french pronunciation

See It and Say It! A Powerful Guide for Excellent French Pronunciation

Do you dream of speaking French better than Catherine Deneuve?

Of mastering French pronunciation so perfectly that people wouldn’t know you’re not from France?

Do you want to have excellent French pronunciation skills and be able to read any word or sentence without hesitation?

If so, this guide is for you!

Learning French grammar and French vocabulary is an important step on your way to fluency.

Practicing French listening and reading in French will also help a lot, but if you really want to feel you’ve made the language yours, you need to learn how to pronounce it first.

This guide will give you all the necessary tools to achieve that native-like French pronunciation you’re looking for.

Study it carefully, listen to all the sounds and words and pay special attention to how they’re pronounced.

Soon, you’ll be speaking French like the angels (French angels, of course!).

The French Alphabet and Its Pronunciation

The first step of the journey will sound (no pun intended) a bit silly, but if you want to learn how to pronounce French, you need to learn the French alphabet and the main French sounds.

You’ve probably heard many times that French phonetics (how we make and perceive sounds) is hard to master.

It is, I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you, but with a little bit of help from French IPA transcriptions here and some French vowels and French consonants there, I can certainly make this journey easier for you.

So, let’s start with the basics.

The French alphabet

The following table shows the 26 letters of the French alphabet. You can click on each letter to hear its pronunciation in French, and there’s also a sample word starting with each letter and a translation for it. All the pronunciation links in this post come from Forvo.

You’ll see I’ve tried to include many words that are spelled either identically or very similarly in both French and English. This’ll give you an idea of how differently words can be pronounced in these two languages even when they’re written the same (or almost).

I’ve also included a mega-false friend. Are you able to spot it?

LetterSample wordTranslation
aananaspineapple
bbientôtsoon
ccapitalcrucial / capital (financial assets)
ddésastredisaster
eenvoyerto send
ffaireto make / to do
ggrandtall / long / wide / great / big
hhuileoil
iintentionintention
jjargonjargon
kkayakkayak
llumièrelight
mmettreto put / to put on
nnationaliténationality
oolympiqueOlympic
ppainbread
qquerellequarrel / dispute
rrepasmeal
sserpentsnake / serpent
ttabletable
uunificationunification
vvenirto come
wwagonwagon / car
xxylophonexylophone
yyogayoga
zzonalzonal

Have you found the false friend? Check out the end of the post to see if you got it right.

The “other” letters

French has a small group of letters that aren’t present in English.

On the one hand, there are letters with diacritics (accent marks), and on the other hand, there are two ligatures (two letters joined as a single one).

Let’s have a look at both groups separately.

The diacritics

French has five accent marks you’ll have to learn if you want to pronounce every word correctly.

Accent marks pronunciation can be a little tricky for beginners. For this reason, the earlier in your language learning journey you introduce them, the better.

Out of the five accent marks, one is only used with the letter c (the accent cédille), while the other four are used over vowels.

French’s five accent marks are:

french pronunciation

  • The accent cédille (¸)
  • The accent aigu (´)
  • The accent grave (`)
  • The accent tréma (¨)
  • The accent circonflexe (ˆ)

Here you have a table with all the letters that have a diacritic in French. I’ve added sample words so you can start your accent pronunciation practice right away:

LetterSample wordTranslation
àdéjàalready
âchâteaucastle
éécoleschool
èaprèsafter
êtempêtetempest
ëNoëlChristmas
îmaîtremaster / teacher
ïnaïfnaive
ôhôtelhotel
ùwhere
ûaoûtAugust
üaigüeacute / sharp
çFrançaisFrench

The ligatures

A ligature is basically two letters and their individual sounds fusing together to form a single one.

French has two of them:

  • œ as in sœur (sister)
  • æ as in ex æquo (ex aequo — equally placed)

How to Pronounce French Words

At this point, you should already know how to pronounce the French alphabet (vowels + consonants) and you should be familiar with the diacritics and the ligatures.

But French, unfortunately, has more to it than just the alphabet and some accent marks.

For example, the pronunciation of the letter u can be a headache for many French learners. The same goes for the pronunciation of the French semivowels, and let’s not forget about the non-pronunciation of the French silent letters, or the nasalized vowels, as we’ll see later.

The best piece of advice I can give you is to learn all these pronunciation rules one step at a time. Practice a sound or a group of sounds until you manage to reproduce the original French as close as you can, and only then, proceed to the next one.

The following subsections will teach you more about the pronunciation of French and how to learn spoken French, with a special focus on the pronunciation of clusters of letters and whole words.

I’ve divided the section into topics you should pay attention to when learning French pronunciation, but bear in mind this is in no way a complete list of features, just a presentation of French’s main pronunciation traits.

That being said, let’s get this pronunciation party started!

Word stress

French is a syllable-timed language, which means that all syllables roughly take the same amount of time to be pronounced. However, the last syllable is normally considered the stressed one.

So if you want to sound French, try to pronounce all syllables in the same amount of time and put the stress on the last one.

Since this is “easier written than done,” here you have some sample words with their native pronunciation. Notice how the French and English pronunciations are different, even though some of the words are spelled identically:

Pronouncing vowel clusters

The French love their vowel clusters, and one perfect example of this is the word water in French (eau).

Pronouncing clusters of vowels when reading French words is quite challenging for beginners, because there are many instances of vowels that change their sound completely when they’re together.

Going back to our example (eau), would you’ve ever said it’s actually pronounced between oh and uh? Here’s the proof!

French has a lot of vowel clusters which you’ll have to learn sooner or later.

The following list includes almost all of them. But don’t get stressed! The most important ones (the ones you should learn early on) have been bolded and include a sample word with its pronunciation:

  • ae/aë
  • ai/aî/aï/ay (lait — milk)
  • ao/aô
  • au (chaud — hot )
  • ei/eï/ey
  • eu/eû (peu — not much)
  • oe/oê/oë
  • oi/oî/oï/oy (boire — to drink)
  • ou/où/oû (douche — shower)
  • ue/üe
  • uy
  • aie
  • aou/aoû (août — August)
  • eau (peau — skin)
  • eoi
  • œu (cœur — heart)
  • oie
  • oui (oui — yes)
  • uoi

Pronouncing double consonants

French has quite a few consonants that can appear doubled in certain words.

For the most part, they’re pronounced as if there were only one consonant (very similarly to English):

  • bb
  • dd
  • ff
  • gg
  • mm
  • nn
  • pp
  • ss
  • tt
  • zz

But that’s not always the case.

For instance, the double consonant ll is normally pronounced like in English, but it’s not when preceded by the vowel i (see next section).

Double rr is as special as single r, which has its own section below.

Finally, cc has two possible pronunciations, depending on the letter that follows it:

  • It’s pronounced [ks] if it’s followed by e, i or y (accent — accent)
  • It’s pronounced [k] if it’s followed by a, o or u (occuper — to occupy)

Pronouncing other letter combinations

Apart from double consonants, French also has several letter combinations that sound… in an interesting way when they appear together.

You don’t have to learn all these combinations at this stage. Here you have the most important/common ones with a short explanation and a sample word so you can get an idea of how they sound like:

  • ch (two pronunciations: [sh] as in cher — dear/expensive, and [k] as in chaos — chaos)
  • ill (if it appears at the end of a word after a, e or u, it sounds similar to English y: appareil — device/apparatus)
  • gn (it’s pronounced like ni in onion: mignon — cute)
  • ph (it’s pronounced like in English: pharmacie — pharmacy/drugstore)
  • th (it’s pronounced like the letter t: athlétique — athletic)
  • cqu (it’s pronounced like the letter k: acquitter — to acquit)
  • qu (two pronunciations: [k] as in quand — when, and [kw] as in aquarelle — watercolor)
  • ti (two pronunciations: [si] if followed by a vowel, as in democratiedemocracy, or [ti] in the combination -sti-, as in question — question)

(Not) Pronouncing silent letters

French is known not only for its challenging pronunciation but also for its challenging “non-pronunciation.”

As it happens in English, some French letters are silent, i.e. they aren’t pronounced in certain situations.

Let’s have a look at the most important cases.

1. The consonants D, P, S, T, X and Z are normally silent at the end of a word

The consonants d, p, s, t, x and z are normally silent when they’re the last letter of a word:

2. In infinitives ending in -er, the r is normally not pronounced

This rule is self-explanatory. If a French infinitive ends in -er, the final r is silent:

3. The ending -ent for the third person plural of verbs is always silent

At this point, you’ll be wondering if we pronounce anything in French, especially when it comes to verb endings.

The truth is that the majority of verb endings in French are silent and, what’s more, the first three persons of the singular and the third person of the plural of the present tense normally sound the same because of these silent endings!

Remember this when conjugating verbs, and never forget not to pronounce the ending -ent:

4. Watch out for the e muet (silent e)

French’s silent e is possibly one of the biggest challenges you’ll encounter when you start practicing French pronunciation.

There are several rules regarding this letter, but the three most important ones are:

  • If a word ends in an unaccented e, the letter is always silent (dimancheSunday, sociologie — sociology).
  • In the middle of a word, an unaccented e is silent if it’s followed by a single consonant (mercredi — Wednesday, rapidement — quickly).
  • The letter e is not pronounced when it’s part of the last syllable of conjugated verbs (je mangeI eat, tu manges — you eat).

Pay attention to how the form manges is pronounced. Since the e is not pronounced (it’s a silent e because it’s followed by just one consonant) and final s is also not pronounced (see previous section), the last pronounced letter of the word is g.

5. The h muet (silent h)

At the beginning of a word, the letter h can be aspirated (like in English) or silent.

Unfortunately, there are no rules for this, so you’ll have to learn the pronunciation of each new h-word by heart.

Here you have some examples of words starting with a silent h:

There’s a little trick you can use when you’re reading, though. If an h-word allows for an elision (the omission of letters), then it’s always silent:

  • j’habite — I live
  • l’herbage — the grassland
  • l’hélicoptère — the helicopter
  • l’histoire — the history
  • l’hôtel — the hotel

Pronouncing the French letter r

French r is especially difficult to pronounce because its sound is completely different in English.

If you want to learn how to pronounce the letter r in French, the best way to do it is by practicing a lot and listening to a lot of native French content.

french pronunciation

Luckily for you, this can be done on FluentU.

FluentU will give you access to hundreds of videos where you’ll be able to listen to native speakers of French in all kinds of situations. By working with these engaging, interactive videos, you’ll improve your French pronunciation while you learn vocabulary and grammar at the same time.

Give FluentU a free try and make the letter r yours without destroying your throat!

But wait, there’s more!

From the same team as the FluentU program comes the FluentU French YouTube channel! With this resource, you’ll be able to keep up to date with all the latest French content as well as enjoy educational breakdowns and insider tips from dedicated French speakers.

A great example of how FluentU French does this is the following video, which dissects the trailer of “Jurassic World” and transforms it into a superb French lesson:

If you’re after the perfect accompaniment to your FluentU account, then subscribe to the FluentU YouTube channel for heaps of great French learning and entertainment videos. Your French pronunciation will skyrocket!

In the meantime, here you have some French words that include the wicked letter r:

Pronouncing nasalized vowels

Nasal vowels are vowels that are pronounced when the air passes through the nose and the mouth (for instance, when you pronounce the English word sing, you’re very close to a fully nasal i).

Any French vowel that is followed by the consonants m or n gets automatically nasalized. But that’s not all!

The consonant gets “absorbed” by the nasalized vowel and it becomes silent! Boy, isn’t French pronunciation amazing…

So, summing up,  if you see a vowel followed by m or n, nasalize the vowel and drop the consonant altogether while pronouncing the word.

Here you have some examples:

Pronouncing the sounds /s/ and /z/

The letter s has quite a few rules related to it in French (like the fact that it’s silent at the end of a word, as you saw earlier).

However, there are other two very important rules you need to master from the very beginning in order to sound like a native:

  • The letter s at the beginning of a word and the double consonant ss always sound like an English s: sale — dirty, messe — mass (in church).
  • The letter s between vowels is pronounced z (as in English zee)vase — vase/vessel, visage — face).

Sometimes, pairs of words are pronounced very similarly, but one word in the pair includes the sound /s/ and the other word, the sound /z/.

This differentiation is crucial and, as a matter of fact, it can become deadly (see the last example) if you ignore it:

french pronunciation

ruse (cunning) — Russe (Russian)

cousin (cousin) — coussin (cushion)

désert (desert) — dessert (dessert)

lisent (they read) — lissent (smooth)

embraser (to set on fire) — embrasser (to kiss)

poison (poison) — poisson (fish)

Pronouncing French liaisons

A liaison is a French pronunciation feature that makes understanding spoken French very hard for beginners.

Liaisons would need their own separate post because of all their rules and exceptions, so to make things easier, let’s just say that a liaison happens when a word that ends in a silent consonant is followed by a word that starts with a vowel or a mute h.

The sound of the final consonant gets “activated” and joined to the first sound of the next word. As a result, both words seem to have been fused together into one, and the silent consonant stops being silent.

This’ll be easier to understand with a couple of examples:

ils — they (the -s is silent)
ont — are (it starts with a vowel)
ils ont — they are (both words are pronounced as one, and the -s is not silent anymore)

un — a (the -n is silent)
hôtel — hotel (it starts with a silent h, so the first sound is that of the vowel ô)
un hôtel — a hotel (both words are pronounced as one, and the -n is not silent anymore)

French Pronunciation Practice

Finding a good French pronunciation guide is as challenging as pronouncing the language, so I hope you’ve understood everything so far.

The theory is great. You get to know the rules and you understand why things happen the way they happen.

However, practicing French pronunciation is where it’s at.

Without tons of practice, no guide or grammar book would be worth a dime.

There are many ways and places to practice and learn French pronunciation. Some are bad, some are good and a few of them are simply awesome.

For example, a French TV show such as Dix pour cent (Ten Percent) or “Call My Agent!” as it’s known in English, is a great way to learn French pronunciation.

This is because you can hear French as it’s actually spoken, quick speed and all, as pointed out by this video from FluentU French’s YouTube channel.

Subscribe to the channel for more insightful videos on how to learn French with native content.

 

Did you notice what tool the host was using to access the “Call My Agent!” trailer?

It was FluentU, of course.

FluentU can easily be included in this last category of simply awesome places to practice French pronunciation. FluentU’s videos will give you access to native content that’ll help you improve and perfect your pronunciation.

Each video includes a set of contextual subtitles. By hovering your mouse over any word, you’ll get a definition in the context of the video you’re watching.

french pronunciation

If you click on any word, an interactive flashcard will pop up. FluentU’s flashcards include pronunciation, a translation, sample sentences with audio and translation, and even a list of other videos where your word is also used. They can also be sent to your personal flashcard deck, which is basically a personalized vocab list you make yourself with the words you want.

french pronunciation

When you finish working on a video, you can practice your French grammar, vocabulary, listening and pronunciation skills further by taking a quiz. Listen to the pronunciation of the words and sentences that appear in the exercises, repeat them several times and then provide the correct answers.

french pronunciation

And if you’re feeling adventurous, just enter any word in the flashcard and video dictionary and gorge on all the audiovisual and interactive content you’ll get.

french pronunciation

FluentU is completely personalizable and it adapts to every language needs you might have. Give it a free try today and your French pronunciation will skyrocket in no time.

Apart from FluentU, there are some other interesting ways to practice French pronunciation out there.

Here you have some ideas:

  • Listen to French native content and try shadowing. Shadowing is super beneficial when you’re trying to improve your pronunciation. Use FluentU’s videos or any other native content you enjoy, like YouTube videos, French movies, the news, etc.
  • Read out loud. If reading is superb to improve your French in general, reading out loud is “mega superb” to improve your French pronunciation, because it lets you focus on your accent and speaking rhythm. If you can, record yourself while you read and analyze the recording afterward.
  • Try saying French tongue-twisters. Take reading out loud to the next level with some French tongue-twisters. If you’re able to pronounce tongue-twisters perfectly, you’re able to pronounce anything.
  • Practice your French pronunciation online. From podcasts to pronunciation dictionaries and everything in between, there are plenty of tools and resources you can use to improve your French pronunciation online (mostly for free!). Try to always use at least two different tools for practicing your French to obtain the best results.
  • Find a native language partner. Language exchange is an amazing way to practice your French while you help someone improve the language they’re learning. Ideally, you’d find a person whose native language is French and who wants to learn your native language. You could also find a conversation tutor if you’re willing to invest some money.
  • Enroll in a French pronunciation course or a French conversation class. Pronunciation courses and conversation classes can be done both online and in a classroom. Depending on the course, the number of students can vary from a couple to around 20, so make sure you choose one that fits your profile (for example, if you’re an introverted person, you could go for an online class with only a couple of learners).

French Regional Accents

I bet you dream of learning how to sound French and have a good French accent every time you start practicing French pronunciation, but have you ever stopped dreaming and thought about which French accent you want to have?

Yup, there are different French accents. There are even several French accents in the same French-speaking country!

If you really want to improve your French accent, first you need to decide which one you want to learn/improve.

This decision may depend on the place you’re traveling to or already living in, the company that’s hiring you, your partner’s nationality and accent, or maybe just your personal love for a specific accent.

Whatever the case, don’t get too stressed when making this decision. There are also several varieties of English and you can understand them quite well, can’t you? French works in a similar way.

Here you have a list of the main French regional accents. Bear in mind this is just a general list, so the accent you want to learn may have not been included:

 

And that’s all for today, folks!

Thanks to this guide, you now have all the necessary info and tools to learn French pronunciation.

Although this might seem a difficult skill to master, practice, as usual, is the key to success.

So don’t give up and keep on pronouncing that tricky r until it becomes second nature to you!

Stay curious, my friends, and as always, happy learning!

Oh, and by the way, the false friend was pain.


Francisco J. Vare loves teaching and writing about grammar. He’s a proud language nerd, and you’ll normally find him learning languages, teaching students or reading. He’s been writing for FluentU for many years and is one of their staff writers.

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.

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