French consonants are like chameleons.
Sometimes, they’re silent.
Other times, they speak up.
In some cases, they’re pronounced “soft”; in other cases, they’re pronounced “hard.”
The good news is, there are some rules to help you understand how French consonants behave. And when you learn these rules, your French fluency will get a boost.
Why Learn About French Consonants?
Taking a little time to match up consonant patterns with pronunciations will make your French studies easier in the long run.
- Improve your French pronunciation. When you learn how French consonants are pronounced in most words, you can speak more confidently and sound more like a native.
- Better understand the French you hear. With a mastery of French consonants, you can make a deeper connection between spoken and written French. If you’ve learned some words by reading in French, understanding French consonants will help you more easily recognize those same words in spoken French.
- Facilitate French reading and writing. French spelling is fairly consistent—much more so than English. Learn French consonant pronunciations to better grasp the spelling of words, which can improve both your reading and writing in French.
How to Practice French Consonants
To practice French consonants so that they become second nature to you, you can take advantage of several different forms of media and learning modalities.
Open your ears
While all of the consonants in French are present in English, these letters can sound a bit different in French, especially when they are pronounced at regular French speaking speed.
For example, in the French TV show called Dix pour cent (Ten Percent) or “Call My Agent!”, as it is known in English, the letters can sound quite foreign, especially because they are all blended together in quick speech.
Because of this, starting with audio-only French listening practice will help you train your ears to recognize the sounds of French consonants. French music in every imaginable genre provides diverse listening practice.
If talk radio is more your speed, an array of French podcasts can give you a similar experience that will also keep your ears attuned to French consonant sounds.
Listen with captioned video
Captioned video gives you the opportunity to combine audio with reading, as well as visual clues.
As you watch a captioned French video, you can read the words as you hear them pronounced in context. Watch speakers’ faces and mouth positions to see how they produce the sounds you hear.
Of course, it’s not always easy to find really useful captions. The captions on YouTube videos are frequently auto-generated; as a result, they often contain errors. Although poor captioning can sometimes be amusing, it will not support your learning goals.
In addition, some captions will deviate from the audio. They might summarize what’s being said, but not give it to you word-for-word.
Read along with audiobooks
Using resources such as Spotify and LibriVox, in conjunction with written texts, you can get native French pronunciation of consonants for a plethora of words. With an enormous catalogue of free French books from sites like Project Gutenberg, you’ll have hours of combination reading and listening practice with French consonants.
Dictation might seem like an old-fashioned way to learn, conjuring up visions of steno pads and beehive hairdos.
Truth be told, dictation is a very effective tool for practicing French consonants.
Sites such as French Hour, Kwiziq and Speechling provide French texts to write out as you listen. When you finish each exercise, use the answer key provided to assess your grasp of French consonant pronunciation.
Simply pick any video that interests you. Turn off the captions during the initial playback, writing out the dialogue or narration you hear. Then, just watch the same video with the French captions turned on. Pause the video as often as necessary to check your work against the captions displayed.
Flap your gums
After you’ve hear the sounds of French consonants from various multimedia sources, you can put your knowledge to practical use in a couple of ways. French conversation practice will let you pronounce French consonants in context, with a conversation partner who can give you feedback.
Still a little too shy to carry on a discussion in French? Try French shadowing, a very specific method for echoing French audio that forces you to mimic the native consonant sounds you hear.
Clearing Up Consonant Confusion: How French Consonants Behave in Words, from B to Z
Try reciting the French alphabet:
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z
Then, do it again—but this time, leave out all of the vowels except for Y, Voilà ! (There you go.) You now have a list of the French consonants:
B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, W, X, Y, Z
While it’s tempting to consider each of these consonants in strict alphabetical order, some of them behave in very similar ways—barely changing, going silent or getting swallowed up by nasalized vowels. So we’ll look at some of them in groups, based on their behavior. (A few of them will appear more than once.)
Since several of these French consonants can make more than one sound, we’ll use the International Phonetic Alphabet to pin down specific sounds made in particular contexts. The French IPA has a one-for-one correspondence—one sound only per letter.
Just click on any of the French example words (written in blue) to hear how native French speakers pronounce the featured consonants.
(Fairly) Straightforward French Consonants
These consonants don’t usually do anything tricky—at least, not at the beginning or in the middle of French words.
B and K can be silent at the end of some words; we’ll talk about that in a little more detail, later on.
- B — Pronounced similarly to English, but with a tighter mouth position. It sounds consistently like [b] in belle (beauty), bête (beast) and hundreds of other words.
- D — This consonant is almost always pronounced [d], as in d’accord (okay) or dinde (turkey). A final D can sound like a [t] when followed by a word that starts with a vowel sound, as in le grand homme (the great man).
- F — This letter sounds simply like [f], whether it’s single in words like frère (brother) or doubled in words like efficace (effective).
- J — Usually pronounced with a [ʒ] sound, as in jupe (skirt); pronounced [dʒ] in some loanwords, like job (job).
- K — Used for loanwords such as kiffer (to like), kimono and kiwi; it’s pronounced [k] much the same as in English, but again with a tighter mouth and lip position.
- V — Keeps the same simple [v] sound, whether used in words like vous (you [formal/plural]), victoire (victory), savoir (to know) or vedette (celebrity).
Sometimes Silent Final Consonants
French is well-known—and sometimes feared—for its array of silent final consonants.
A phenomenon known as liaison often determines whether a final consonant is silent or pronounced aloud.
B, C, F, K are rarely silent, whereas D, M, N, P, R, S, T, X and Z often are. We’ll look at some of these a little more closely.
These letters change their sounds based upon several different factors. In many cases, how these consonants sound depends on the letters used after them.
French vowels, in particular, have an effect on consonant pronunciation. Certain consonants are pronounced “hard” when they appear before the vowels A, O or U. Conversely, the same consonants are pronounced “soft” when used in front of the vowels E, I, or Y.
Our first French consonant chameleon is the letter C.
When paired with an E, I, or Y, the French C produces a soft sound [s], essentially sounding like an S in English. For example, in the word silence (silence), the C sounds just like the S at the beginning of the word. Think also of words like cible (target), cendre (ash) and cyberattaque (cyberattack).
In words like sucre (sugar), facteur (mailman), cri (shout) and crypte (crypt), you’ll see that C followed directly by a consonant will sound “hard” like a [k]—even if the next vowel would normally give the C a soft [s] sound.
The vowels A, O or U, placed immediately after the letter C, will also give it a hard sound. You’ll hear this in words like café (coffee), cou (neck) and cuvette (basin).
Ç (C with cedilla)
The French C is the only full-time French consonant to sometimes sport a diacritical (accent) mark: the cédille (cedilla).
More than a soul patch, it’s like a Van Dyke beard or a full-blown goatee. And it’s powerful, mellowing out the French C so it sounds like an S in words where it would otherwise sound like a K:
- ça (that)
- français (the French language)
- garçon (boy)
- commençons ([we] start)
- reçu (received)
C + H
The sound of C can also be altered when it’s partnered with an H. The CH combination in French normally produces a “sh” [ʃ] sound, as in words like château (castle), charbon (coal), relâché (loose) or revanche (revenge).
There is an exception to this rule, and it’s very similar to a phenomenon in English: In some loanwords from Greek, the CH—generally found at the beginning of a word—will be pronounced like a [k]:
- chronomètre (chronometer)
- charisme (charisma)
- Christ (Christ)
- chlore (chlorine)
However, in other Greek loanwords—such as chimie (chemistry) and charité (charity) and chimérique (fanciful)—the CH combination is pronounced as [ʃ], just as it is in the majority of French CH words.
A French G can be hard or soft, depending on neighboring vowels.
A hard G sound [g] in French words like gâteau (cake), gonflé (swollen) or guerre (war) is produced when G is immediately followed by an A, O or U.
It’s a lot like the hard G in English words like “golf” and “gap.” Again, you’ll hold your mouth in a tighter position when pronouncing hard G in French.
G followed by E, I or Y will be soft, with a [ʒ] sound that’s similar to the French J. Think of words like gentil (nice), ange (angel), angine (sore throat) and gym (gym).
G + N
The GN combination in French is almost always found in the middle of words.
In words like gagnable (winnable) and ignoble (dreadful)—and, of course, champagne—the GN pairing makes a [ɲ] sound. It sounds very much like the GN combination in the word “lasagna,” which the English language absorbed from Italian.
There are a few exceptions to this pronunciation rule. For instance, in ignition (ignition) and agnosticisme (agnosticism), the G and N are pronounced separately, with the G pronounced hard, as in [g].
The French H is a particularly shy consonant, becoming audible only in the CH combination.
Considered a consonant when “aspirated”—although it’s still not actually pronounced—H is treated as a vowel when “mute.”
H is often aspirated in loanwords.
Hauteur (height) and haut (high), for example, start with an aspirated H. Both of these words came into the French language as loanwords from Frankish, a Germanic language. Since the H was pronounced in the Frankish version of these words, the H in the French version—while not actually audible—is treated like any other consonant.
As a result, hauteur with its definite article is la hauteur (and not “l’hauteur”). Contrast this with l’homme (the man) or l’hôtel (the hotel), nouns which start with H muet (mute).
Other examples of H as a consonant are la haine (the hatred) and la hâte (the haste).
L is normally pronounced [l] when single, as in the word liste (list) or laine (wool).
When doubled and sandwiched in between an I and an E, as in words like billet (ticket) or fille (girl), LL sounds like [j].
However, when the LL is bracketed on both sides by an E, as in elle (she)—or on at least one side by an A or O, as in ballet (ballet) and collaborateur (collaborator)—the LL is pronounced [l].
At the end of words like bal (ball [dance]) and fil (thread), the L is generally pronounced as [l]. Yet, in words with semi-vowels, like ail (garlic) and œil (eye), the L is pronounced [j]—which might be mistaken for silent, if said rapidly.
M and N
The consonants M and N behave similarly to each other in French.
Initial M and N
At the beginning of words, M is pronounced like [m] and N is pronounced like [n]—regardless of the vowels that follow them.
- ma (my [feminine])
- mec (guy)
- nature (nature)
- nuage (cloud)
Single or Double M or N
When doubled in the middle of a word, M and N don’t cause their preceding vowels to nasalize. Instead, they’re pronounced similarly to English, as in comme (like) or cannelle (cinnamon).
There are also some words with a single M or N in the middle, such as camion (truck) and canard (duck), in which a nasalized vowel doesn’t occur and these consonants are fully pronounced. This is because they are in separate syllables from the preceding vowels.
Consonants and Nasalized Vowels
An M or N in French—or even an MP, NG or NT—can sometimes cause a nasalized (or nasal) vowel. This means that the final consonant is pronounced as a vibration in your nose, rather than with your tongue, teeth or palate. This often happens at the end of a word or syllable.
M or MP* after a vowel
- parfum (perfume)
- prénom (first name)
- champ (field)
- camp (camp)
* A word like compliqué (complicated) is an exception, as the M is part of the nasalized vowel, but the P is pronounced as [p]. In this case, it’s because the M and P are in two separate syllables, even though the P directly follows the M in the word.
N or NG* or NT* after a vowel
- bon (good)
- bien (well)
- concentration (concentration)
- long (long)
- sang (blood)
- shampooing (shampoo)
- tant (so much)
- comment (how)
*A frequent exception to the nasalization for a final NG is often seen in loanwords like camping (camping), shopping (shopping) and parking (parking lot). In these words, the final NG is pronounced [ŋ], as it would be in the original English words.
Also, if an NG or NT occur together in the middle of a word, but in separate syllables, the G or T would be pronounced separately. The word congrégation (congregation) is a good example of this behavior, as it cantique (hymn).
The French P is usually pronounced [p] as in English, as in the words patron (boss), peser (to weigh) and pique-nique (picnic).
Like in English, PH in French sounds like [f], as in words like phrase (sentence, phrase).
In certain words of Greek origin, the P in front of S is lightly pronounced. You’ll hear a faint initial [p] sound at the beginning of words like psychologue (psychologist), pseudonyme (pseudonym) and psaume (psalm). (In the corresponding English words, the P at the front of these Greek loanwords is silent.)
The French P is sometimes silent as a final, especially when used after M. There are some exceptions to this, such as cap (cape [geographical]).
The French Q is almost always paired with U and pronounced as [k], as in words like qualité (quality), que (that), qui (who) and quotidien (daily).
Sometimes, the QU combination can be pronounced as [kw]. Quad (all-terrain vehicle) is a loanword from English. It refers to a “quad bike” and is pronounced [kwad] in French—much as it would be in English.
Rarely, when Q is found without U in French, it still sounds like [k]. The most commonly used example of this is cinq (five); coq (rooster) is another example.
The letter R in French is pronounced audibly in the beginning and body of French words.
It’s those final Rs that get a bit compliqués (complicated).
In nouns, adjectives and conjunctions that end in –ER, the R is generally audible as [ʀ]:
- hiver (winter)
- plaisir (pleasure)
- cher (dear)
- pur (pure)
- car (because)
The infinitives of different verb types follow different rules, even though they have similar endings.
Both -IR verbs and -ER verbs have infinitives ending with R. The final R is pronounced in –IR verbs like finir (to finish) and ouvrir (to open), but not in –ER verbs like aller (to go) or chanter (to sing).
At the beginning of a word, the French S sounds a lot like the English one, whether it’s by itself or paired with another consonant in words like stage (work experience), sceptre (scepter) or spacieux (spacious). The same is true when S is placed in front of any vowel.
Within words, the French S makes a [z] sound when single—as in poison (poison)—and an [s] sound when doubled—as in poisson (fish). (I can tell you from embarrassing personal experience that it’s important to make the proper distinction between these two sounds!)
Silent Final S
S is often silent at the end of French words, although there are times when it’s pronounced. For example, the S in les (the [plural]) by itself is silent. In front of a vowel, though, the S would be pronounced as [z]. You can hear this in les Invalides (the Parisian memorial complex housing Napoleon’s tomb).
The pronunciation of the letter T in French can depend on its position in a word, the letters that surround it and even whether it’s found in a noun or verb.
It generally sounds like [t] in most words, such as tarte (tart). This is true even when it’s paired with an H in words like menthe (mint).
T followed by I
The French T, when followed immediately by an I, can sound like [sj] in some nouns, such as patience (patience) and natation (swimming).
This is not the case, though, in conjugated -IR verbs such as sortions ([we] go out). Also, if an S comes before a T, as in vestiaire (cloakroom), the T is pronounced as [t], separately from the I that follows it.
Silent Final T
The T is generally silent at the very end of a French word, as in sortait ([he/she] went) or bout (end).
If followed by a word starting with a vowel, the T would be pronounced. For instance, the T in c’est (it is) by itself would be silent; it would be pronounced as [t] in the phrase c’est un…(it’s a…).
The final T in some words, such as but (goal) is nearly always pronounced—at least, in France. (In Canada, it can be silent.)
You won’t see W used in French a lot. It comes into play with loanwords and can sound like either a [v] or a [w].
In wagon (wagon), for example, it’s pronounced like a [v] in France and Canada—but like a [w] in Belgium.
The French X can be pronounced in one of three ways: [ɡz], [ks] or [s].
In exiger (to require), examen (exam) and xénophobe (xenophobe), X sounds like [ɡz].
In words like fax (fax), maximum (maximum) and laxiste (lax), where there’s an A right before the X, the X is pronounced like [ks].
The X in two very common words, dix (ten) and six (six), sounds like [s].
Just like in English, Y in French can be both either a consonant or a vowel.
Y by itself is a preposition meaning “there.” As such, it’s pronounced like a vowel, as in the phrases on y va (let’s go [there]) and il y a (there is).
At the beginning of words like yeux (eyes), yaourt (yogurt) and yoga (yoga), the French Y is treated as a consonant and pronounced as [ˈj].
Z at the beginning of a French word sounds like [z], much as it would be pronounced in English. For example, zèbre (zebra) or zoo (zoo) both start with a [z] sound.
At the end of words, though, Z is often silent. Think of the vous (you [plural/formal]) form of many imperative verbs like allez (go), avez (have) or écoutez (listen). Or adverbs such as assez (enough).
Ça y est (there it is): the consonants from B to Z. With these guidelines for taming French consonants, you can pronounce French words more confidently and not get lost in the wilds of consonant confusion.
Michelle Baumgartner is a language nerd who has formally studied seven languages and informally dabbled in a few others. In addition to geeking out over slender vowels, interrogative particles, and phonemes, Michelle is an education blogger specializing in language learning topics. Find out more at StellaWriting.com.