Learning French is one thing: you learn your French vocabulary and French grammar, write your flashcards, make your adjectives agree, memorize your verb conjugations, practice your spelling - and you can write perfect French. But then you open your mouth - and you sound like a bad imitation of the Pink Panther’s Inspector Clouseau. Speaking French means mastering pronunciation. And that is more difficult than simply learning French greetings and saying “bonjour”, “merci” and “bonne nuit”. Studies have shown that babies become focused on the sounds of their mother tongue even before they are born; the older you are, the harder it is not only to form different sounds, but to hear the subtle differences between two similar sounds when listening to a language. But cheer up! There are enough French dialects and accents that a certain variation in the pronunciation of words is not unusual. And the most important thing is not 100% correct pronunciation - it’s getting it just enough right that everyone understands you.

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How To Pronounce French Vowels 1: Simple Vowel Sounds

Vowels are the bane of English speakers trying to learn a second language. This is because few English vowels are pure. Say what? Remember that classic film, “My Fair Lady”? (If you don’t, go out and rent it, borrow it or stream it.) Apart from featuring a rather horrid Cockney accent by Audrey Hepburn, it also shows a professor of Phonetics shuddering at the amount of vowel sounds in one “oi!”. Most English accents don’t have just one sound within a vowel, but several. Linguists call these diphthongs. Just think of how O is pronounced in English. Notice how your mouth closes a bit in a W sound a the end? Or how the A in “spade” rhymes with “may”? (If you don’t speak with one of the “standard” English accents, just bear with me. And you have diphthongs, too, I assure you.) The French language has very few diphthongs, and those are generally easy to spot as they are usually written with two letters (see below). So, if you speak with British pronunciation or American pronunciation, you will need to learn to shorten your vowels and make them purer when you speak French. Here is a little pronunciation key for the usual French vowels:

VowelEnglish equivalent soundHow you can modify it to sound more French
ASimilar to the A sound in “lawn”For the French A, open your throat more, but don’t make the sound too long
Isame as the English letter E, or ee as in “seed”Again, don't make it too long
Olike in “location”Open the throat more and make the mouth rounder
Ulike the German Ü, “you”Take that tiny sound right after the Y in “you” and tighten your lips more
Yhe Y sound in yellow, not in spy; or an “ee” sound if followed by a consonantThat’s it, basically.

The Variations Of The Vowel E

Beginners can easily get confused at the different ways that the French pronounce the letter E. You can listen to the different pronunciations on this site. The letter E is often pronounced like the letter combination “eu”. This is closest to the German “ö” than anything the English language can produce. It’s nearest perhaps to the “ur” or “ir” sound in “survey” and “girl”, or the E in “angel” but open it up a lot and form your lips into an O sound. It is pronounced that way at the end of words (“le”, “te”), or in words with a two-consonant + e + one consonant group (“mercerie,” “pelleteuse”…) and between two single consonants (“menuisier,” “cerise”) Another way to pronounce E is like in the English word “set.” This is the case between two single consonants in a one-syllable word (“mer,” “cher”) or before a two (or more) -consonant set (“serpent,” “envers”), or at the beginning of words (”express,” “expérience”). Yet another way to pronounce E is like “eh” with an Australian accent (take a moment to really sit back and imagine it.) Remember to keep it short! This is how it is pronounced when it is written with the accent aigu. At the end of words, barely pronounce the E. It’s just a gentle way of letting French words fade out rather than ending abruptly. This is standard French; there are French regional accents where it is spoken more strongly, like an “eu.” Take online French classes here.

How To Say French Vowels 2: French Accents And What They Do

Fortunatent grly, very often, E gets an accent that tells you exactly how it should be pronounced. When you learn French, it’s easy at first to ignore the little strokes on top of the vowels. However, they are important, and you should pay attention to them as they are an integral part of the spelling of French words. They modify the value of the vowels.

One type of French accent.
The accent grave in the word "mystères" open up the E and lengthens it slightly. Photo credit: april-mo on VisualHunt.com

There are three accent marks in the French language:

  • The accent aigu (acute accent) : é. Only used with the letter E. Almost like the A in “same,” but lose the Y sound at the end and close up your throat. You might want to close the sides of your mouth a little more, too.
  • The accent grave (grave accent): è, à, ù, is only placed on those three letters. It opens and lengthens these vowels somewhat: eeeh, aah. The use on ù consists exclusively of the French word où (where), where it actually shortens the “ou” (”oo”) and sets it apart from “ou” (or).
  • The accent circonflexe (circumflex accent): ê, î, â, ô, and the letter û. The only vowel that cannot get a circonflexe is Y. The circonflexe greatly opens and lengthens the vowel, more so than the accent grave. It is common in certain verb conjugations and often pops up in a French word that used to have an S after the vowel, such as hôpital (from the same root as the English word hospital) hôte (see English “host”), “gîte” and others.
  • The tréma, or diaeresis: only on the letters ï and occasionally ë. It shows that a vowel is pronounced separately in a double-vowel group: Noël (noh-elle) or maïs (mah-ees).

When you learn French, remembering what these little strokes are for will help you pronounce French nouns and French verbs correctly.

How To Learn French Vowels 3: Nasal Sounds And Diphtongues

These sounds are both the most iconic in the French language and the easiest to mispronounce when you are a beginner French student. When pronouncing nasal vowels, try to make the sound, not so much in your throat as in your nose. To practice, try closing your mouth and speaking through your nose. It won’t get you the exact sound yet but will help you practice that nasal component and get a feel for it before your next French classes. The basic French nasal sounds are:

  • On: say an O through your nose; the n is a silent letter and only there to show it is a nasal.
  • An, am* / en, em*: Open up the “on” into an A or schwa. Technically, the “an” spelled with an “a” are more open in the throat than those written with an E. In conversational French, though, they are often interchangeable, even for a native speaker.
  • In /im*/ain: say an I through your nose.
  • Un: In daily speech, French people barely differentiate “un” from “in”; however, there is a subtle difference. Try saying “uh” nasally.

*The spelling with the M is used before a P. If the P comes at the end of the word, it is silent. French has two diphthongs:

  • Oi: careful, this diphthong is pronounced “wa” and not like the English “oi” or “oy.” (Except in the Quebec dialect where they pronounce it “wè.”)
  • “Il” and “ille”: if preceded by a vowel, they are pronounced “eey”:œuil (ö-y), pareille (pah-rey).

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Learn To Speak French Consonants: Note The Difference

QU is pronounced K in French.
In French spelling, the Q is always followed by a U, and makes the sound "K". Photo credit: april-mo on VisualHunt.com

When reviewing the French alphabet in your French class or French online lesson, remember that not every consonant is pronounced exactly like in the English language. For example:

  • C is generally pronounced like a K except in front of an E or an I, where it’s pronounced like the S in English: carapace = ka -ra-pa-s, précis (pray-see).
  • G like in “garden” except when it is between two vowels, in which case it sounds like the English J without the D sound in front of it: “gomme” (gom) but garage (gah-raj) and luge (lüj).
  • H is mute. There is often a slight glottal stop at the beginning of words starting with H, but the sound is never pronounced. However, French grammar occasionally acknowledges it is there: while certain words beginning with an H get treated as though they start with a vowel (l’homme, l’hysterie), others acknowledge the H and don’t contract or do the “liaison” before it (un hibou. Un haut arbre.)
  • J like the English J, but say it without the D sound at the beginning. (Juge, jouer)
  • L those who speak English say the L with the tongue near the teeth. In French, try putting your tongue a little further back on your palate. It gives the L a slightly different intonation that makes you sound like a francophone. Listen to French sound files, and you will hear it.
  • Q almost always appears, followed by U. Together, they form a K sound (quelle, question, enquête…)
  • R The French R is not rolled as in Italian or Scots, but it isn’t quite the English R either. When you say it, try rolling the R sound not with your tongue but at the back of the throat. Listen to Edith Piaf, a French singer. She rolls her Rs rather theatrically, but this paragon of French music can show you the difference to the Italian R if you are willing to listen carefully.
  • W like the English pronunciation of the letter V (wagon).
The mute h is treated like a vowel.
The mute H takes a contracted apostrophe, as though the word starts with a vowel. Thus, it's "d'heure" and not "de heure". Photo credit: april-mo on Visual hunt

An Addition To The French Alphabet: The Symbol ç

In your beginner French course, you might have noticed that the French C is sometimes embellished with a little tail: ç. It is derived from the Visigoth script version of the letter Zet. The C with a cedilla is used in the middle of words to indicate that the letter C should be pronounced differently - namely, like an English S instead of K: placard (plah-kar) and glaçage (icing, as in a cake) and, of course, français.

French typwriters have more symboels.
French typewriters have a few extra letters and symbols: in addition to the French accents, there is also the ç. Photo credit: april-mo on Visualhunt
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How To Pronounce Certain Letter Combinations In French Speech

When reading French phrases out loud, here is how you should be pronouncing the following letter combinations if you want an authentic French accent:

    • Eu like the German “ö,” but shorter. See the first pronunciation for E above.
    • Er at the end of a sentence is pronounced like the “é”
    • Ou like English “oo”, but shorten the sound.
    • Ai like the è (maire, faire, laisse)
    • Ei like the è (peigner, Seine)
    • Gn - in the middle of a word, this corresponds to the Spanish ñ, sounding a bit like the “ny” in “Bunyap” or  “ni” in “onion”: “peigne” (peh-nye), chignon (shee-nyon)
    • Ch is the equivalent to “sh” in the English language: “chat” (shah, cat), “cheveux” (sheu-veu, hair)

And now, one more thing. If you want to learn French, you have to realize that many of the endings are not pronounced at all. The dictionary will use the phonetic alphabet to tell you how to pronounce things correctly; however, it pays to remember: -ent endings in French verb forms are usually silent, as are endings in vowel + s and vowel + t. Read about the wonderful world of French slang! All french courses New York (or wherever you are based), you will cover many of the above lessons in the language.

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Quick Tips To Master French Pronunciation Like A Native

While we delved into the pronunciation of each French alphabet above, there are a few vital areas that English speakers need to tweak to sound closer to native French speakers.

Let’s take a look:

Pronouncing the French “u” Sound

English does not have a ‘u-sounding’ French counterpart. Many people mistake it for the ‘oo’ sound in the English word ‘fool,’ but they’re pretty different. The French ‘u’ sound starts with the y symbol in the IPA.

Hence, if you want to sound like a native Frenchman, you must learn how to pronounce French words with this phoneme, just like the locals.

Here’s another catch; since French has many similar-sounding words, it’s possible to mispronounce the ‘u’ sound and end up saying another word altogether.

Trust us when we say you don’t want to pronounce “beaucoup” as “beau cul!”

Therefore, to pronounce your ‘u’ correctly, try to say ‘ee’ (as in the English word ‘beat’) while rounding your lips as you do while saying ‘ooh.’

Voila! The sound that comes out will be the French ‘u’ sound. While you might not get it right the first few times, some practice will get you there!

For exercise, try these word pairs to distinguish between the ‘u’ and ‘ou’ sound:

  • ‘jus’ and ‘joue’
  • ‘cure’ and ‘cour’
  • ‘tu’ and ‘tous’

Distinguishing Between “é” and “ais,” “ait,” “et”

If you’ve studied French conjugation, you’d have noticed that many verb conjugations sound somewhat similar. Here’s an example:

  • Je vous parlé
  • Je vous parlais

Furthermore, non-native French speakers might be tempted to pronounce ‘parlé ‘ and ‘parlais’ similarly. But the truth is that these two words do not have the same sound.

While the first word is pronounced as ‘parlay,’ the second word ending does not have a phonetic equivalent in English. A close approximation would be the English word ‘let’ without the T sound.

Mastering The French Nasal Sounds Of “En” And “In”

Nasal sounds are quintessentially French – a stereotypical trope referred to whenever someone tries to exaggerate spoken French.

However, learning to speak French with a nasal twinge is not considered too difficult for English speakers to perfect. The real catch lies in not mixing up the different nasal sounds.

The two sounds most French learners struggle in differentiating are the “en” an “an” and the “in” and “ain” sounds.

Of course, there are regional variations as well, with the two sounds having no noticeable pronunciation differences in Quebec.

Under the standard French accent, say the English word ‘song’ for the ‘en’ sound but stop before the ‘ng’ sound. There you have it! You’ve pronounced the word ‘sans’ in French.

For the French ‘in’ sound, say the word ‘bang’ but stop before the ‘ng’ sound. There you go! You’ve successfully pronounced the word ‘bain’ in French.

While the ‘en’ sound is easier for English speakers, the French ‘in’ sound can be tricky, and many ends up mispronouncing it.

A postcard from Paris
The Parisian accent is considered the standard French accent, and most French learners follow the Parisian pronunciation when learning to speak the language. Paris is the capital of France and sees the most movement of people; hence, it contributes the most to the language (Source: Pixabay)

Dropping The ‘L’ From ‘Il’ And ‘Elle’

The French words ‘il’ and ‘elle’ – the English equivalent of he and she – are often shortened in conversational circumstances by dropping the ‘l’ sound.

If you focus on a French native when they speak, you will notice that they tend to pronounce phrases like ‘il y a’ as ‘ee-ya.’

While these are ‘il y a’ phrases, most French speakers prefer to drop the ‘L’ sound altogether from ‘il’ and ‘elle’ in most of their sentences, especially when the following word starts with a consonant. Let’s take a look at an example:

  • Qu’est-ce qu’il fait?

In fact, if you’ve heard French speakers saying the phrase mentioned above, you would notice they shorten the ‘ce que’ to ‘skeu’ as well.

This is best exemplified in the phrase ‘Qu’est-ce que c’est?’ which means “What is this?” in English. But French speakers repeat this elsewhere as well, such as in the ‘ce qu’il’ which they pronounce ‘skee.’

While this might seem like a relatively trivial pronunciation quirk, it can go a long way in making you sound like a native French speaker.

The Dreaded French ‘R’

If there’s one sound that proves to be a challenge for English speakers, it’s the French ‘r’ sound. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent for it in the English language, making it uncharted territory.

The best piece of advice we can give to French learners is to keep at it, even if it sounds like they’re gargling phlegm!

Eventually, they’ll be able to approximate the guttural ‘r’ that gives French its distinctive touch.

If you’re having trouble with pronouncing this sound, you can try approximating it to phonemes you might be familiar with, such as the Spanish J or the Scottish word ‘loch,’ and then voicing these phonemes.

You don’t have to go all the way and perfect the uvular trill since many French speakers themselves don’t bother with such hyper-corrected pronunciation.

Also, if you’re in some parts of French Canada, you can disregard this attempt at perfection. The ‘r’ sound is much closer to a rolled ‘r’ similar to Spanish instead of the guttural ‘r’ sound.

Moreover, the French ‘r’ is often ignored when a word ends in ‘re,’ which occurs quite frequently in the French language.

As a result, if you were to pronounce the ‘r’ at the end of words each time, it would take away from the characteristic elision of the French language.

Let’s consider the sentence ‘Je vais le faire après être revenue.’ Those two words ending with ‘re’ would be tough to pronounce if you had to voice the ‘re’ each time.

Well, native French speakers tend to drop the ‘re.’  This rule stands for most words ending in ‘re’ followed by a consonant, especially for infinitives.

A box of macaroons
If you’re a connoisseur of French cuisine and pop culture, don’t commit a faux pas by messing up your pronunciation. Find French-speaking tutors on Superprof and learn how to pronounce French words like a native (Source: Pixabay)

Mastering Liaison

There’s a reason French is known as the language of love or la belle langue. This reputation stems from the notion that spoken French holds a pleasant, almost romantic quality.

The varying phonetic features combine to give it an aesthetically pleasing quality.

Let’s consider the phrase: ‘Vous êtes dans un belle maison.’ You might wonder how to pronounce French vowels with so many clusters. This is known as ‘liaison’ – a significant feature of French that eases up vowel clusters.

Under typical phonetic traditions, it would be pronounced something like ‘Voo ett dahn un bell mayzon,’ which sounds awkward.

On the other hand, if you add liaison to the mix, it sounds like ‘Voo zett dahn zun bell mayzon’

If you’ve noticed, even English features a few liaison-ic features to avoid vowels from clustering. These include the word ‘the’ before a vowel as opposed to a consonant.

Also, before a vowel, the word ‘the’ is slightly elongated to sound closer to ‘thee.’

To French learners, the rules of liaison can seem confusing since they aren’t very intuitive. However, listening to some examples will set you right as you find a pattern to the technique.

And if your ultimate learning goal is to sound like a native, mastering liaison is a necessity.

Softening The ‘D’ And ‘T’ Sounds In French

Here’s one last tip that will take your French pronunciation closer to your goal. Think of the French word ‘sortie’ and how the second syllable is pronounced.

Most people would say it’s similar to the English word ‘tea.’ However, there’s a difference.

The ‘t’ sound is pronounced more softly, and with a slight hissing ‘s’ added to the ‘t,’ making it sound like ‘tsee.’ This feature also stands true for the ‘d’ sound with a little ‘z’ added to it, giving off a ‘dzee’ sound.

Although it’s a very subtle sound to notice, it still makes a difference in how native French speakers sound.

Sound Like A Native With The Help Of A Professional

Try to listen to native French people and learn to speak the language by imitating their nasal and tongue influences.

Lastly, listening to French audio clips by TV broadcasters, hosts, and French politicians can teach you the standard French accent and train your ear to detect the correct pronunciation for French words.

Follow the tips we mentioned above, and you’ll improve your French pronunciation by leaps and bounds.

But remember that everything takes time, and the process of speaking like a Paris local can take longer than you envisaged.

That should be no reason for you to shy away from trying. Unfortunately, many French learners avoid sounding too fancy and pretentious and tend to stick to their native accents while speaking French words.

Get over your shyness and fear if you want to improve how you speak French. Follow these exercises and train with a French tutor to improve your French speaking skills if you struggle with correcting your pronunciation.

Connect with qualified French tutors on Superprof who can help you train and improve your spoken French. Sign up, find a French teacher near you and get learning today!

Two glasses of wine and a bunch of grapes on a table
Learn how to become fluent in French by conversing with native French speakers. Attend a wine tasting at a French vineyard or take a cruise on the French Riviera and get a chance to experience the language like natives (Source: Pixabay)
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