Are you in a world of hurt over pronouncing the French ou and u?
You’re not alone.
The distinction is a nightmare for most Anglos.
Il a rougi and il a rugi may sound exactly the same to English speakers.
But to a Francophone there’s no mistaking the first phrase (he blushed) for the second (he roared).
This problem is not really our fault.
Our hearing “tunes in” to distinguish only the sounds from the language we grew up with.
In fact, by the age of one you have already lost the ability to distinguish between certain sounds that aren’t present in the speech around you.
This is why, for example, Spanish speakers can have trouble with “b” and “v” in English, or Japanese speakers with “r” and “l.”
So you can blame the French-free environment your parents gave you as an infant for your failure to distinguish ou and u—but what else can you do about it?
In this post, we’ll look at ways to practice hearing the difference with minimal pairs (words that sound alike except for these two vowels), the exact position of the mouth for pronouncing them and ways to “approach” that very tricky u by moving from other vowels.
Finally, we’ll look at how to practice these vowels in context, and a few strategies for “cheating” when all else fails.
For the purpose of motivation as you work, keep in mind that pronouncing this distinction is a vital part of speaking even passable French.
If you mispronounce Spanish vowels, you’ll just sound a little silly.
But if you mispronounce French vowels such as ou and u, you’ll have real issues in communicating, just as with the rougi / rugi example above.
These vowels are everywhere in French, and essential for getting your point across.
Hearing the Difference Between Ou and U
Here’s a test. (You can listen for rougi and rugi at about 0:26.)
The presented examples are minimal pairs, so to hear the difference you really need to be able to hear these vowels. If hearing it already, you’re off to a great start; pronunciation is so much easier once you can hear whether or not you’re speaking correctly!
But if not, don’t worry. Exposing yourself to as much French speech as possible will get you there—check out the native-speaker videos on FluentU!
By watching these authentic French videos, you’ll start to hear the differences between vowel sounds, teaching you how to speak the way natives do. Let yourself be fully immersed in the language by signing up for a free FluentU trial.
When you learn new words with ou or u, you should listen for that distinction and practice saying them out loud (more on that in a moment).
Here’s another great video to practice hearing the distinction between the two sounds.
Finally, while I’ve heard some say that there’s not much point in trying to learn pronunciations when you can’t yet distinguish sounds aurally, in my personal language learning I’ve found that tackling pronunciations in an artificial way (by learning to configure your mouth correctly, as below) actually helps you appreciate the distinctions between sounds when you hear them. So try it for yourself, and see how it works for you.
How These Vowels Are Written in Dictionaries
We’ll take just a tiny dip into linguistics, so you can understand what you see when you look up these pronunciations in a dictionary.
U is the close front rounded vowel, whose IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbol is “y.”
Ou is the close back rounded vowel, whose IPA symbol is, confusingly, “u” (be careful of this when you look up words!).
So, for example, when you look up su (known, the past participle of savoir) in a dictionary, the IPA pronunciation will be /sy/. You can hear it here.
And when you look up sous (under), the IPA pronunciation will be /su/. Hear it here.
An alternative to looking up written pronunciations is the in-many-cases-excellent Forvo, which has crowd-sourced pronunciations of words in many languages.
Reconfiguring Your Mouth
We’ll start with the easier sound, ou.
This is basically the same vowel sound that you already know how to make when you say the English words “boot,” “food” and “soup.” Try saying these words out loud right now; notice how your tongue is pushed up towards the back of your mouth on the vowel. You’ll do the same when you say French words like dessous (underneath).
Ideally,when you say the French vowel, your lips are just a bit more rounded and pouty. There’s a picture of what your tongue is doing here.
This is a sound that we don’t have in English, and is thus a source of great Anglo horror.
Recall how ou was the close back rounded vowel, whereas this one is the close front rounded vowel. And remember how your tongue is pushed up towards the back of your mouth with ou? So one way to approach u is to say ou, freeze your mouth in that position, move your tongue forward, and, keeping your lips pursed, say it again. You should get an u.
Another cool way to get there’s demonstrated in this video by Gabriel Wyner (it should launch directly at 6:06). You’re going to start with the very familiar “ee” (IPA: /i/) sound, as in the English “beat.”
If you keep your mouth just like that but round your lips, you’ll be just about at the French u. The bit of the video after that is a bit hard to follow, but basically his point is that compared to the “ee” sound, your tongue will actually relax just a tiny bit further back when you say u. (The entire video is very interesting, by the way, though it may get a bit far into the weeds for some learners.)
There’s no way to find out if you’re really pronouncing these vowels correctly without having a native speaker listen to your speech. This is one of those cases where private, one-on-one lessons are going to save you lots of time versus classroom French. And language exchanges can also be great, but getting someone patient enough to listen to your many ou and u attempts can be challenging.
Very few native French teachers are going to be any good at explaining the above, however; for them the u sound is just natural and obvious. So try to understand the tongue and lip configurations explained above before your ou vs. u lesson, and then practice producing sentences with your teacher that you might say in your real life using the minimal pairs in the videos above.
The point of the lesson should be to check if your teacher understands you and then use the feedback to fine-tune your communication.
For example, I like to complain about the jerks who live upstairs, so I might tell my teacher:
Les voisins du dessus font trop de bruit. (The neighbors upstairs make too much noise.)
But I’m lucky that the Italian couple downstairs is just lovely:
Les voisins du dessous sont très silencieux. (The neighbors downstairs are very quiet.)
Alright, it’s really not as classy, but let’s pile up those cat corpses and get at the hides whatever way we can.
You can, for example, avoid dessus and dessous by saying the unmistakeable en haut and en bas, respectively. Or you can just point emphatically up or down every time one of those d words comes up.
A cheat for hearing the difference is that often something is au dessus (on top of, above), and we change the preposition to say en dessous (below, underneath).
You can often use context as a cheat to get past difficulties with pronunciation.
The above-mentioned verb rougir (as opposed to rugir), for example, solves itself:
Je rougis quand je fais ces erreurs de pronunciation. (I blush when I make these pronunciation mistakes.)
If the context isn’t enough, you’re probably turning beet as you say the sentence.
Nobody is going to think that you’re about to roar.
Mose Hayward moved to France more than a decade ago and still sometimes has nightmares about French vowels. He blogs about “20-minute fluency,” drinking, dancing and romance for travelers at TipsyPilgrim.com.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.