The Ultimate Guide to French Pronunciation (+ videos)
Talk in French
Shares

French Pronunciation: The Ultimate Guide (with Videos and MP3)

Shares

How to pronounce French the right way

Reading time: 12 minutes

Difficulty: Beginner- Intermediate
french pronunciation guide
There’s that charming sound to the spoken French language that everyone finds utterly delightful. How the words seem to melt together to form pleasant sounds and flowing melodic tones can be both enchanting and intimidating at the same time.

Enchanting enough for non-French people to strive to replicate its romantic-sounding inflections, but very intimidating when you listen to actual French people talk.

No need to get intimidated for long though. It seems like you’re on the right track with learning how to speak French because this discussion is solely focused on learning proper French pronunciation.

Whether you are beginning to learn the language or you only need to brush up on your intonation, this is the perfect tool and guide for you to refer to every once in a while. 

 

No time to read now?

Then click on the big yellow button to download the French Learning Package.  You’ll find inside the pronunciation guide in PDF format (and you get the MP3 too!)

download-button-with-mp3

Here's a tip from native French speakers:

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.

But 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 practising until you start to pull off French quite nicely.

The study method and guide presented below are targeted for English speakers, and it will help you grasp the pronunciation rules better. It could get tricky for newbie learners, but with regular practice in speaking and reading, you should be able to to do quite well soon enough.

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!

PART 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: angpor-tahng

See the difference?

PART 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).

VowelsPronunciation GuideExampleWhat the example means
a is pronounced like 'ah' in Englishla(the)
àis also pronounced like 'ah(there)
âis pronounced like 'ah' but longerâne(donkey)
eWhen 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)
eis silent at the end of a wordtasse(cup)
éis pronounced like 'ay'été(summer)
è is pronounced like ai in 'fair'père(father)
êis also pronounced like ai in 'fair'tête(head)
i, yare pronounced like ee in 'meet'ski(skiing)
ois pronounced like o in 'not'poste(post office)
ôis pronounced like 'oh'hôtel(hotel)
uthis sound does not exist in English; say 'ee' with rounded lipsvu(seen)
oiis pronounced like 'wah'roi(king)
ou is pronounced like 'oo'roue(wheel)
ai, eiare pronounced like e in 'let'laine(wool)
au, eauare pronounced like 'oh'au(to the)
eu, oeuare pronounced like er in 'her'neuf
soeur
(nine)
(sister)

Source: Hugo in 3 Months Beginner’s Language Course

Easy enough? Here’s a quick recap on the vowels:

  • a and à are both pronounced like ‘ah’ in English. â is also like ‘ah’, except that it is longer.
  • e when placed in the middle of a syllable is pronounced like ‘ai’ in fair, same as è and ê.
  • The rule for pronouncing e: in the middle of a syllable — ‘ai’ as in fair; at the end of a syllable, ‘er’ as in her; but when you see it at the end of a word, it is silent. (example: tasse)

Now we move to the consonants.

PART 3. ALL ABOUT CONSONANTS

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.

ConsonantsPronunciation GuideExampleWhat the example means
cbefore e or i sounds like sceci(this)
celsewhere it sounds like kcar(coach)
çsounds like sça(that)
chsounds like 'sh' château(castle)
gbefore e or i sounds like s in 'measure'général(general)
gelsewhere sounds like g in 'go'gare(station)
his silent hôtel(hotel)
jsounds like s in ‘measure' je(l)
qu, qsound like kqui(who)
ris pronounced at the back of the throat; it is quite similar to the sound we make
when are gargling.
rire(to laugh)
s
at the beginning of a word sounds like ssalle(room)
sbetween two vowels, it sounds like zrose(rose)

Source: Hugo in 3 Months Beginner’s Language Course

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!)

PART 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:

  1. It is produced by blocking air from leaving the mouth and released instead through the nose.
  2. 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:

  • the letter g is given very little value in the standard pronunciation, and
  • as you pronounce the words, air is blocked when the back of your tongue presses against the soft palate.

French has four nasal sounds which are more similar to its English counterparts than we realize.

These are the following:

Nasal soundPronunciationExampleWhat the Example Means
om, onpronounce like ong in 'song'nom
non
(name)
(no)
um*, unpronounce like ung in 'sung'un
brun
(one)
(brown)
am, an
em,en
pronounce like 'ahng'champ
an
temps
en
(field)
(year)
(time)
(in)
im*,
in, aim,
ain, ein
pronounce like ang in 'sang' simple
vin
faim
bain
plein
(easy)
(wine)
(hunger)
(bath)
(full)
ienpronounce like 'ee-ang’bien(well)

Source: Hugo in 3 Months Beginner’s Language Course

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.

PART 5. ALL THE FRENCH-y 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.

SyllablePronunciationExampleWhat the Example Means
erat the end of a word of two syllables or more sounds like 'ay'parler(to speak)
ezat the end of a word sounds like 'ay'nez(nose)
ail at the end of a word sounds like ‘ah'ee'travail(work)
eil, eillesound like 'a'ee'soleil
bouteille
(sun)
(bouteille)
illusually sounds like 'ee'y'billet(ticket)
gnsounds like ni in 'onion'signal(signal

Source: Hugo in 3 Months Beginner’s Language Course 

To recap,

  • er (when at the end of a word with two or more syllables) and ez are both pronounced like ‘ay’.
  • As an exception to the C,F,L,R consonants pronunciation rule presented earlier, L when used in the syllables ail and eil, are generally silent.
  • For sure you’re quite familiar with the gn sound already. Especially if you’re the lasagna-eating type.

PART 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:

  1. 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)

  1. 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; 

LettersSoundExamplePronunciationWhat the example means
s, xsounds like zdeux ansder zahngtwo years
dsounds like tun grand arbreung grahng tahbra tall tree
fsounds like vneuf heuresner verrnine hours

Source: Hugo in 3 Months Beginner’s Language Course

PART 7. ACCENT MARKS (and the difference it makes)

Just like several other languages, the French language 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:

  • the acute accent (é) or l’accent aigu which can be found in the letter e.
  • the grave accent (è) or l’accent grave which can be found in the letters a, e, and u; and
  • the circumflex (ê) or l’accent circonflexe which can be found in any vowel.

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).

So what are accent marks for, you might ask.

Here are their uses:

First, 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’.

Second, accent marks are used to differentiate between similarly spelled words which have different meanings.

Examples:

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.

PART 8. FRENCH AND ENGLISH SIMILARITIES

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:

  • ng (italics)           must never be pronounced; these letters merely indicate that the preceding vowel has a nasal sound.
  • er (r italics)         do not pronounce the r; this syllable sounds like er in ‘her’.
  • zh                           sounds like s in ‘measure’.
  • ü                      no equivalent in English; round your lips and say ‘ee’.
  • o                              sounds like o in ‘not’.
  • oh                           sounds like o in ‘note’.

PART 9. THE FRENCH ALPHABET

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:

                                                A (ah)                   H (ahsh)              O (oh)                   V (vay)

                                                B (bay)                 I (ee)                     P (pay)                 W (doobl-vay)

                                                C (say)                  J (zheel)              Q (kü)                   X (eeks)

                                                D (day)                 K (kah)                 R(airr)                  Y (ee-grek)

                                                E (er)                     (el)                    S (ess)                   Z (zed)

                                                F (ef)                     M (em)                 T (tay)

                                                G (zhay)               N (en)                   U (ü)

Try to practice saying these pronunciations as often as you can as this would help you in your further learning. Remember, just like any other skill, all it takes is determination and consistency for you to develop the habit. Being exposed to a lot of French language in movies, videos, and even audio books can help you familiarize with the words and sounds, and make it easier to learn them.

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.

Learn French pronunciation – The accents

French Pronunciation Tips for Beginners

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.

A bientôt!

P.S. You would be doing me a HUGE FAVOR by sharing it via Twitter, Facebook, Google + or Pinterest.

Practice your French pronunciation and listening skills with Talk in French products. It comes with FREE audio recorded two ways—slow and regular. Click the photos below to know more about these bestsellers!

Learn French with Stories e-book

Learn French with Stories. Perfect for beginners and intermediate learners. Only $4.90!

 

You can also get the beginner bundle for only $12.90.

You can also get the beginner bundle for only $12.90.

About the Author Frederic

Frederic Bibard is the founder of Talk in French, a company that helps french learners to practice and improve their french. Macaron addict. Jacques Audiard fan. You can contact him on Twitter and Google +

follow me on: