Does French sound like a series of guttural nothings and nasal nonsense to you?
Or when you speak French, does it sound more like English?
On the other hand, perhaps your ears and tongue are fairly well-tuned to French, yet there are just a few sounds which constantly trip you up.
You might also feel good about your pronunciation and listening skills, but want to tighten up on the technical bits and achieve a close-to-native accent.
No matter which side of the spectrum you fall on, there’s a fantastic tool for you: the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).
In this article, we’ll show you what you need to know about the IPA for French, plus six slick hacks for using the IPA to completely polish your French.
Time to grab your pens, notebook and headphones and dive straight into the beautiful French language!
What Exactly Is the IPA and How Will It Boost Your French?
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) consists of a series of symbols that represent sounds in a language. It’s the best way of talking about pronunciation in a language since it doesn’t rely on comparing to English equivalents (which usually don’t have exactly the same pronunciation).
It also avoids confusion over trying to use combinations of letters to produce a written phonetic sound, because spelling and pronunciation rules can vary depending on the word and the language.
However, the IPA is not entirely faultless. There can be great variation in the pronunciation of a particular symbol between languages and even within a language.
For example, both English and French have the symbols [d] and [t]. English speakers pronounce these consonants further back in the mouth. The [t] is pronounced on the alveolar ridge (where the roots of the front teeth are) and the [d] is pronounced on the post-alveolar flat (part of the mouth behind the alveolar ridge). In French, the tongue is further forward for both of these; the [t] is pronounced with the tongue on the teeth and the [d] on the alveolar ridge.
Although this produces a slight difference in accent, the differences in [d] and [t] are not going to get an English speaker into trouble in French. To think about why this is, an introduction to phonemes is useful.
A phoneme is the smallest speech sound that can differentiate between two very similar words in a language. For example, the difference between the words “bad” and “bat” is just /d/ or /t/ (denoted between slashes because they represent phonemes and not pronunciation).
We see these as two different words, but some languages may not. To others, these may be the same phoneme with a slightly different pronunciation.
This also helps to explain why the IPA is such a useful tool. It helps you to determine differences between phonemes that you may originally hear as the same phoneme, or a different one altogether, because they aren’t present in English.
This helps you to increase your comprehension when listening and to be understood when speaking. For example, pouce (thumb) and puce (flea) may seem like they should be pronounced the same by English phoneme rules. However, in French, the vowels are pronounced [u] and [y] respectively (see the IPA pronunciations below).
Because a phoneme can vary between languages and speakers, the IPA is not a substitute for listening to French speakers, but instead enhances it. You must still listen to natives for accent and accuracy, so make full use of the links to audios of words throughout this article!
To help you use the IPA as an effective tool, you’ll want a way to look it up. You can find the IPA for English and French in most, but not all, dictionaries. A Robert dictionary is one of the most useful dictionaries, and it’s available in physical and Kindle versions. You can also find IPA symbols next to words on WordReference.
Producing French IPA Sounds
The best way to learn to produce these is to listen and repeat until you can make the sound perfectly. The IPA chart is best for this; you can see all of the vowel sounds visually, representing where in the mouth they are made. Consonant sounds are also given in tables, helping you to see the family of sounds that they come from.
If you’re fairly new to French pronunciation, I recommend that as you go through the complete list of French IPA sounds and examples below, you:
- Listen to the IPA sound in isolation on the IPA chart.
- Try and produce this until you feel that you’re quite close to the IPA sound.
- Then listen to the Forvo word example provided and try to copy the native example.
I’m sure you’ll be amazed at how quickly you learn these sounds!
If you’re confident with most of French pronunciation, feel free to explore the sounds and pay more attention to:
- How they feel to produce.
- Where each of them falls on the IPA chart.
You can also approach the word examples with playfulness as you become more advanced. You could ask yourself these questions:
- Can you tell the difference between similar IPA sounds in words as well as in isolation?
- For some examples you may notice speakers with regional accents pronounce the words differently. Are they still using the same IPA sounds, or could you assign a different symbol due to their pronunciation?
There are many unique lessons to learn, and much tuning of ears and tongues to be found in IPA exploration!
French IPA Sounds: Vowels, Semi-consonants and Consonants
It’s worth noting that surprisingly few of the sounds possible are used in a language. In French, these are:
French vowel sounds
- [a] as in plat (dish) — This is produced at the front of the mouth with a tongue that does not constrict the air-flow.
- [ɑ] as in bas (low) — This is the same as [a], only produced further back in the throat, and it’s also a longer sound. This sound is becoming extinct in modern French; it’s ceasing to be a phoneme and more of an individual pronunciation style.
For example, the word patte (paw) has the phoneme /a/ for its vowel sound, and pâtes (pasta) has /ɑ/. These words are usually pronounced exactly the same in conversation, though, making /ɑ/ an often redundant phoneme.
- [ɑ̃] as in sans (without) — This sound isn’t on the provided IPA chart, but it’s produced like [ɑ], though nasally by blocking the throat. This sound is the hardest to practice nasally because the sound is so open, but imagine pushing the back of your tongue to your throat to push the air up your nose.
- [e] as in jouer (to play) — This one is easily picked up. The tongue is near the roof of the middle of the mouth. It’s best practiced by listening and repeating the word until perfect!
- [ɛ] as in lait (milk) — It’s very similar in pronunciation to [e], but [ɛ] is more open in the middle of the mouth (i.e. the tongue is not obstructing the sound).
- [ɛ̃] as in matin (morning) — Again, this is the same as [ɛ] but with the tongue up to the back of the throat.
- [ə] as in le (the) — You’ll easily perfect this sound, but knowing when to voice it is more difficult. The main point of interest with [ə] is that it’s often not pronounced at all.
This often occurs if it’s (1) a syllable in the middle of a word, i.e. rappeler (to recall) is often pronounced [ʁaple]; (2) at the end of a word, i.e. table (table) [tabl]; and even (3) not a complete syllable, in future and conditional forms of -er verbs, i.e. garderais is pronounced [gaʁdʁɛ].
- [i] as in il (he) — This is produced with the tongue quite close to the roof of the mouth.
- [o] as in the entire word eau (water) — This is produced quite far back in the throat, with the tongue closing it off early on. It may take some practice, as it’s unlike any sounds in English.
- [ɔ] as in donner (to give) — To produce this sound, start with the [ʌ] in the English “fun,” and round your lips a bit. Notice how close the two vowels sounds are on the IPA chart!
- [ɔ̃] as in bon (good) — This is the same as [ɔ], just again with the back of the tongue covering the throat.
- [œ] as in peur (fear) — This is a rounded version of [ɛ], so a great way to practice is to start with [ɛ], keep the air-stream going and round your lips. Once you can hear and feel this sound, you’ll be able to produce it more easily.
- [œ̃] as in brun (brown) — This is the same as [œ], but with the back of the tongue covering the throat. This sound is also dying out in modern French, so you can easily use [ɛ̃] instead.
- [ø] as in deux (two) — This is [e] but produced with tightly rounded lips.
- [u] as in genou (knee) — It’s produced in the back of the throat and closed by the tongue. To really perfect this sound, keep your tongue quite close to the back of your throat and notice how French that sounds!
- [y] as in rue (street) — This is the same as [i] with rounded lips, and is easily transitioned to. Start off saying [i], continue the air stream and round your lips to produce this sound.
- [j] as in yeux (eyes) — Similar to the English “y” in “yet.”
- [w] as in oui (yes) — This is very similar to the English “w” in “bewail.”
- [ɥ] as in lui (him) — Contrast this example with the name Louis in French [lwi]. It might take a while, but you will notice a difference: [ɥ] is clearly one sound made by going from rounded to flat lips very quickly, and is more exaggerated than [wi]. Here’s a video to help you.
French consonants that are also in English
- [p] as in père (father)
- [t] as in terre (earth)
- [k] as in cou (neck)
- [b] as in robe (dress)
- [d] as in dans (in)
- [g] as in gare (station)
- [f] as in feu (fire)
- [s] as in sale (dirty/salty)
- [v] as in vous (you)
- [z] as in maison (house)
- [l] as in lent (slow)
- [m] as in main (hand)
- [n] as in nous (we)
- [ʒ] as in je (I) — This is the same as the “s” in “measure.”
- [ʃ] as in chat (cat) — This is the same as the “sh” in “ship.”
French consonants that are not in English
- [ʁ] as in arriver (to arrive) — This is the sound more commonly known as guttural “r.” It’s produced using the tongue against the uvular. There’s a great tutorial for learning to produce it with a pencil here.
- [ɲ] as in agneau (lamb) — This is like the “gn” sound in “lasagna.” It’s pronounced by releasing the back of the tongue from the hard palate. There’s a great tutorial for this sound here as well.
6 Bold IPA Hacks to Sharpen Your French Pronunciation
These six lessons below will help you to explore the French language on your own, enabling you to learn many different skills through discovery. Coming to your own conclusions rather than being told about language helps your retention, understanding and enjoyment of language.
So you will need to put a lot of work and curiosity into these exercises, but they could just be the shortcuts you need for your learning routine.
1. Compare the English IPA with the French IPA
It’s important to focus the lens on your first language when starting out with a new language, and to keep revisiting this new perspective as you climb the ladder to fluency. One of the ways that you can do this is by looking at the IPA in relation to English (assuming it’s your first language) and comparing.
This way, not only can you grasp French pronunciation with more perceptive ears (you’ll be able to pick up pronunciation so much quicker if you can relate and contrast it to your first language), but you can avoid using English pronunciation habits when you approach new words, correcting your accent yourself as you become more advanced.
Here are some of the key areas of English IPA that you’ll want to be familiar with:
English vowels vs. French vowels
One of the reasons that English speakers struggle to learn vowel sounds in a second language is because our own set of vowel sounds are so funky. The main points to be aware of are:
- Diphthongs and the combinations of letters
- Vowel sounds in English that you should never use in French
We’ll look at each of these topics in detail.
We’re going to pull apart English diphthongs here, which are two consecutive vowel sounds that sound like one. Knowing the spelling of these will help train your brain not to recognize these spellings in French, and to not put a diphthong in a French pronunciation (because the French do not have them)!
Diphthongs are formed in one of three ways in English:
- From two vowels next to each other, i.e. “oi” in “join” is pronounced [ɔɪ].
- A silent “e” at the end of the word, i.e. the “i” in “five” is pronounced [aɪ].
In French, the silent “e” does not change the vowel sound, but it may affect the consonants. It can soften the “g” to [ʒ] and also makes the final consonant heard, where without the “e” it would be silent.
- Rarely, a “w” next to the vowel, i.e. the “ow” in “now” is pronounced [aʊ].
Exercise: For this section, you may well want to note as many different words of each language as you can in a chart, and contrast the role of a silent “e” and two vowel sounds together in each language.
Not all English diphthong spellings will have sounds, but you can go through a dictionary and try to match up as many as you can. You can start at the beginning of a dictionary and scan for words with two vowels next to each other, or ones that end in an “e” and add them to a pre-drawn table with English examples on one side and each of the spellings as headers, i.e. “oi.”
“Oi” in an English word would be pronounced [ɔɪ] as in “join” but it would be [wa] as in loi (law) in French.
English vowel sounds that aren’t in French
Thirdly, it’s time to look at vowel sounds that are in English and not French. These are:
- [ɪ] as in “sit”
- [æ] as in “hat”
- [ʊ] as in “put”
- [ʌ] as in “cup”
- [ɜ:] as in “fur” (British English) or “third” (American English)
Exercise: For each of these, you might consider comparing the English vowel sound to what the pronunciation of the spelling equivalent would be in French.
For [ɜ:], the equivalence would be [yʁ] as in urgence (emergency).
Aspiration of consonants
On our plosive sounds [p] [b] [d] and [t], we tend to aspirate them. You can practice not doing this by holding a piece of paper in front of your lips, saying these sounds and aiming for the paper to move as little as possible.
“J” and “ch” sounds
In English, the letter “j” usually produces the sound [dʒ]; for example, “enjoy” or “jam” both have the [dʒ] sound. However, in French this sound is rare, and the “j” is far more likely to be pronounced [ʒ], i.e. je (I) and jaune (yellow). However, [dʒ] can be found in loan words like “jazz,” so it’s not unknown to the French tongue.
The same is true for “ch,” which we often pronounce [tʃ], but the French usually pronounce [ʃ]. This is fairly logical when you think about the instances that we do this in English. Although we have words like “cheese” and “chance” with a hard “ch,” some of our words like “brioche,” “cloche,” “Chicago” and “quiche” pronounce “ch” as [ʃ]. Many of these words are of French origin, so this pronunciation should be second nature to us.
However, it’s still common for people learning French to try and use [tʃ] for words like chose (thing) or [dʒ] for words like je. This usually stems from inexperience or lack of phonetic understanding, but you are now armed with the tool of the IPA, so you can easily avoid that mistake by looking up the pronunciation!
“Gn” in French and English
In English, we may separate these two letters into two different sounds, but the French have just one sound for this.
Compare the words “magnificent” and magnifique (beautiful). The English word is said “mag-NIF-i-cent” whereas the French is said “magn-if-ique.” The sound at the end of the first syllable “magn” is the [ɲ] sound.
Exercise: You might want to practice noticing this by underlining the sound in any words you come across in French, and practice using this sound in these words.
You might be reading through “Le Petit Prince” (The Little Prince) and get to chapter 10 and come across the word désigna (to appoint). You would underline or make a note of this having the [ɲ] and maybe add it to a list of words with this sound.
2. Get familiar with loan words
There are two sounds in the French language that only exist for the pronunciation of loan words, words that come from other languages. These are:
- [ŋ] as in the English “sing”
- [x] as in jerez (a white wine from Jerez de la Frontera in Spain)
The second sound is borrowed from Spanish and is quite rare, so you don’t really have to worry about it.
It’s worth realizing that the French use our [ŋ] sound in loan words, though. This makes it easier when you come across these words in French. However, these can really mess up your accent and throw you off when you’re speaking in French; although the “ng” sound is the same, the pronunciation of the words are often not.
Exercise: To help you “French up” your loan words, you could write out the IPA pronunciation of each and practice saying them in French sentences.
“Pudding” in English is phonetically [pʊdɪŋ] and in French it’s [pudiŋ]. Notice that the vowels are very different: [i] is used in the French pronunciation rather than [ɪ] that we use in English, and [u] instead of [ʊ.]
3. Learn orthography quirks with the IPA
This one is both another skill-learning hack and a clarification of many of the suggestions to help you learn in the previous two hacks.
Orthography basically means the letters that words in a language are written with, or the spelling of that language. By relating this to the IPA and doing your own investigations into the orthography of French, you can very quickly teach yourself the rules and quirks of the language that you will have learnt for the English language as a child. Then you can approach new words with a native-like expertise of pronunciation and will remember more of the pronunciations that you have learned.
Feeling convinced that this is something you should try? Great, let’s discuss how this one works.
This is about looking at lots of different words and their corresponding IPA symbols to match up their spelling and the composition of the word with its pronunciation.
You might want to draw up a chart of each IPA sound and go through a dictionary to add words with each symbol in them to their correct column. For each one, notice: (1) what letters make up that sound, (2) where it falls and (3) whether it’s a stressed syllable or not.
Exercise A: See if you can come up with your own rules for when these symbols are used in the following pronunciations.
- [e] as opposed to [ɛ]
- [ø] as opposed to [œ]
- [o] as opposed to [ɔ]
For example, élevage (cattle farming) may be expected to be pronounced [eləvaʒ] but, as the [ə] is mute, the [e] becomes [ɛ].
You can write in your notes that a mute [ə] leads the [e] in the syllable before to become [ɛ]. There are many other rules and examples you can find if you consider where a sound is within a word, whether it’s an open syllable (doesn’t end with a consonant) and the role of accent marks.
Exercise B: You’ll also want to note words that have the same spelling but do not produce the same IPA sounds. For example, words with “gu” or “qu” that can be pronounced with either:
- [g] as in fatigue (tiredness)
- [gw] as in lingual (lingual)
- [gɥ] as in linguiste (linguist)
- [k] as in question (question)
- [kw] as in aquarium (aquarium)
- [kɥ] as in équidistant (equidistant)
Exercise C: You could also look at the “ch” spelling and observe when it’s [ʃ] and when it’s [k].
Arche (ark) is a [ʃ] and arachnide (arachnid) is a [k].
Exercise D: You’ll also want to look at when a combination of letters makes a specific combination of IPA symbols and a certain sound.
- You know from the diphthong exercise that “oi” can make the sound [wa] as in loi (law).
- “eil” can make the sound [ej] as in pareil (the same).
- And “ail” can make the sound [aj] as in bail (lease).
This hack is about observing all of the rules and characteristics of French pronunciation from the orthography—where it’s regular and where it isn’t—meaning that you have a good feel for the style of the language.
From there, you can begin to look at the IPA of every new French word and categorize it (either mentally or physically) with other words that have the same spelling groups and pronunciation, and look at the vowel sounds it has in each syllable. You can also note whether it has a common spelling for its pronunciation, or a rare pronunciation compared to its spelling. All of this will help you to perfect your pronunciation from reading.
4. Do dictations with the IPA
Dictation is a really great exercise to see how well you’re doing with all of these points. There are three skills that this hack will help you improve, and all of these exercises yield best results when completed with a partner.
- The first skill you can practice with this is transcribing from French words into IPA symbols. (There’s a worksheet here that you might find useful.) You could also do this for your partner from a book or another kind of prose.
- The next step is pronouncing the IPA, which will be especially useful if you are not the one who transcribed the sentences. This will help you to hear the words, preparing you for the next step.
- Finally, the person who did not transcribe the words into IPA takes the IPA symbols and transcribes them back into French words. You can have a go at doing this here as well.
Once you’ve practiced doing this a few times, you’ll have trained your brain to guess the spelling of unfamiliar words from their pronunciation, and to remember the pronunciation of words in IPA!
5. Teach yourself about the liaison
Liaison is the joining of sounds across word boundaries when the second word starts with a vowel sound. The IPA is such a good medium to learn how this works and to put it into practice.
In IPA, an under-tie, [‿], denotes liaison, and you can use this knowledge to note liaisons every time you see them in IPA symbols. You can also use your knowledge of these symbols to look at how liaison changes the words involved in ways other than changing the syllable boundaries.
These are some of the changes liaison can cause:
- “D” becomes [t] as in grand homme (great/tall man) – [ɡʁɑ̃.t‿ɔm]
- “S” becomes [z] as in les enfants (the children) – [le.z‿ɑ̃.fɑ̃]
- “X” also becomes [z] as in faux amis (false friends) – [fo.z‿a.mi]
- “F” becomes [v] as in neuf ans (nine years) – [nœ.v‿ɑ̃]
- Words ending in “n” with a nasalized vowel often have the vowel de-nasalized, i.e. bon ami (good friend). Bon would end with the [ɔ̃] sound, but the liaison produces this pronunciation: [bɔ.n‿a.mi]
- The “er” sound that would usually be an [e] sound, becomes an [ɛʁ] sound, as in premier étage (first floor) – [pʁə.mjɛ.ʁ‿e.taʒ]
- “L” becomes [j] as in gentil enfant (kind child) – [ʒɑ̃.ti.j‿ɑ̃.fɑ̃]
- Many other consonants that would have been silent become voiced in liaison, including “p,” “t,” “z” and “g.”
Exercise: A good idea to help you learn liaison pronunciations would be to write the IPA of the original words and the IPA of phrases (which you can find in a Robert dictionary or Forvo) and note the changes that occur to the words because of liaison.
Grand oiseau (large bird) is pronounced [gʀɑ̃.t‿wazo] compared to [gʀɑ̃] for grand (large) without the liaison. Oiseau remains the same.
6. Explore French intonation
Lastly, the IPA can be useful when learning about intonation in French—although you’re unlikely to find explanations of intonation in French using IPA. But you can still use the notation in your notes to help you understand and remember intonation rules.
The IPA symbols for intonation are [↗] for rising intonation and [↘] for falling intonation. This notation can be a lot simpler than using numbers to represent the pitch. Also, adding these symbols to IPA sentences means that you can pinpoint the syllables of changing intonation more accurately.
There are four main points in French intonation that you’ll want to be aware of and practice. These are:
- A continuation pattern. This means that the final syllable of a phrase or clause has a rising intonation, to show the continuation of the sentence.
Quand j’étais petite, j’étais danseuse.
(When I was little, I was a dancer.)
[kɑ̃ ʒɛte pɛ.↗tit, ʒɛte dɑ̃.↘søz]
- Finality pattern. You can also see in the example above that the last syllable of the sentence has a falling intonation, which is the finality pattern.
- Yes/no pattern. The last syllable always has rising intonation, independent of the question form.
Il est riche ?
(Is he rich?)
[il e ↗riʃ]
- Information question pattern. The question word has a rising intonation, and then intonation falls, sometimes rising again on the last syllable to iterate that it’s a question.
Où va-t-il ?
(Where is he going?)
Exercise: The best way to learn and practice intonation patterns is to listen to speech very closely and put your own intonation marks, where you think you heard them, onto a transcript.
You can then practice speaking with these patterns and get a native speaker to check your intonation. Their ears will be naturally attuned to whether it sounds correct or not.
If someone says “À bientôt” (See you soon), you might notice a rising intonation on the last two syllables and write it as [a ↗bjɛ̃.to].
Now that you know how to polish your French accent, get to it! It’s time to kiss your foreign accent goodbye. Good luck!
And One More Thing…
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