When learning French, you are probably hoping you will sound completely bilingual some day. After all, you are not learning a language because you want to mispronounce it.
So you listen to as much French audio as you can, striving to imitate the sounds and turn fluent French into “spoken like a native.”
Of course, when deciding to perfect your French accent, you will need to decide which one. French as it is spoken in Belgium? Switzerland? Québec?
For the purposes of this blog, we will be sticking to French French - as it is spoken on the news, and in the region around Paris (though there is a specific Parisian accent as well…)

French Vowels: Getting the Sounds Right

For an English-speaker, French vowels are the hardest to get right. That’s because the English language, including the British accent (all of them), mostly uses diphthongs rather than pure vowels. A diphthong is made up of several vowel sounds. For example, the “a” in “made” is made up of an “a” sound and a very slight “y” sound - the first part of the word, indeed, rhymes with “may” (in some places, at least. I’m American and even I can’t keep track of all the American accents, never mind the British ones.)

So how should you pronounce French vowels?

VowelHow to pronounce it
AAn open "a" as in "garden", but close your throat a little more.
EE without an accent can be pronounced the same as "eu" or similar to the English set
ÉLie "eh", but widen your mouth and tighten your throat.
ÈLike the E in "set", but open it up a bit more and lengthen it slightly
ÊThe same as è, but even more open and drawn out.
ILike the word for the letter E or the "ee" in "feet" - but a little shorter.
OLike "open" but without the slight "w" sound at the end.
ULike the German Ü: say "you", without the "y", but close your throat and tighten your lips.
YFollowed by a consonant, like an I; followed by a vowel, like the Y on "you".

Accents modify the vowels

French has a few modifying signs that change the value of vowels:

  • The accent aigu only exists on the “e” (é). You will find it and the other “e” vowel sounds in the table above.
  • The accent grave is found on the è, à and ù. It opens up the “a”. The ù only appears in the French word où (where), to differentiate it from the word “ou” (or).
  • The accent circonflexe makes the sound more open and can be drawn out slightly (but not too long). In French conversation you might not hear the difference, but if you are paying attention when watching a French TV you will hear the more open vowels. It can be used on any vowel except "y".

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Café has an accent aigu.
"Café" is perhaps the most iconic French words to use an accent aigu. Photo credit: Katrinitsa on VisualHunt

Make Sure You Pronounce These Special Letter Combinations Right

When pronouncing French, don’t forget that certain letter combinations are read as specific sounds.

Diphthongs in French

The French language actually has diphthongs - they are just written differently. Here are some French diphthongs to watch out for:

  • “oi”: Careful! Don’t pronounce this letter combination the British way. It makes the sound “wa” and can appear anywhere in a word.
    Some examples:

    • Un oiseau (wa-zoh) = bird
    • Une moissoneuse (mwa-sun-öz) = a combination harvester (because who doesn’t like using a word like that in casual dialogue?)
    • Le roi (rwa) = the king (another good conversation-starter you won’t find in your French phrasebook).
  • The letter groups “il” and “ille”, when preceded by a vowel, turn that vowel into a diphthong by adding a very slight “y” sound. Since it has to be preceded by a vowel, it obviously can’t come at the beginning of a sentence, but it can be found in the middle or end:
    • Un œuil (öy) = eye
    • Merveilleux (mair-vaiy-ö) = fabulous, marvelous
    • Le reveil (reh-vaiy) = the awakening, the alarm clock.
  • When these letter combinations stand alone or are preceded by a consonant, they are pronounced normally i+l:
    • il (eel) = he
    • Mille (meel) = a thousand
    • Le nombril (non-breel) = the belly button.

Some other letter combinations you should watch out for

In trying to perfect your French accent, look out for these letter groups:

  • “Ou” - when speaking English, “ou” can be pronounced “ow”, “oo” or a kind of “a” sound (as in “enough”). In French, it is always pronounced “oo” - but shorter than the English “oo”. For you Scotsmen out there: take the first part of the Scottish “oo” sound and stop right there.
  • “Gn” is a “ny” sound that appears in some other European languages such as Spanish, but is not found in any English words. If it helps, picture a cartoon villains rubbing his hands and going: “gnah, gnah, gnah….” That’s about the right sound.

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Evil maniacal laughter can help you pronounce French.
The "gn" sound in a good French accent sounds a little bit like a cheesy villain's laugh. Photo credit: Pedro Vezini on Visualhunt

Get Your French Accent Right With The Right Stress

To speak French correctly, getting the sounds right is not enough to make people think French is your native language.
Pronouncing a language right means also using the proper rhythm and intonation. Every language has its own music. By listening to it, you will be able to improve your accent and speak French words and phrases like a native.

The right word intonation

When learning basic French words in the classroom, too often the stress is not taught. Listen to a French video, or even an English one. Don’t concentrate on what is said, but on how words are said. One part of the word is emphasised.
In English-speaking dialects, words are usually stressed on the first syllable. Like this:

WOrds are Usually STREssed on the FIRst SYllable.

(Although one of the particularities of English is that stress can fall almost anywhere, depending on the word - for example, it’s dePENding.)

In French, though, it is the last syllable which is stressed:

En françAIS, c’est la dernIÈRE sylLABLE qui est stressÉE.

This is especially important to remember for words that are similar in French and English. You saw that the word “syllable”, though written the same, is not only pronounced differently in French (see-lahbl) but also stressed differently (sylLABLE).

So the best way to learn French vocabulary is to remember where to stress the word. Note however, that the stress of French words is not as strong as in English. If the stress feels unnatural to you or it trips you up, you can opt for no stress at all.

Try listening for the rise and fall of French.
Listen to French speakers and try and capture the rhythm of the language. Photo credit: april-mo on Visual hunt

The rythm of a sentence

Not just words, but sentences have their rhythms, the rise and fall of the language. You will notice that certain languages will prefer certain forms of poetry. English likes the various iambic feet (the pentameter and tentameter) A iamb is a metric foot that accentuates the second syllable. A pentameter would go: ta-DA, ta-DA, ta-DA, ta-DA, ta-DA. (My horse! My horse! My kingdom for a horse! Shakepeare, Richard III).

It is interesting that French doesn’t have feet in poetry: their metres rely entirely on the amount of syllables in the verse. This is because all French words are stressed the same.
French sentences are like French words: they are stressed at the end.

Je suis allé au TRAVAIL.
Je vais faire les COURSES.

To speak French phrases like a francophone, remember to stress the ends of sentences. This has nothing to do with intonation - don’t raise the pitch of your voice as though asking a question, just put more force into the last word.

It is worth noting that street talk often has a different rhythm than more formal speech.

Learn To Speak French Like a Native Speaker With These Pronunciation Helps

It’s all very well and good to read a blog about French pronunciation - but reading isn’t hearing. And once you have passed the beginner French classes and start on Intermediate French and advanced French lessons, you will be learning more and more vocabulary outside of class. So how to learn the pronunciation of a French word you don’t know?

A French dictionary

You can look up the pronunciation of a word in a English to French or French to English dictionary, or even a French to French one.
The only problem is that you need to be able to read the phonetic alphabet. While it is a good skill to have, especially when learning how to speak a language, it is not a common one. If you have nothing but a dictionary to look up new words, here is a site where you can hear the sounds associated with each symbol.

Learning the phonetic alphabet
Trying to learn French pronunciation from a dictionary means learning the international phonetic alphabet. Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images on Visualhunt.com

Dictionary websites and apps

Even better for learning the proper pronunciation than a paper dictionary is an online French dictionary. Online dictionaries such as Linguee or the French dictionary Larousse not only translate or explain the words, but also have a button you can click to hear it pronounced by someone for whom French is a first language.
There are also language learning apps where you can hear the most common French words spoken by a French person to improve your accent:

Improve your French accent with apps.
Use French language and vocabulary apps to improve your French accent. Photo credit: gillesklein on VisualHunt.com

French immersion

Of course, the best way to improve your French accent is to be confronted with native speakers on a daily basis. Travelling to French-speaking countries, studying abroad, listening to French every day is better than simply taking French courses. Live in France, even if only for a few weeks, and you will also experience French culture (or Canadian - if you don’t mind a Québec accent!) and get to know the French people. Fluency comes from practise, and living in a country is the best way to learn a foreign language - and pick up the slang.
If you can’t afford to travel, you can practise French immersion at home by watching French movies, listening to French music and audiobooks and reading French books.

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