The one dipping your toes into the waters of French while steadfastly ignoring those weird accents that keep floating by.
We’re talking about the written French accent marks that are an important part of spelling and pronunciation, and can even play an important role in grammar.
What’s the deal with those, anyway? In English, we only use letters and the occasional apostrophe—and we still mix those up!
Maybe you feel as though French is already confusing enough, so you’d rather disregard those accents and hope no one will notice.
Sorry to disappoint you, but it turns out that those marks actually pack a big punch.
Yes, learning French should be fun and all, but gleefully skipping over French’s accent marks while remaining gloriously oblivious to their functions won’t get you very far.
The good news is that in the grand scheme of things, the basics of French accents are easy to grasp.
In fact, spoiler: There are only five accents to learn.
There’s aigu (É), grave (È), cédille (Ç), tréma (Ë) and circonflexe (Ê).
Four of these accents are used on vowels, and one is used on a consonant. Not only do they dictate the pronunciation of a word, but they can also change the meaning of a word.
For small and innocent-looking little marks, they’re pretty powerful!
But don’t worry, we’ll teach you all of them in this post and, believe it or not, keep your attention while doing it.
French Accent Pronunciation Basics for the Easily Distracted
Helpful Tips for Practicing the French Accents
Before we get into the accents themselves, here are some easy ways to incorporate learning them into your daily studies. Hang in there! Like with any part of French, practice is the name of the game, but there are some tricks and resources that make practice easier:
- Practice listening to and repeating common words. The best way to get your accents down is to familiarize yourself with how they sound in different words. This simple page features a few quick audio clips and word lists to contextualize the accents for you.
- Use an accent typing tool: What good is it knowing how to use and pronounce these accents if you can’t type them on your computer? Here’s a guide to show you how to do it on your keyboard, but if you would prefer, you can use this handy tool and then copy and paste as needed.
- Use online exercises that help you practice your application of accents: The best way to master French accents is to practice using them in words.
- Purchase a “Bescherelle”: A “Bescherelle” is a staple in any French classroom. This is the Holy Grail of French grammar. French accents make more sense when you can see them in the framework of grammar as a whole, and the “Bescherelle” is your guide to all things French grammar. The “Bescherelle” also includes lots of word lists which help you to get familiar with the many ways in which accents are used in French words. You can also check out this guide to navigating your “Bescherelle.”
- Watch this funny video about the use and history of l’accent circonflexe: Sometimes, you just need to find the funny in your learning. This YouTube video features a humorous history of l’accent circonflexe. (P.S., this channel covers a variety of other French topics.)
- When you can stand it, do some French grammar drills: I know, this probably reminds you of elementary school, but these exercises work! Check out some drill exercises to practice writing your French accents in context until they’re perfect!
Keep in mind that many of the best resources for practicing French accents (like some of those above) will be in French. Don’t exclude these just because your French comprehension isn’t there yet. Remember that you can:
- Turn English subtitles on in YouTube.
- Use in-browser translation (Chrome is especially handy for this).
- Have a translator app open in another window as you work on your exercises or reading.
- Just use FluentU, which will teach you to use French accents naturally without requiring you to do any of the above! FluentU takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons. Its bilingual subtitles, quizzes with built-in accent options and authentic material will make learning how accents affect pronunciation easy and enjoyable.
Now, let’s go have some fun.
Pronunciation and Use of the 5 French Accents
Ç: Accent cédille
In French, the letter C can be pronounced one of two ways: as a K sound—as in carafe (jug or pitcher)—or an S sound—as in cinq (five).
The general rule is that you would pronounce a C as an S if it’s followed by an I or E. The cédille acts as a signifier that this word is an exception to the rule.
In other words, the placement of this accent precludes the need for the C pronounced as S to come before an I or E (say that five times quickly).
A trick for remembering this accent: See that little curve hanging off the C? Doesn’t it look a little bit like a tiny S? You with me? Good, because…
How to pronounce it: The cédille is pronounced as you would pronounce an S in any other word. In my opinion, this is the easiest accent not only because the pronunciation is straightforward, but also because it’s only ever applied to the letter C.
Common words that use this accent: Français, of course! Other common words include garçon (boy), déçu (disappointed), ça (that) and reçu (received).
A cool word that uses this accent: Verglaçant. This word translates to “freezing rain,” because the root of the word is glaçe (ice).
É: Accent aigu
I consider this accent to be the second easiest one, because it’s only applied to the letter E and the pronunciation is intuitive for most English speakers. This accent is also used to indicate the past participle, for example:
Il est arrivé. (He arrived.)
There are a number of other grammatical uses for the accent aigu, but we won’t go into them here.
A trick for remembering this accent: Maybe it’s my roots, but a trick that always comes naturally to me is to think of this accent as the colloquially used “eh” sound that Canadians are so famous for.
How to pronounce it: Whether you think of it as “eh,” “ay” or the letter A, consider l’accent aigu a cue to lean deeper into your vowel with an open sound.
Common words that use this accent: Café, salée (salty), ménage (housecleaning).
A cool word that uses this accent: Dépayser, which means to be out of your comfort zone. It’s an easy word to remember because it incorporates the French word pays (country), and most of us associate comfort with our home country.
À, È, Ù: Accent grave
Okay, we’re getting into the multiple-letter accents. Don’t fear! L’accent grave is an accent that’s here to help, not harm you! It helps you (and other French speakers) distinguish between similar words.
A trick for remembering this accent: The role of this accent is to differentiate between two words that might otherwise look the same, but have different meanings, such as ou (or) and où (where). So I guess you could say that this is the accent that prevents you from making a grave mistake…. get it?
How to pronounce it: L’accent grave only changes the pronunciation of the word when it’s applied to the letter E. If this accent isn’t on an E, you can carry on and pronounce as you would normally. In the case of an E, the pronunciation is a closed sound, as opposed to the open “eh” sound of l’accent aigu.
Common words that use this accent: Très (very), biftèque (steak), derrière (behind), à (to/at).
A cool word that uses this accent: Délétère, which translates to deleterious (or harmful). This word is a perfect example because it showcases the different use and pronunciation of both the aigu and grave accents.
Ë, Ï, Ü: Accent tréma
This is an accent that really stands out, which is appropriate given its effect on pronunciation. You may have seen this accent as an umlaut in German, and although its purpose is different from the tréma, in both languages this accent changes the pronunciation of a word significantly.
A trick for remembering this accent: Think of this accent as an immunity card—the tréma cancels out the pronunciation rules that would otherwise apply.
How to pronounce it: The tréma creates a sound that’s distinctly different from the letter that came before it. This is a departure from how French is typically spoken, wherein two letters combine to make one sound. For example, mais (but/however), is pronounced kind of like “may,” but with the addition of the tréma, the word becomes maïs (corn), and is pronounced more like “my-ees.”
Common words that use this accent: Noël (Christmas), Jamaïque (Jamaica), naïve.
A cool word that uses this accent: Hautboïste. Okay, so you may not be using this word every day, but the French word for someone who plays the oboe is a pretty peculiar-looking one.
Â, Ê, Î, Ô, Û: Accent circonflexe
This is our last accent, and possibly the most complex when it comes to pronunciation. There’s a bit of a history lesson with regards to this accent, as it has a Latin origin. Long story short, the accent circonflexe came to replace an S in some cases where the word had included that S following the vowel.
A trick for remembering this accent: Think of this as a petit chapeau (little hat). In fact, petit chapeau is how many children first refer to this accent. It can be found on any of the vowels in French.
How to pronounce it: Pronunciation of the I and U is not affected by this accent, so you only have to worry about how it affects the A, E and O:
- When you see â, the easiest way to think of it is a slightly rounded A sound, similar to what you’d find in the word “bat,” but with a rounder sound. For example, in the word pâtes (noodles).
- The ê is pronounced with a short vowel sound, as in the word “bet.” For example, in the word tête.
- The ô is pronounced as a short and closed sounding O, as in the word “hello,” but without the drawn-out O at the end. For example, in the word bientôt (soon).
Common words that use this accent: Forêt (forest), fête (party), hôpital (hospital).
A cool word that uses this accent: Émoticône. Yes, that’s right, there’s a French equivalent to this newly coined word for those smiley faces you put into text messages. Now this is a word for today’s day and age!
And there you have it! Your quick and easy guide to pronouncing French accents.
That wasn’t so bad, was it?
Now you can take what you’ve learned and start paddling back upstream.
Loie Gervais is an educational writer and editor. She specializes in language, post-secondary education, academic skills and organizational behavior.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.