French Pronunciation Guide: Learn how to pronounce French words the right way
There's that charming sound to the spoken French language that everyone seems to find delightful. How French words seem to melt together to form pleasant sounds--it can be both enchanting and intimidating at the same time.
No need to get intimidated though. You're on the right track because this French pronunciation guide is solely focused on learning proper French pronunciation.
Whether you are beginning to learn the language or you only need to brush up on the rules, this is the perfect guide for you to refer to every once in a while.
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Before we proceed to the meat of the lesson, here's an important tip I would like to share with you.
Don't be too hard on yourself when you can't fully grasp the pronunciation rules after a few hours of practice. It takes time to learn how to pronounce French words properly – months, in fact. Besides, it's extremely rare to see a foreigner with a 100% correct pronunciation.
Besides, does it really matter? France is a hugely multicultural country and the French people are quite familiar (and accepting!) with a wide range of accent. So don't beat yourself to a pulp, and just keep practicing until you start to pull off French pronunciation quite nicely.
Remember, you don't need to memorize these rules by heart, but by just referring to this page every once in a while, you'll get there in no time. So bookmark this page (or download the PDF) and study the guide as often as you'd like. It will be ingrained in your system before you know it.
So are you ready?
Here we go!
1. The Stress (and why you shouldn't stress it out)
When compared to the English language, French has a more distinct sound and a flat intonation. The stress is mostly even except for the last syllable which is given a tad bit more of an emphasis.
Check out this example where we will use the word IMPORTANT. Notice the difference in the stress between the two:
In English: im-POR-tant, while in French: ang-por-tahng
See the difference? Easy enough, right?
2. How to Pronounce French Vowels
For the newbie French learner, the difference between a, à, and â as well as e, é, è, and ê can get head-swimmingly frustrating. But the truth is, it's not actually that complicated at all.
Here's a nifty guide for you to use so you could easily distinguish the pronunciation between the letters and all its mind-boggling accents or diacritical marks (or simply put, those little thingies on top of the letters).
|Vowels||Pronunciation Guide||Example||What the example means|
|a||is pronounced like 'ah' in English||la||(the)|
|à||is also pronounced like 'ah||là||(there)|
|â||is pronounced like 'ah' but longer||âne||(donkey)|
|e||When placed in the middle of a syllable, it is pronounced like ai in 'fair'||mer||(sea)|
|e||When placed at the end of a syllable, it is pronounced like er in 'her'||le||(the)|
|e||is silent at the end of a word||tasse||(cup)|
|é||is pronounced like 'ay'||été||(summer)|
|è||is pronounced like ai in 'fair'||père||(father)|
|ê||is also pronounced like ai in 'fair'||tête||(head)|
|i, y||are pronounced like ee in 'meet'||ski||(skiing)|
|o||is pronounced like o in 'not'||poste||(post office)|
|ô||is pronounced like 'oh'||hôtel||(hotel)|
|u||this sound does not exist in English; say 'ee' with rounded lips||vu||(seen)|
|oi||is pronounced like 'wah'||roi||(king)|
|ou||is pronounced like 'oo'||roue||(wheel)|
|ai, ei||are pronounced like e in 'let'||laine||(wool)|
|au, eau||are pronounced like 'oh'||au||(to the)|
|eu, oeu||are pronounced like er in 'her'||neuf|
Quick Recap on French Vowel Sounds
Now we move to the consonants.
3. All About French Consonant Sounds
Consonants in French are basically pronounced the same way as in English. But here are some rules for you to take note of, just to make things a little bit easier.
|Consonants||Pronunciation Guide||Example||What the example means|
|c||before e or i sounds like s||ceci||(this)|
|c||elsewhere it sounds like k||car||(coach)|
|ç||sounds like s||ça||(that)|
|ch||sounds like 'sh'||château||(castle)|
|g||before e or i sounds like s in 'measure'||général||(general)|
|g||elsewhere sounds like g in 'go'||gare||(station)|
|j||sounds like s in ‘measure'||je||(l)|
|qu, q||sound like k||qui||(who)|
|r||is pronounced at the back of the throat; it is quite similar to the sound we make|
when are gargling.
|s||at the beginning of a word sounds like s||salle||(room)|
|s||between two vowels, it sounds like z||rose||(rose)|
Here's an important thing for you to note:
Except for these letters: c, f, l, and r, consonants are usually not pronounced when it is the last letter of the word. Take for example the silent last letters in the following words:
passpor(t) and Pari(s)
On the other hand, l and r are pronounced such as in the following:
hotel and professeur
Just remember the letters using this mnemonic or memory aid: Clear French Language Recall or CFLR. (See, told you this is easy!)
4. What Are French Nasal Sounds?
Ask any non-French speaker and they'll usually describe the French language as being a bit nasal. These nasal sounds are quite distinctive of the French language and are characterized by the following:
- It is produced by blocking air from leaving the mouth and released instead through the nose.
- These sounds are 'voiced' which means the vocal cords vibrate to create the sound.
Sounds difficult? Not actually. In fact, the English language has three nasal sounds too, namely the m sound, the n sound, and the ng sound. And we are using these to speak flawlessly (or not!) everyday.
Try saying the words sing, sang, song and sung and notice the following:
French has four nasal sounds which are more similar to its English counterparts than we realize.
These are the following:
|Nasal sound||Pronunciation||Example||What the Example Means|
|om, on||pronounce like ong in 'song'||nom|
|um*, un||pronounce like ung in 'sung'||un|
|pronounce like 'ahng'||champ|
|pronounce like ang in 'sang'||simple|
|ien||pronounce like 'ee-ang’||bien||(well)|
We mentioned that there are four nasal French sounds but you must be wondering why there are five listed. This is because some French speakers do not make distinctions between um* and im* and both are being pronounced as 'ang' like we do in sang.
5. The French Variations
Now read up carefully because this here is where non-French speakers often get in trouble. Listed below are some pronunciations for syllables that, when spoken, differ quite well from how it is spoken in English.
|Syllable||Pronunciation||Example||What the Example Means|
|er||at the end of a word of two syllables or more sounds like 'ay'||parler||(to speak)|
|ez||at the end of a word sounds like 'ay'||nez||(nose)|
|ail||at the end of a word sounds like ‘ah'ee'||travail||(work)|
|eil, eille||sound like 'a'ee'||soleil|
|ill||usually sounds like 'ee'y'||billet||(ticket)|
|gn||sounds like ni in 'onion'||signal||(signal|
Quick Recap on French Variations
6. Those Flowing, Connected Sounds and How It's Done
We are all quite aware that the French language sounds flowing and continuous, or to put it jokingly, like speaking in cursive. This lends itself a lot of charm and that very noticeable melodic sound that foreigners simply love.
To get this delightfully melodious sound in intonation, here's a simple rule for you to remember:
If a word that begins with a vowel or a silent H follows a word which ends in a consonant, the consonant is linked to the beginning of the second word.
Simply stated, IF:
1st word --- ends in a consonant
2nd word --- begins with a vowel or silent H
Result: the consonant in the end of the first word is automatically linked to the beginning vowel of the second word.
To illustrate, let us make use of these examples:
nous avons – the 1st word ends with the consonant s while the 2nd word begins with a vowel.
To pronounce it: noo zah-vong (meaning, we have)
un petit enfant – petit ends with a consonant while enfant begins with a vowel.
To pronounce it: ung p'tee tahng-fahng (meaning, a small child)
A few guidelines to remember when using other letter combinations;
|Letters||Sound||Example||Pronunciation||What the example means|
|s, x||sounds like z||deux ans||der zahng||two years|
|d||sounds like t||un grand arbre||ung grahng tahbr||a tall tree|
|f||sounds like v||neuf heures||ner verr||nine hours|
7. Accent Marks (and the difference it makes)
Just like several other languages, French makes use of accent marks. Accents are a type of diacritic marks which are basically glyphs or small signs attached to a letter. These are commonly used in Latin-derived alphabets as well as non-Latin ones like Chinese, Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Korean and others.
French makes use of three main accents, and these are:
In addition, there is also the cedilla (ç) or la cédille which can be found only underneath the letter c; and the diaeresis (ë) or le tréma which is often used to indicate that the second vowel is to be pronounced separately from the first (e.g. naïf—naive and noël --- Christmas).
What are accent marks for?
Here are their uses:
1. They are used to change how a letter sounds.
Let's take for example the letter e.
The unaccented e – sounds like er in 'her'
The é acute sounds like ay in 'say'
The è grave sounds like ai in 'fair'
For the cedilla, remember the rule discussed earlier wherein c is only pronounced as a soft s when placed before an e or i? The cedilla totally changes that.
Take for example the word garçon (which means boy). It precedes an o which means it should be pronounced as a hard c as in 'car', but the cedilla softens the letter to make it sound like s as in 'sit'.
2. Accent marks are used to differentiate between similarly spelled words which have different meanings.
la (the) versus là (there)
ou (or) versus où (where)
sur (on) versus sûr (sure)
There's something very interesting about the accents though. In modern usage, French accents usually do not appear in capital letters because it is already deemed unnecessary. The Académie Française, however, maintains that it should be used at all times in order to avoid confusion.
8: French and English Similarities in Pronunciation
Contrary to popular belief, there isn't really a huge gaping difference between English and French pronunciation. In fact, most syllables are pronounced as though they are a part of an English word and are each given an equal stress.
But do take note of the following while reading the examples shown in this guide:
9: The French Alphabet Sounds
The French Alphabet also contains 26 letters of the ISO basic Latin-script alphabet (or simply, the alphabet as we know it). It is basically similar to that of the English alphabet except for K and W which aren't always used. The pronunciation is also a bit different.
So just in case you are planning to visit France soon, then you might want to practice spelling out your name should the French-speaking receptionist (or other people essential to your travel) require it. Spelling it out in French would make a lot more sense to them than the English phonetics.
Here's a little example.
If your name is JANEY, it is spelled out as 'zheel – ah -- en – er – ee-grek'.
Here is the rest of the French alphabet as well as their pronunciation:
Some Videos to Improve your French Pronunciation
Before we end this pronunciation guide, here are a few videos for you to check out. Never mind that some of the pronunciations are not 100% French, the important thing is that you are able to listen and compare it with your recent learnings.
You can also check out other related lessons here in the blog:
We wish you the best of luck in your French studies and don't forget to keep visiting this site for more useful information! For more information or comments, please don't hesitate to let us know.