French Pronunciation Awareness: 8 Major Points You Should Learn ASAP
What’s the biggest, most annoying problem for French learners out there?
Why the French accent, of course.
Luckily, though, many of your accent-related issues can be easily fixed.
Before you know it, you’ll have all those French words flowing from your mouth fluently.
- Learn French Pronunciation: 8 Rules and Sounds You’ve Gotta Get Down
- How to Get Your Pronunciation Flowing
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
Learn French Pronunciation: 8 Rules and Sounds You’ve Gotta Get Down
While French has far more than eight rules and sounds you need to know, you’re probably familiar with a lot of the basics already, even if you’re just starting out. For example, the vast majority of the consonants are pronounced the way we pronounce them in English.
If you’re starting from square one with French pronunciation (and if so, welcome to the wonderful world of French!), be sure to check out at least one of the resources I discussed above.
These are just eight major problem spots, problem spots that can trip beginners up and remain a pain even far into your advanced years. If you aren’t constantly around French people or maybe just don’t hear the nuances of certain words when they’re spoken, some of these can be hard to get drilled in nice and good. But that’s what I’m here to do, so let’s get the power tools going!
To listen to these pronounced, check out the link in each title.
1. The French R
For me, this is the classic French sound. It may be the one you struggle with the most, but it eventually becomes the most fun. To pronounce it, you’ll want to use your throat. Go after it like you’re trying to gargle. To find the place in your throat you should be gargling from, make a “k” sound, then pronounce the “k” with your throat closed.
Since there isn’t really an English equivalent of this sound, sometimes the instinct will be to pronounce the r as we know it, but sounding French pretty heavily requires getting this sound right, so practice, practice, practice!
Here are some words to practice the r with:
arriver (to arrive)
2. The French U
“What’s so difficult about the letter u?” you ask. Oh ho ho! Well in case you didn’t know, the French u has a pronunciation that doesn’t exist in English. Along with the r, it’s one of the more difficult sounds to get right.
But hey, once you get this on lock, you’ll be cruising through most words. To pronounce it, pronounce “ee” in English and hold it out, then round your lips. If you’re having trouble getting it down this way, then check out the link above.
In addition to the French vowel u, there’s also the ou vowel, which is pronounced slightly differently, so we’ve gotta make the distinction. Don’t be fooled: Tu and tout sound different. To pronounce the ou sound, think “soup.” You’ll likely find this sound easier to pronounce than the plain old u. The best way to distinguish the two in the realm of your own mouth is to remember that with u, your tongue will be out further than with ou.
Here are some words to practice u (vs. ou) with:
tu and tout (you/all)
vue and vous (sight/you)
jus and joue (juice/play)
You should hear a difference between the pairs, and if not, revisit where you put your tongue (okay, that sounded weird).
3. The French Sound of Silence
This was one of the major things that tripped me up in the beginning. There are all these letters at the ends of words (and no, I’m not just talking about that silent e) that you just don’t pronounce.
“Oh, all four of these letters, I just…don’t pronounce them?” Yup, just leave them off. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.
Silent letters, or lettres muettes, like most language concepts in French, have rules and exceptions. In English, we have a silent “e” on tons of words, and in French, the silent e abides by many of the same rules. Unless it has an accent on it or is part of a two-letter word like le or ce, you don’t pronounce that e.
There’s more to French silent letters than just the e, and the best way to get these silent consonants down (other than straight-up immersing yourself in French) is to get familiar with which endings are pronounced and which aren’t.
These are usually pronounced at the end of the word: b, c, f, l, q, r
Again, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Like English, French is full of exceptions that like to come at you from all angles. The common exceptions—like -er infinitives and blanc (white), in which these consonants aren’t pronounced—you’ll learn over time.
For now, concentrate on pronouncing the endings of words like these:
un club (an organization)
un look (a look)
un bol (a bowl)
So now that you know (for the most part) what you should pronounce, back to the silent treatment.
These are usually not pronounced at the end of a word: p, g, n, m, s, t, d, x, z
Here’s where things get more straightforward. That’s a lot of letters I just listed, meaning that the majority of the time, outside of your everyday exceptions (most of them being either proper nouns or words borrowed from another language), you leave off that last letter. Just cut it out. Don’t pronounce it.
To give you an idea, here are some words where you leave the ending hanging:
le sang (blood)
le train (train)
le parfum (perfume)
le prix (the price)
chez (the house of)
The general rule here ends up being that you probably shouldn’t say the last consonant, and if it’s supposed to be pronounced, hope that your French friends correct you.
Pay attention to those exceptions when you’re watching your favorite French TV shows (French subtitles come in handy here)!
4. Vowels Followed by M or N (Getting Nasal)
Remember how, as a kid, when you tried to imitate the French, you would plug your nose up and talk about croissants? Well that nasal sound that so many people get hung up on is very much part of the French language and can prove to be a pronunciation tough spot for many.
Does this mean you need to be plugging your nose while you speak? No, that’s just plain rude. In fact, the whole point of nasal vowels is that with regular oral vowels, the vowel is pronounced just with the mouth, and with nasal, it’s pronounced with air coming out of the nose and the mouth. Oh, how wrong seven-year-old you was.
A few paragraphs ago I told you that m and n aren’t pronounced at the ends of words, and this doesn’t change that. When you see them, you just need to know that the vowel becomes nasal, so start pushing that air through your nose!
If you’re still like “Air out of my nose? What the heck?” try humming with the letter “m” (“mmmmmmmmmm”), then the letter “n” (“nnnnnnnnnn”). You should feel vibrations in your nose if you touch it.
Something to keep in mind: If an m or n is followed by another vowel, then it’s not a nasal sound. For example, un is nasal, but une is not.
Here are some French words to practice nasal vowels with:
emporter (to bring)
Did you feel the air coming out of your nose and mouth? You should feel a difference between these nasal sounds and a regular “am” or “an” sound in English.
Everything has got to flow. If you’re speaking French correctly, then everything should come out like one beautiful ongoing poem. Liaisons are essentially a link between two words that would otherwise sound awkward.
Here’s what I mean: Let’s say you want to say J’ai deux ampoules (I have two lightbulbs). Normally, you would ignore that x at the end of deux and move on to the next word like normal (hoping your accent does the trick to make it flow).
Here, though, since the following word starts with a vowel sound, you can’t leave that x hanging like usual. If you left it hanging, you’d have something that sounded like “deu ampoules.” Which for us English speakers doesn’t sound like the end of the world, but trust me, the liaison makes it prettier.
There are a few key things to know in order to make phrases like deux ampoules have that French-approved resonance. So here are the consonants that can elicit a liaison (and what it then sounds like):
- D sounds like t.
- N and p sound like themselves.
- S and x sound like z.
If you see one of these letters at the end of a word with a vowel beginning the following word, you pronounce it according to these rules, making deux ampoules pronounced like “deuz ampoules.” So much prettier, isn’t it?
But that’s not all there is to it. Oh no. You don’t always make liaisons with the letters I’ve listed. So let’s go over the specifics of when you should and shouldn’t make the liaison happen.
Liaison for your life when it’s…
- After a pronoun.
- Before a noun.
- A number.
- A preposition with one syllable like chez or en.
- Your indefinite or definite articles (les, des, un).
Whatever you do, don’t liaison when it’s…
- A name.
- After et (and).
- Before onze (eleven).
- After nouns.
- Before oui.
It may seem like a pain to get all of that straight, but sooner or later, after maybe some (minor) trial-and-error, certain things will sound correct while others don’t.
C’est français ! (That’s French!)
6. What the Heck to Do with H
Okay so what about h when it comes to liaisons? I intentionally left out h from the last section because it plays by its own rules.
If you’ve been studying French for any amount of time, you should know that the h is silent in French. But what happens when you try to put a definite article (le or la) in front of an h word, and what about uhm…liaisons? Is it, like, a vowel or a consonant? The answer is both.
Before you start freaking out, this whole thing is rather easy to explain, and only involves a little bit of vocabulary memorization. There are two different types of h “sounds” in French: h muet (mute “h”), and h aspiré (aspirated “h”).
H muet is treated like a vowel. So that means you do contractions with words like hôpital, giving you l’hôpital or a pronounced liaison like les hôpitaux (“lez-hôpitaux”). This will come instinctively after having it drilled into your head that the h is silent.
Here are some examples of h muet words:
habiller (to dress)
habiter (to live)
So again, those ones are treated like vowels, giving you l’histoire, l’huile and l’harmonie with the definite article (and pronounced accordingly).
So that leaves the h aspiré, an h that’s treated like a good old consonant. The further you go into French, the harder it will be to fight the urge to run your definite article into these, like with “l’horloge.” Since they are treated like consonants, you don’t do liaisons, and you would pronounce the le or la in full.
Here are some examples of h aspiré words:
la hache (the axe)
la haie (the hedge)
la haine (the hatred)
le hamburger (the hamburger)
le haricot (the bean)
le hockey (hockey)
hurler (to scream)
Warning: Just because the h aspiré is treated like a consonant doesn’t mean it’s pronounced. Resist the urge at all costs. It may feel weird not making the contraction for a vowel sound, but it’s how the French do their thing.
You may not spend as much time thinking about it, but the same thing happens in English with the letter “h.” As you’re well aware, one would say “a hug,” but also “an hour.” This is similar to the French rule (except we pronounce “h” sometimes in English): If it has a vowel sound, use “an,” if it has a consonant sound, use “a.” Keep this in mind if you ever get confused about the French rules.
7. The Double L
Is it pronounced like an “l” or like a “y”? This is a question that will haunt your French pronunciation for days to come. There is an answer, of course, but like most things French, the rule is filled with holes.
In general, it all depends on what comes before the ll.
A, e, o, u and y signal an “l” sound. Words like elle (she) and balle (ball) are pronounced like with a regular “l.” The general rule is that if it’s any letter other than i, then you’re safe to pronounce it like the “l” you know and love.
The letter i is a problem child, and you’ve got to watch out for the pronunciation of words with -ille in them. Here are three pieces of info to keep the -ille straight:
1. If there are other vowels before the -ille, then it’s pronounced like a “y.” For example, mouiller (to get wet), is pronounced like “moui(y)er.” Here are a few common words you may know that play by this rule: taille (size), feuille (paper) and paille (straw).
2. In general, you would also pronounce -ille the same way when there aren’t any other vowels. This is the general rule. So words like fille (girl) and bille (marble) safely go with the “y.”
3. You simply have to know the exceptions (there aren’t too many). Most of these you’ll learn with practice, but here are some of the most common ones that are not pronounced with the “y” sound, but the “l” sound:
un million (a million)
un milliard (a billion)
un mille (a thousand)
Lille (a town in France)
le bacille (type of bacteria)
8. The Letter O
Oh, the tricky o. Not all vowels are included in this post because we’re trying to concentrate on letters and sounds that are problem areas. And after the u, o is the trickiest vowel. It’s not as far-fetched to pronounce as u is for English speakers, but it does have two distinctions depending on the letters that follow it.
There are closed o’s and open o’s and Cheerios (just kidding).
For an open o, try this: Say the word botte (boot) and hold out the open o sound. Watch your mouth in the mirror and, sure enough, you’ll find that with the open o, your mouth is more open.
For a closed o, try bon mot (witticism) and hold out the closed o sound. You’ll find that with the closed o, your mouth will be more closed in the mirror. Go figure.
So how do you know how to differentiate? Well, there are only a few guidelines you need to worry about in order to get the gist of it. I say “guidelines” because these may not actually apply all the time, but they’ll help give you a general idea.
It’s often a closed o, if…
1. It has an accent circumflex (the house, as you may know it): ô.
2. It’s the last syllable of a word, as in trop (too).
3. It’s followed by a “z” sound, as in virtuose (virtuoso).
It’s often an open o if…it’s followed by (non-silent) consonant sounds that aren’t z. Example: anglophone.
In addition, those confusing-looking vowel combinations that may have given you agony, au and eau, are pronounced the same way a closed o is. Hmm, simpler than they look, aren’t they?
How to Get Your Pronunciation Flowing
Where to Hear Things Pronounced the Right Way
It’s all well and good to read a guide on pronunciation, but how are you supposed to know you’re doing it right just from written rules?
If you’re already knee-deep in the immersion game, then you’ve gotten an earful of correctly pronounced French in sources ranging from great French plays to downloaded Francophone music. But if pronunciation is an area that really has you stumbling and nervous, then it’s a good idea to find some audio and visual resources that will help you work on it.
If you’re looking for something to do in your car, focusing that time on French pronunciation with podcasts and audio courses is a good way to go. These types of courses tend to leave time for you to respond and try out the pronunciation for yourself, putting emphasis on sounds that learners get tripped up on.
You can also find more interactive courses that use audio. If you’re looking for something of a crash course before a trip to a French-speaking area and want to learn good pronunciation at the same time, consider Beginning Conversational French from ed2go. The lessons are based around dialogues, so you can get plenty of listening and speaking practice in from the start.
For times when you can focus your attention more freely, YouTube has tons of channels that are solely for getting all those nasal sounds and the guttural r right.
In fact, I’ve linked to some specific videos in this post to help with certain pronunciation trouble areas. But if you need a general course in pronunciation, or if I don’t cover that letter combination that has you stammering, check out the channel FrenchSounds or the French Pronunciation section of Frencheezee.
There are also authentic French videos featuring native speakers on the language learning program FluentU. This means you can hear correct and natural French pronunciation from videos like movie clips, music videos, news segments, vlogs and more.
Each clip has accurate French and English subtitles (both of which can be toggled on or off) so you can read along with the video. These subtitles also allow you to check the contextual definition of any word without leaving the video player, as well as view and save flashcards of the word.
These flashcards are audio and video enhanced, giving you even more opportunities to hear the correct pronunciation of any word, in context. You can learn saved words using personalized quizzes, and if you’re 0n the iOS or Android app, FluentU also includes speaking questions that let you practice your pronunciation.
How to Practice Your Pronunciation
There are two major ways to practice your French pronunciation and accent:
- Repeat sounds and words with the kind of resources we’ve already talked about (which is addictively fun).
- Get out there and have conversations in French!
The first way is achieved in quite a simple manner: Use an audio or video lesson on pronunciation that gives you time (and encourages you) to repeat a word or phrase. Then, repeat the word or phrase until you sound like a French expert. It’s almost too easy, isn’t it?
For the real-world challenge, you’ll need a language exchange partner or a French teacher—basically, someone to converse with. This can be someone from your French class or your Canadian aunt (just watch out for the Quebec French differences)—preferably someone who is at least slightly more skilled than you are and can correct you when you make a mistake.
Also, don’t be afraid to talk to yourself in French to exercise those French pronunciation muscles. Trust me, all successful French learners have done it at some point.
This isn’t every last pronunciation rule, but it’s enough to give those sticky spots a run for their money.
Let’s face it, this stuff is tough.
Beginners should in no way be discouraged if their accent is not so great.
It’s all about building confidence, listening to French spoken correctly and getting your mouth moving as much as possible!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)