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There is a huge line between sounding like an actual French speaker and sounding like you're spewing gibberish. We call it liaisons. When done right, congratulations, you will actually sound French-y and coherent. But when used poorly, you will appear as an unintelligible, bumbling mess.
We are here to help you navigate the disparity between the two.
1. So... what is a liaison?
Liaison (French) is what makes listening to and speaking French so darn difficult for newbies (and even not so newbies). Liaisons happen when a consonant which is normally silent, dead, or phonologically null, suddenly gets pronounced at the beginning of the word that follows it.
Think of it as just like your normally silent and docile friend who suddenly acts up under a specific set of circumstances. Like probably the quiet guy who who turns loud and rambunctious after a bottle of beer (yeah you know those types). That's exactly what liaison is like.
2. “No Boundaries”
Before we go into the details of when and how liaisons occur, or the specific circumstances that set it off, you have to remember a couple of things first. One: there are no clear divisions and syllable boundaries in French words, so the words are all basically linked together. This is unlike English or other languages wherein syllabic boundaries correspond to word boundaries. This is the backbone of the liaisons.
3. Final Consonants... what final consonants?
In relation to number two, also keep in mind that the final consonants in French words (except for the letters c, f, l and r) don't get pronounced at all. This happens in almost every case, except when liaisons step in and try to run the show.
4. So liaisons appear when...
The liaison steps into the spotlight and gets some airtime when a word that ends with a consonant (which is normally silent), is followed by a word that begins with a vowel or a mute h. The reason for this is to facilitate the melodious link between words that must never, ever be broken. Like, ever.
When this happens, the sound of the last consonant will be merged with the syllable that follows it.
For example: ils ont.
As you can see, the first word ils ends with the consonant s while the second word ont begins with a vowel. To pronounce this, you say |eel zon| instead of saying |eel on| which would be so un-French and so wrong. See how s gets pronounced as z and becomes the start of the second word or syllable? That's liaison for you, guys.
Compare this with ils sont which ends and starts with a consonant, and therefore does not require the services of the liaison. It is pronounced as |eel son|.
See the difference?
5. Some liaisons are required
We call this liaison obligatoire, and as the name implies, you should always use liaison in some cases.
Here's when it is terribly necessary that you use liaisons:
6. Some liaisons are optional
We call this liaison facultative. In some cases, you may or may not use liaisons because it is not mandatory at all (hooray!) So when do you need to use these optional liaisons?
In other cases not mentioned, you are probably better off avoiding liaisons. Or not. It's totally up to you.
This is when liaison is optional:
7. Some liaisons must NEVER see the light of day
Remember when we said liaisons are used so that the sound of the string of words remains melodious, unbroken and pleasing to the ears? Well, there we said it. So in cases when liaisons ought to be used (theoretically) but they just don't sound right at all when used, these are times when it is prohibited.
So remember if you feel like using liaisons at some point during those words, please...
8. Changes in pronunciation
There are some changes in the sound of the consonants when it is used in liaisons.
9. Some examples for s, x, and z liaisons
10. Some examples for t and d liaisons
un grand hôtel
Ils sont en haut
11. It is different from enchaînement
Enchaînement is when a consonant has to be pronounced whether it follows a consonant, a vowel, or a mute h. This is quite unlike liaison wherein a previously silent consonant gets pronounced because of the word that follows it.
12. It is quite different from elision too
It's the opposite, really. Elision happens when sounds that are normally being pronounced, do not get pronounced anymore when it follows a vowel or a mute h. Think of it as your other friend – the one who is usually loud and obnoxious but suddenly goes silent when there is a hot girl nearby. Yep, exactly like that.
Aside from all those listed, the most important thing you have to remember is to keep listening to spoken French. Soon enough the liaisons would jump out at you and become all too familiar. So listen, listen, and listen some more. It will get ingrained in your system soon enough.
If you need any clarifications about this lessons, just ask me in the comment section.
P.S. You would be doing me a HUGE FAVOR by sharing it via Twitter or Facebook.
In the section where you mention that some liaisons are forbidden (.7), it would be helpful to have examples to illustrate each point, e.g., before words that begin with h aspiré (such as les héros)
before the word onze
after singular nouns or proper names
after plural noun objects
after interrogative adverbs except for comment and quand
plural forms of compound words
after the words on, ils and elles would used in inversion and following past participle or infinitives.
Alright I will add it to it this week. When I find time for it 🙂
Merci à vous! About to ask the same thing.
I have trouble hearing and pronouncing the difference between two euros and twelve euros. Perhaps it is too subtle for my ear.
Hello Rob this is so funny because you are not the only who say that. I talked with a Canadian friend and she has the same issue, also with douze heures and deux heures. I will try to find something. Is there any others difficulty in French for you?
I have found mp3 for douze heures and deux heures and it is easy for me with Hungarian ears, because we have both pronunced letter.
douze with Hungarian “ú”, it is a long u, like in “you”
deux heures with Hungarian “ű”, I can’t write how to pronunce, maybe listen to Hungarian Alphabet, and it will be easy 🙂
Yes, actually some languages have this Ü sound (German, Chinese). I don’t forget your little request, I will take care of it very soon.
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You mentioned the pronunciation of words that end with x. There’s a place in France called Aix-en-Provence. How is it pronounced please?
It is an exception. You have to pronunce the X here. It sounds like Ex in english.
In this post you mention that there are no liaisons made with words beginning with an aspirated h such as les héros or les haricots (this one used to get me all the time). But you give an example of a liaison with hôtel, “grand hôtel”. So this h must not be aspirated. My question or challenge is that I don’t hear a great difference in the pronunciation of the h in hôtel vs. héro. How can I know if an h is aspirated or not?
Good question. Les haricots is a tricky word for some French too. Don’t worry too much about it. Actually what we called h aspiré (aspirated) and h muet (mute) is just a distinction. But no difference in the pronunciation of the word héro and hôtel .
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Good article! But I couldn’t really care less about some ‘hot girl nearby’.
Not me :p
Elizabeth, you totally missed it. Those aspirated h’s were because of you
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It looks like I am a little late to the party, but to distinguish the sound of douze ans, using American English pronunciation, I would say the ou sound is like the oo in goose, and for deux ans the eux is the very common French e sound that you can make when you make your lips to say an ‘o’ and then say ‘e’.
Let me know if this is a good definition:
Liaison: when you pronounce a consonant at the end of a word when the next word begans with a vowel or h
If that is the definition, I think I get liaisons, but if not, I am totally confused. Thanks.
Please read the article to see exactly the rules. It’s a bit more complicated.
Though you say that not using liaison makes one sound like a bumbling mess I notice that people also say that it is mainly older people use liaisons. Does that mean that its acceptable, at least among young people, to not use liaisons?
Older people tend to use it more (I am not even sure about that) but every French speakers should use it.
Thank you for the quick reply to my previous question. I have one more if that’s ok.
Is it correct to liaison after tu form of etre? For example:
tu es intelligent
tew eh zahn teh lee jahn
you are intelligent
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Great article. Thanks.
Is there a liaison before “et”? Example: Elles sont jolies et grandes?
Bonjour Tee I will not say it. Merci