Speaking properly is a vital aspect of learning any language, but this is especially true for French. In this French pronunciation guide, we’ll take you through the most common mistakes you can make with French pronunciation.
We’ll also show you how to improve your spoken French, which words to look out for and when there are exceptions to these pesky rules! French pronunciation can create a lot of confusion for English speakers. Like English, and unlike Spanish, French is not a phonetic language, which means that it is not pronounced in the same way that it is written.
Even though this is already quite extensive for beginners, we’re sorry to say that there’s a lot more to cover on such a vast topic! However, this post will work as a first overview and provide you with a solid foundation from which to progress your French.
In this post, we’ll take you through the following aspects of French pronunciation and how to master it!
Key French pronunciation rules
The French Alphabet & what each letter sounds like
French letter combinations
We’ll also go through those all important:
French vowel sounds, including nasal vowels
Consonant sounds and vowel sounds
Key Tips on how to speak French like a native
Introduction to French Pronunciation
The French language uses the same 26-letter Latin alphabet as the English. In fact, certain elements of the pronunciation of the French letters are close to Latin, which was the base for most European languages.
As such, there are a number of other languages that have similar pronunciations (Spanish and Italian come to mind). Three of these letters are used for words imported from other languages and incorporated without translation.
The language has twenty-two consonant sounds, four of which aren’t found in English. You can learn more about the French language alphabet in FrenchPod101.com’s complete guide to the French language and pronunciation of the alphabet.
The French Alphabet – A Pronunciation Chart
The French alphabet has 26 letters from the ISO basic Latin-script alphabet. This is the alphabet English speakers are familiar with.
Whilst the writing system is the same, the pronunciation is different, as are the most common letter combinations.
If you are visiting a French-speaking country in the not too distant future, it is worth learning how to spell your name and surname in French.
If your name is JAMES, the pronunciation would be ‘ji – ah — em – eh – ess’.
|a (ah)||h (ash)||o (oh)||v (vay)|
|b (beh)||i (ee)||p (peh)||w (doubl-vay)|
|c (zeh)||j (ji)||q (ku)||x (eeks)|
|d (deh)||k (kah)||r (airr)||y (ee-grek)|
|e (eh)||l (el)||s (ess)||x (zed)|
|f (ef)||m (em)||t (tay)|
|g (sheh)||n (en)||u (uuu)|
Note that the letter ‘w‘ is only pronounced ‘doubl-vay‘ (double-v) when you say the letter. It is not pronounced like this in spoken French conversation.
Key French Pronunciation Rules
When it comes to the spoken French language, there are several key rules that all language learners should memorize.
Nasal Vowels & Vowel Sounds
Firstly, nasal vowels are pronounced with a nasal sound. This is the key to pronouncing words like “sens” or “sont.”
Another important rule to remember is that ‘o’ sounds in the French language are always long and made by rounding your lips.
These points can be difficult for English speakers to remember because we usually shorten these vowels when speaking English.
French Accent Marks
Secondly, understanding French accent marks is a key component of knowing how to pronounce the French language correctly.
French accent marks are as follows:
Cédille Ç (the cedilla)
Aigu é (the acute accent)
Circonflexe â, ê, î, ô, û (the circumflex)
Grave à, è, ù (the grave accent)
Tréma ë, ï, ü (the trema)
See our guide on French accent marks in order to familiarize yourself with these elements of the language and understand the pronunciation that they dictate.
The French R
The infamous French “r” is an endless source of headaches for almost every beginner learning French. The key is to practice several times before you find the sound closest to what you dream to achieve.
Even French speakers don’t give up that “uvular trill” sometimes. There’s no secret. Just keep “r”-ing until you get it. You’ll eventually get there.
It may be the one you struggle with the most, but it eventually becomes the most fun.
The Letter ‘S’ in French – A Quick Guide
French is just as likely to make use of the letter ‘s‘ as English. The key difference, however, is that you are less likely to hear it.
While the French ‘s‘ is pronounced like you’d expect in most cases, it is often silent.
The list of rules below guides us through this minefield!
One key thing to remember here is that the French ‘s’ is normally pronounced in the same way as the English counterpart. This is the case in the following examples:
At the beginning of a word
At the end of a word or syllable
As a double ‘S’
Followed by a ‘C’ (see below)
In front of a consonant
The rest of the time, it is pronounced like a ‘Z.’ Use this pronunciation when it is found:
Between two vowels
If not in these cases, the ‘s’ will be pronounced like a ‘z.’ For example, take the word ‘liaison’ – pronounced ‘lee-ay-zon.’
The Stress of French words – A Quick Guide
When compared to English, French has a distinct sound and a slow, flat intonation. Stress is even throughout most of the word with an exception of the last syllable, which bears more emphasis than others.
Notice the difference in pronunciation when we use the word IMPORTANT, where the first syllable is accentuated:
In English: im-POR-tant, while in French: ang–por-tahng
It is easy enough to hear the difference once you know what to listen for!
How to Pronounce French Vowels & Letters
For what feels like an eternity, new French learners can forget the difference between a, à, and â. They also have the tendency to confuse e and é – as well as è and ê. However, it’s not that hard at all.
Here’s a handy guide to help you distinguish the pronunciation between letters and all of their confusing accents or diacritical marks (or simply put, those little things on top of the letters).
|Vowels||Pronunciation Guide||Example||English Translation|
|a||Pronounced 'ah' in English||la||the (feminine)|
|à||Pronounced 'ah' in English||là||there|
|â||Pronounced like long 'ah' in English||âne||donkey|
|e||When placed in the middle of a syllable, it is pronounced like ai in 'fair'||mer||sea|
|e||Silent at the end of a word||tasse||cup|
|e||When placed at the end of a syllable, it is pronounced like er in 'her'||le||the (masculine)|
|è||Pronounced like ai in 'fair'||père||father|
|ê||Also pronounced like ai in 'fair'||fête||party|
|i, y||Pronounced like ee in 'sheet'||ski||skiing|
|o||Pronounced like o in 'not'||poste||post office|
|ô||Pronounced 'oh' in English||hôtel||hotel|
|u||Sound does not exist in English; Pronounced 'ee' with rounded lips||vu||seen|
|oi||Pronounced 'wah' in English||loi||law|
|ou||Pronounced 'oo' in English||roue||wheel|
|ai, ei||Pronounced e in 'let'||laine||wool|
|au, eau||Pronounced 'oh' in English||au||to the|
|eu, oeu||Pronounced er in 'her'||neuf|
Recap on French vowel sounds
In English, the letter A has a similar sound to the French a (ah). The À is pronounced like ah with more emphasis on the last syllable.
Pronounce the letter ‘e’ as an ‘ay’ sound just like in fair when it is in the middle of a word.
When the letter e is in the middle of a syllable it is pronounced as say “ai” like in fair. At the end of a word and on one side of a double e, it’s pronounced “er” as in her. But when you see an e at the end of a word, just ignore it (example: the word tasse)
French nasal sounds – Use Your Mouth and Throat!
Understanding the French language and its nasal sounds, and how to use them, is one of the quickest ways to improve your French pronunciation.
Whether your speak French or not, you’ll agree that it sounds very nasal.
The nasal sounds typically found in the French language are quite distinct and result form the following mouth movements and techniques:
– Blocking the air in your mouth and releasing it through your nose instead.
– Vibrating your vocal cords in order to create the sound.
Whilst this may seem tricky to master, it’s actually pretty simple. Consider the fact that the English language has nasal sounds too, particularly the m sound and the n sounds.
Take the words sing, sang, song and sung. By doing so, you’ll notice the following:
The letter “g” is not given much value in the standard pronunciation.
As you create the words with your mouth and tongue, air is blocked when the back of your tongue presses against the bottom of your mouth.
French has four nasal sounds which are more similar to its English counterparts than we realize.
How many nasal sounds are there in French Pronunciation?
Whilst some argue there are four main nasal sounds in French, there are actually five. These are as follows:
|Nasal Sound||Pronunciation Guide||Example||English Translation|
|om, on||Pronounce like ong in 'song'||nom, non||name, no|
|um, un||Pronounce like ung in 'sung'||un, brun||one, brown|
|Pronounce like 'ahng'||champ |
|Pronounce like 'sang'||simple|
|ien||Pronounce like 'ee-ang'||bien||well / good|
Videos to improve your French Pronunciation
Below you will find two videos which address the difficult aspects of French pronunciation that anybody trying to speak French has come across.
French Silent Letters
Pearl is a French Youtuber living in Australia who provides a comprehensive overview here of how to avoid the wrong pronunciation of French words with silent letters.
There is more than one rule here so this can take time to learn! The best way is through practice.
In this video, Jacques from French avec nous takes you through French phonetics, how to learn them and how to use your tongue to create each vowel sound.
Remember that Youtube is full of online French lessons which won’t cost you a penny to use!
French Consonant Sounds
Consonants in French are usually pronounced the same way as in English.
The table below provides a French Pronunciation Guide for consonants.
|Consonants||Pronunciation Guide||Example||English Translation|
|c||Before e or i sounds like s||ceci||this|
|c||Elsewhere it sounds like k||car||as|
|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||I|
|qu, q||Sounds like k||qui||who|
|r||Pronounced at the back of the throat||rire||to laugh|
|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:
With the exception of c, f, l and r, French consonants are not pronounced when at the end of a word:
On the other hand, l and r are pronounced. For example:
There is one rule with which non-French speakers often encounter difficulty: the placement of stress. Below are some pronunciation differences that may confuse English speakers learning to speak French.
|Syllable||Pronunciation Guide||Example||English Translation|
|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'||juillet||July|
|gn||sounds like ni in 'onion'||signal||signal|
Key French Pronunciation Points to Remember
‘er’ and ‘ez’ are both pronounced like ‘ay’ when at the end of a word with two or more syllables
‘l‘ when used in words with more than two syllables ending in ‘ail’ and ‘eil’ are generally silent
The combination of ‘gn’ letters create a soft sound with a soft pronunciation of ‘e’. Just think of the Italian word ‘lasagne‘ and this should come naturally to you!
Similarities between French Pronunciation and English Pronunciation
Despite the differences in languages, pronunciation between English and French is mostly comparable. In contrast, most syllables in French are pronounced like a single English word and each is accentuated equally.
Pay attention to this while reading the examples in this French Pronunciation Guide:
The letters ‘ng‘ should never be pronounced; these letters merely indicate that the preceding vowel has a nasal sound
When you come across the letters ‘er‘ do not pronounce the r; this syllable sounds like er in ‘her’. This is a nasal vowel
The ‘zh‘ letter combination sounds like s in ‘measure’
There is no equivalent of the letter ‘ü‘ in English. Pucker up your lips and say ‘ee’
The letter ‘o‘ sounds like o in ‘snot’
A combination of o and h, creating ‘oh‘ sounds like o in ‘photo’
How to Pronounce the French “u” Sound
When compared to English, French has a more distinct sound and distinctive accent. Nowhere is this truer than with the pronounciation of the letter ‘u‘ – it’s one of a kind!
The French ‘u‘ is different from its English “oo” sound. However, French contains both the English “oo” and a distinct “u” sound.
You’ll need to know how to pronounce each one in order to avoid any unwelcome confusion. And, believe us, unwanted confusion is incredibly easy to come by when speaking with French speakers.
While there are many methods of making the ‘u’ sound, French speakers essentially use the following method (unbeknownst to them) with the correct use of their lips and tongue.
Say a normal English ‘ee‘ sound (pronounced like in the word “cheese”). As you form an ‘ooh’ sound with your lips, try to avoid moving your tongue. Essentially your lips say ‘oh‘ while your tongue says ‘eh‘. Voilà! This is how to pronounce the French ‘u’ sound.
Exercise: Hear the difference between ‘u‘ and ‘ou‘ by pronouncing the following pairs of words:
jus and joue
au-dessus and au-dessous (these are easy to confuse as common French phrases; the first means above and the second means below!)
cure and cour
juin and bédouin
You can listen to native French speakers through FluentU. This program enables you to listen to authentic video with subtitles and take part in whichever French lesson you feel like, depending on topic.
How “ce que” becomes “skeu”
Another easy way to sound natural when saying French words, and in the French language in general, is to change the pronunciation of “ce que” to just “skeu”.
You do this without realizing in spoken phrases such as, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?’ but native speakers of French do it in other parts of a sentence too.
For example, when saying a sentence such as, “Ce qu’elle dit est très triste”, ignore the e in “ce”.
Instead, transform the words “Ce qu’il” one syllable. This ‘word’ becomes “skeel” – or rather, “skee.” You should also drop the letter ‘l’ here.
Exercise: Practice with these French examples:
Écoutez ce que je vous ai dis (”skeu” je vous ai dis – or, rather dzee.
Ce que tu fais est mauvais (”skeu” tu fais)
J’aimerais ce qu’il a (”skill” a)
How to speak French like a native
As we’ve established, French pronunciation is far from straightforward, even if it is just a simple of question of learning what each letter combination is pronounced like.
Vowels and the words they change require the correct pronunciation down to the final detail.
Whilst this may seem daunting, with the right steps you will be able to imitate native French speakers and their mother tongue.
Practical tips to improve your French Pronunciation
Learn to pronounce the most common sounds in French
Familiarize yourself with French each vowel sound and imitate them regularly
Repeat words that you struggle to pronounce by using your throat and mouth in ways you would not normally.
Resources to use as an aid
Use FluentU to watch French videos and listen to how native French speakers pronounce French words
Listen to French radio and online audio files in order to expose yourself to the French language as much as possible
Listen to native French speakers pronounce French words and become used to the sounds of French words on Forvo
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Summing up French Pronunciation
Learning the French language can be a challenge, but with some practice and immersion into the culture you’ll sound like a native in no time.
Practice your pronunciation by listening to as much French as you can, and repeating it. Videos are a great way to do this and allow you to listen to a variety of native French speakers.
The key to mastering French pronunciation and its tricky rules, like the French r, is consistency and repetition. You may think that this will take years of study, but if you dedicate just 20 minutes each day to studying French vocabulary or practicing accents then it should only take about three months before you start to see significant improvement!
Start now so that when those all important vacations, work trips, or any other travel plans arise you’ll be able to speak confidently without worry of offending anyone with an embarrassing accent slip-up!