while being immersed in a compelling story.
#2 Imitate French Speakers
It's much easier to focus on pronunciation in the early stages of learning French, even if it's painful, than to fix pronunciation problems later on.
Instead of having your nose in your books, try saying words and phrases out loud. You can do this as you listen to podcasts or movies as I suggested above.
If you're feeling really brave, you can even start recording yourself and comparing with natives to see how well you're imitating them and how to improve. More on that in the next section.
As awkward as speaking out loud and imitating French speakers may feel at first, this will get you the most bang for your buck in language learning. More on that and other tips to get fluent in French fast here.
#3 Talk to French Speakers
As I mentioned in the section about the ‘r' sound, you'll make more progress with feedback from a French speaker. There's a couple of ways you can set this up:
- Set up a language exchange with a partner
- Find a French teacher or tutor
For more pronunciation tips like this, check out this episode of my podcast which is all about pronunciation.
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!
Want To Get Your French Pronunciation Right From The Start?
Getting your French pronunciation down early on is a great confidence booster as people will understand you better. And as a bonus, you'll understand them more easily too!
That's why pronunciation training is a key element of French Uncovered, my course to take French beginners and false beginners (A1-A2 on the CEFR) to fluency using the power of story.
This course is completely different to traditional French methods which don't get great results. Instead of pouring over grammar books and memorising rules, your main job is to listen to and read a compelling story.
The vocabulary, structures and sounds you need to get fluent in French emerge as you immerse yourself in the material. If you'd like to try this new, story-based method for learning French click here to find out more.
Which French sounds do you find the most difficult? What do you do to practice your French pronunciation? Let me know in the comments!