Ace Your French Pronunciation With This Complete Guide (Audio Included)
What’s the most uniquely challenging skill to master when learning French?
Why the French accent, of course.
Luckily, though, many of your accent-related issues can be easily fixed!
In this blog post, you’ll learn the rules and sounds of French pronunciation, get handy learning tips and find additional guidance on optimizing your pronunciation journey.
Before you know it, you’ll have all those French words flowing from your mouth fluently.
- Important Rules and Sounds for French Pronunciation
- French Pronunciation Tips
- The French Alphabet
- How To Practice Your French Pronunciation
- Why Does Proper French Pronunciation Matter?
- And one more thing...
Important Rules and Sounds for French Pronunciation
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 some online French pronunciation tools, as well as these six French pronunciation apps to help you put your pronunciation into good practice.
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, pretend 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Not only do we need to mind the vowels that require a little extra emphasis, but also remember when to not emphasize sounds at all with French silent consonants. In addition to everything listed above, also note that almost every letter can be silent—except j and v in certain circumstances. And always pronounce a word ending in r.
A popular mnemonic to remember which last letters of a word are pronounced is CaReFuL (c, r, f, and l, whereas b, k or q are not so commonly found at the end of French words).
4. Vowels Followed by M or N
Remember how, as a kid, when you tried to imitate the French, you would plug your nose up and talk? Well, that nasal sound is very much part of the French language and can prove to be a pronunciation tough spot for many.
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.
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!
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.
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, 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. The French 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 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
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.
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.
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?
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
French Pronunciation Tips
1. Get in the right rhythm. Unlike English’s use of a relatively free system of intonation and stress, French utilizes a foreign rhythm. There are some English speakers who will put a little creative spin on their communication style by intoning different ways depending on their personality or speaking style. This is not the case with French’s three major rhythm rules:
- When continuing a sentence, use a slight rising inflection.
- Declarative sentences are said with a falling inflection.
- Yes/no questions can be asked using a simple rising inflection at the end of a declarative sentence.
2. Get a phonetics table. French phonetics will baffle and confuse you, only because it is foreign to our own native English sounds. It is so much easier to learn by studying a phonetics table to establish a good understanding of placement, voicing and emphasis that is unique to French speakers.
3. Identify difficult sounds. There are going to be some French sounds that you will struggle with. And that’s okay. To improve on your pronunciation, examine what you are finding difficult, record yourself and compare it to native French speakers to see what needs to be tweaked.
4. Replace sounds when necessary. When you have come to a pronunciation stalemate, it is okay to (temporarily) alter your strategy. This could be a case of replacing a difficult sound with one that is more familiar. For example, when taking on the French R, saying an English R in its place kind of seems logical. However, an English R is actually not the closest English sound you have to a French R! Instead, say an English L and the effect will be closer to achieving the French effect.
You can also check out this below for even more tips—it covers common French pronunciation mistakes and how you can avoid them!
The French Alphabet
Welcome to the world of l’alphabet.
In all fairness, the English and French alphabets are quite similar: they have the same 26 letters (or les lettres). The main difference is that not all of the French letters are pronounced as they are in English.
Secondly, some French letters also have some accents, which greatly change how the letters are pronounced.
To wrap your mind around the French alphabet, start by working your way through this fundamental guide:
How To Practice Your French Pronunciation
In addition to learning all about the art of articulation in French, make sure you get in focused pronunciation practice. But for the fastest improvement, it’s important to squeeze in some extra practice whenever possible between lessons.
- Record yourself (and practice in front of a mirror). Using your phone or a recorder, practice reciting newspaper articles, book chapters or song lyrics aloud. Listen back and you may be surprised at the mistakes or bad habits you suddenly notice.
This is a good way to practice for those who may be a bit self-conscious about speaking in front of others. You can’t keep the training wheels on forever, though!
- Watch authentic French videos. This will expose you to pronunciation by native speakers. There are a ton of videos on Netflix and YouTube.
- Listen to podcasts (and parrot the speakers). Podcasts are a fantastic French audio resource and should become part of your rotation no matter what level you’re at. A great exercise to improve your pronunciation is to parrot the audio in short snippets.
- Find a French language partner. Find a virtual or IRL native speaker who can regularly converse with you and gently correct your mistakes. italki is one great option for those of you looking for a partner on the world wide web
Why Does Proper French Pronunciation Matter?
It helps you avoid misunderstandings. Slight variations in pronunciation could indicate vastly different words and meanings, like with the nasal sounds en, un and on.
Native French speakers mastered these subtle differences years ago, but for those of us who aren’t native speakers, it can be a real struggle to hear, let alone pronounce, the difference between them.
It’s respectful. Pronouncing the words of a foreign language correctly helps you show respect for the language and culture. Every culture and every language is beautiful in its own unique way—people will sense that you care and will be grateful and kind in return, also building up your confidence.
Perfect pronunciation will not happen straight away, but people will recognize that you’re putting in the effort, and that’s what really matters!
It’ll inspire you to keep learning. It’s like the gold star sticker phenomenon—when you feel like you’re doing a good job at something, and when you’re recognized for your efforts, you want to keep doing better to keep earning more gold stars!
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!
And one more thing...
If you like learning French on your own time and from the comfort of your smart device, then I'd be remiss to not tell you about FluentU.
FluentU has a wide variety of great content, like interviews, documentary excerpts and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU brings native French videos with reach. With interactive captions, you can tap on any word to see an image, definition and useful examples.
For example, if you tap on the word "crois," you'll see this:
Practice and reinforce all the vocabulary you've learned in a given video with learn mode. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning, and play the mini-games found in our dynamic flashcards, like "fill in the blank."
All throughout, FluentU tracks the vocabulary that you’re learning and uses this information to give you a totally personalized experience. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)