french-ipa

The French IPA: 6 Hacks to Perfect Your French Pronunciation

Does French sound like a series of guttural and nasal nothings to you?

Are you happy with your pronunciation and listening skills, but you want to perfect the technical bits and achieve a close-to-native accent?

No matter what your goal is, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an essential resource for any French language learner!

It’s an alphabet of symbols that represent sounds in a language, and it’s used to talk about pronunciation since it avoids confusion over the written phonetic sound.

In this post, we’ll show you what you need to know about the IPA for French, plus six hacks to perfect your pronunciation using the French IPA.

Contents

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 excellent 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:

  • 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 audio example provided and try to copy the native example.

French Vowel Sounds

French Vowel SoundExample in FrenchPronunciation Tip
[a] plat  
(dish)
This is produced at the front of the mouth with a tongue that does not constrict the air-flow.
[ɑ] * bas  
(low)
This is the same as [a], only produced further back in the throat, and it's also a longer sound.
[ɑ̃] sans  
(without)
This sound isn't on the provided IPA chart, but it's produced like [ɑ], though nasally by blocking the throat. Imagine pushing the back of your tongue to your throat to push the air up your nose.
[e] jouer  
(to play)
The tongue is near the roof of the middle of the mouth.
[ɛ] 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] matin  
(morning)
The same as [ɛ] but with the tongue up to the back of the throat.
[ə] ** le  
(the)
Knowing when to voice it is difficult. The sound [ə] isn't often pronounced.
[i] il  
(he)
This is produced with the tongue quite close to the roof of the mouth.
[o] eau  
(water)
This is produced quite far back in the throat, with the tongue closing it off early on.
[ɔ] donner  
(to give)
To produce this sound, start with the [ʌ] in the English "fun," and round your lips a bit.
[ɔ̃] bon  
(good)
This is the same as [ɔ], just with the back of the tongue covering the throat.
[œ] 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.
[œ̃] *** brun  
(brown)
This is the same as [œ], but with the back of the tongue covering the throat.
[ø] deux  
(two)
This is [e] but produced with tightly rounded lips.
[u] genou  
(knee)
It's produced in the back of the throat and closed by the tongue.
[y] 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.

*This sound is ceasing to be a phoneme and becoming 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.

**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].

***This sound is dying out in modern French, so you can easily use [ɛ̃] instead.

French Semi-Consonants

French Semi-ConsonantExample in FrenchPronunciation Tip
[j] dieu  
(god)
Similar to the English "y" in "yet."
[w] oui  
(yes)
This is very similar to the English "w" in "bewail."
[ɥ] lui
(him)
Contrast this example with the name Louis in French [lwi]. 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].

For more guidance on the [ɥ] sound in French, check out this video.

French Consonants That Are Also in English

ConsonantExample in French
[p] père (father)
[t] terre (earth)
[k] cou  (neck)
[b] robe  (dress)
[d] dans  (in)
[g] gare  (station)
[f] feu (fire)
[s] sale  (dirty/salty)
[v] vous (you)
[z] maison  (house)
[l] lent (slow)
[m] main  (hand)
[n] nous (we)
[ʒ] je  (I)
[ʃ] chat (cat)

French Consonants That Are Not in English

French ConsonantExample in FrenchPronunciation Tip
[ʁ] arriver  
(to arrive)
Commonly known as guttural "r," it's produced using the tongue against the uvular.
[ɲ] agneau  
(lamb)
This is like the "gn" sound in "lasagna." It's pronounced by releasing the back of the tongue from the hard palate.

A great way to practice the [ʁ] sound is with a pencil, as demonstrated in this video.

Check out this useful tutorial for more guidance about the pronunciation of the [ɲ] sound in French.

IPA Hacks to Perfect Your French Pronunciation 

Here, we will share 6 hacks to perfect your French pronunciation using the IPA, including examples and exercises you can use to practice each hack.

1. Compare the English IPA with the French IPA

One of the best ways that you can sharpen your French pronunciation is by looking at the IPA in relation to English (assuming it’s your first language) and comparing.

This will enable you to not only grasp French pronunciation with more perceptive ears, but also avoid using English pronunciation habits when you approach new words by correcting your accent yourself as you become more advanced.

Here are some of the key areas of English IPA:

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

Diphthongs

Diphthongs 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 French doesn’t 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: Note as many different words of each language as you can in a table, and contrast the role of a silent “e” and two vowel sounds together in each language.

Example: “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

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 could compare the English vowel sound to what the pronunciation of the spelling equivalent would be in French.

Example: For [ɜ:], the equivalence would be [yʁ] as in urgence  (emergency).

Aspiration of consonants

We tend to aspirate our plosive sounds: [p] [b] [d] and [t]. 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]. Although we have words like “cheese” and “chance” with a hard “ch,” some of our words like “brioche,” “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 . With the IPA you can easily avoid that mistake!

“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 could underline the sound in any words you come across in French, and practice using this sound in the words.

Example: Imagine you are reading “Le Petit Prince” (The Little Prince) and get to chapter 10. You 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. Familiarize Yourself 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.

The French use our [ŋ] sound in loan words, which makes it easier when you come across these words in French. However, these can really mess up your accent when you’re speaking in French; although the “ng” sound is the same, the pronunciation of the words are often not.

Exercise: You could write out the IPA pronunciation of loan words and practice saying them in French sentences.

Example:”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

Orthography means the letters that words are written with, or the spelling of that language. By relating this to the IPA and learning about French orthography, you can very quickly teach yourself the rules and quirks of the language and approach new words with a native-like expertise of pronunciation.

This hack is about matching the spelling and composition of a word with its pronunciation.

You could 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]

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: Try 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:

Exercise C: You could also look at the “ch” spelling and observe when it’s [ʃ] and when it’s [k].

Example: Arche (ark) is a [ʃ] and arachnide  (arachnid) is a [k].

Exercise D: You may want to look at when a combination of letters makes a specific combination of IPA symbols and a certain sound.

Examples:

  • 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.

You can look at the IPA of French words and categorize it with other words that have the same spelling groups and pronunciation, and look at the vowel sounds it has in each syllable. You could also note whether it has a common spelling for its pronunciation, or a rare pronunciation compared to its spelling. 

4. Do Dictations with the IPA

Dictation is a 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. 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.

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 French Liaison

Liaison is the joining of sounds across word boundaries when the second word starts with a vowel sound. The IPA is a good medium to learn how this works and to put it into practice.

In IPA, an under-tie, [], denotes liaison. You can also use your knowledge of IPA 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: To learn liaison pronunciations you could 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.

Example:  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

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. 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:

  • 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?)
[↗u ↘va↗.t‿il]

Exercise: The best way to learn and practice intonation patterns is to listen to speech very closely and try placing intonation marks onto a transcript.

You can then practice speaking with these patterns and get a native speaker to check your intonation. 

Example: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].

The IPA and How It Can Boost Your French

As mentioned earlier, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an alphabet that consists of symbols that represent sounds in a language. It’s used to talk about pronunciation since it doesn’t rely on comparing to English equivalents and it avoids confusion over the written phonetic sound.

However, the IPA does have some limitations. There can be variation in the pronunciation of a 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, but in French, the tongue is further forward for both of these.

Although this produces a slight difference in accent, the differences in [d] and [t] are not going to cause issues for an English speaker when speaking French. The reason for this is linked to phonemes. 

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).

We see these as two different words, but some languages may view it as the same phoneme with a slightly different pronunciation.

The IPA is useful here as it helps you to determine differences between phonemes that you may originally hear as the same phoneme or a different one altogether, which helps you increase your comprehension when listening and be understood when speaking.

Because a phoneme can vary between languages and speakers, the IPA is not a substitute for listening to French speakers, but instead enhances it.

The IPA for English and French can be found in most dictionaries, for example a Robert dictionary. You can also find IPA symbols next to words on WordReference.

 

Now that you know how to polish your French accent, it’s time to start perfecting it!

Bonne chance ! (Good luck!)

And one more thing...

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