What do names, email addresses and street names have in common?
You often need to spell them aloud to others.
Such is the case in French, too.
So can you do it? Can you spell all three in French right now?
If you’re not there yet, don’t worry. The French alphabet is completely learnable, and this guide is just what you need to get there.
The French alphabet might look similar to the English alphabet, but there are a few essential differences.
While there are 26 letters in the alphabet, there are 5 additional accented letters which can be applied to change the sound of the letter. Plus, some letters are extra easy for native English speakers to mix up, like J and G.
We’ll walk you through it all, since the French alphabet is so important for learners to know.
Why Learn the French Alphabet?
It’s the foundation of all French pronunciation
You will probably be aware at this point that the French pronounce their words differently than we do in English, and what look like familiar letters can often trip you up—unless you know your alphabet.
The differences between letters with and without accents can also completely alter the meaning of a word, so you should learn those variations in sound as soon as possible.
It’s a great way to practice your accent
With good pronunciation comes a good accent in French and the ability to talk more easily. Slowly focusing on the sounds of the alphabet will help you internalize the differences in sound and, as a result, make complete words a lot less of a tongue twister later down the road.
Taking the time to run through the French alphabet before you begin each lesson will act as a great verbal warm up, and give yourself time to adjust to the new way of speaking.
It will help you with spelling
Getting to know how the French alphabet works will make writing and reading more of a breeze. Hearing the sounds of each letter make dictation and writing exercises more manageable.
Combinations of French letters often form unexpected sounds, so if you want to really hone your spelling, it pays to have a solid understanding of the French alphabet.
The ABCs are possibly one of the simplest parts of the French language, yet also one of the most important. By approaching it like any other element of the learning process, you’ll be able to more easily make the link between speaking, writing and reading down the line!
5 Valuable Tips for Learning the French Alphabet Like a Native
1. Practice Daily with a Pronunciation Guide
First things first, you’re going to want to find a pronunciation guide that really goes into detail, and I recommend The French Tutorial. While you don’t need to take weeks focusing on the French alphabet, you do want to ensure that you get the basics down and locked in your mind. Start by learning the names of each letter, which are found under “Alphabet” on The French Tutorial.
As well as audio files, there are tons of great alphabet tables available online, which also contain the letter names. The website Spell and Sound is a great resource to use, as it contains a full written list of the letters, accompanied by their names. Beginning your lessons by reading and then reciting the alphabet will make memorization much easier and get you in a great learning habit.
The entire alphabet is also available as audio files which can be broken down, one letter at a time. Many learners choose to make a letter chant, which can help with the memorization process. While lots of videos are directed at children, they can actually be really useful in the learning process. YouTube has plenty to offer on this front, and videos by either Vocabzone or Alain le Lait are worth taking a look at.
2. Listen to How Consonants Sound at the Start and End of Words
Consonants in French can be pronounced in any number of ways, depending on where they fall within a word. While consonants within the French alphabet don’t tend to be pronounced dramatically differently, they can alter depending on the word in which they’re used.
Many consonants at the start of words are sounded out, while others at the endings are not. Choose a new letter each week, and source a list of words which include that letter at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of the word. Use a French dictionary to hear the correct pronunciation of your words, and notice any differences in pronunciation based on the letter’s location within a word.
The letter “h,” for example, is not pronounced in French and words which begin with this letter are often pronounced from the following vowel. Hôtel (hotel), for example, is pronounced as “‘otel.” As a result, words which begin with an “h” often have the last consonant of the preceding word sounded at their start. If you were to say un hôtel (a hotel), for example, you would pronounce the final “n” at the start of hôtel, making the words sound something like “un ‘otel.”
Certain consonants at the ends of words, however, are normally not pronounced. Unless the next word begins with a vowel or a silent “h,” many consonants are dropped from the endings of words. In most scenarios, “d,” “x,” “s” and “t” are silent when they appear at the end of a word, which gives French pronunciation its trademark soft ending. Un rebond (a bounce) is spoken without stressing the final “d,” for example. Taking the time to understand how letters work within words might take a little getting used to, but will be essential to your progression in French.
If you’re not sure where to begin, there are many digital resources which run through all the types of consonants, and how they can be used within words. The site Language Guide does a good job of running through some of the more unusual sounds, linking to audio files and example words. About.com contains a slightly more rigorous page for consonants, going through each letter in turn. Just click on the letter you want to learn about and listen to all of the variations in pronunciation.
3. Pronounce Vowels with Each Accent in Turn
The pronunciations of different letters in French are indicated by the presence or absence of different accents. Accents often transform the sound of the letter, and are an essential part of the French language. Luckily, there are tons of guides out there to make your life a little easier.
Often, very little marks the difference between certain accents, and attuning your ear to the sounds will stand you in good stead for the future. YouTube channel French From Beginners to Advanced has a particularly useful video, which uses a single letter to explain the differences between each accent.
If you want a written guide to take away, however, The Grammarist is a great site to make a part of your learning routine. The site focuses on phonetic spelling in order to mark the subtle differences, and also names the different accents.
This short little video on FluentU shows the importance of accents in distinguishing some smaller—yet powerful—French words. Once you’ve got the basics down, you can then watch other real-world videos on FluentU—like music videos, news, commercials and inspiring talks—while looking out for words with accents. By moving away from grammar resources and into authentic content, you’ll prepare yourself to pronounce and use accented letters in unscripted situations.
4. Focus on a New Vowel Pairing Every Week
French uses a huge variety of different vowel pairings to produce a number of different sounds. Many pairs turn up time and time again, so they can be learned by heart. Once again, The French Tutorial is a fantastic resource for lessons like these, as it contains a list of the most common vowel pairings and audio clips to prompt good pronunciation.
While certain pairings are easier to remember in French, there are others which take some getting used to. The letters “ai,” for example, take on a different pronunciation in French than in English, and are spoken as more of an “ay” sound than anything else. Une maison (a house), for example, sounds more like “une may-son,” and it’s very important to remember this difference.
Choose one vowel pair to focus on each week. Along with formal practice and online exercises, also look for words containing that vowel pair in authentic content—like news articles, TV shows and on Facebook. Remembering vowel pairings is something that will come with time, so don’t worry if you’re struggling to remember the different sounds when you first start out.
5. End Your Lessons with Phonic Exercises and Games
As with all parts of French, mastering the French alphabet is best done over time. No one expects you to remember everything after hearing the letters just a few times, so don’t sweat it! When you’re in the process of learning, however, it’s worth following up technical lessons with interactive activities and games in order to test everything that you’ve covered.
Tes has a great page dedicated towards students learning the French language, and uses illustrations and audio files to teach you handy ways to remember different pronunciations and insights into the alphabet’s differences and similarities. BBC Bitesize is also well-equipped when it comes to the alphabet, and contains an interactive keyboard on which you can spell out words and listen to accented letters.
You could also end your weekly language exchanges with a few fun minutes of spelling! Spell a few words to your partner and see how you do, and then swap turns and write down a few words as your partner spells them to you.
Learning your French alphabet is one of the first and most important things that you do when taking on the language. Trust me when I say that it pays to give the alphabet enough attention.
It naturally forms a sturdy base from which you can branch out into reading, writing, listening and speaking down the road.
So start following these simple learning tips today, and you’ll soon be able to spell every street sign that you see!
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