The Ultimate French Pronunciation Guide: How to Sound Like a Native

An image of a French book opening

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.

For example:

If your name is JAMES, the pronunciation would be ‘ji – ah — em – eh – ess’.

French Alphabet   
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.

Couple by the Eiffel Tower

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

👍 In a liaison such as les amis [lay za mee] and ils ont.

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: angpor-tahng

It is easy enough to hear the difference once you know what to listen for!

Do You Know those 5 French Words?

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).

TABLE

VowelsPronunciation GuideExampleEnglish Translation
aPronounced 'ah' in Englishlathe (feminine)
àPronounced 'ah' in Englishthere
âPronounced like long 'ah' in Englishânedonkey
eWhen placed in the middle of a syllable, it is pronounced like ai in 'fair'mersea
eSilent at the end of a wordtassecup
eWhen placed at the end of a syllable, it is pronounced like er in 'her'lethe (masculine)
éPronounced 'ay' étésummer
èPronounced like ai in 'fair'pèrefather
êAlso pronounced like ai in 'fair'fêteparty
i, yPronounced like ee in 'sheet'skiskiing
oPronounced like o in 'not'postepost office
ôPronounced 'oh' in Englishhôtelhotel
uSound does not exist in English; Pronounced 'ee' with rounded lipsvuseen
oiPronounced 'wah' in Englishloilaw
ouPronounced 'oo' in Englishrouewheel
ai, eiPronounced e in 'let'lainewool
au, eauPronounced 'oh' in Englishauto the
eu, oeuPronounced er in 'her' neuf
soeur
nine
sister

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)

Top 10 French phrases and sentences you need to know

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.

In France, talking about money is more taboo than talking about sex — Quartz

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 SoundPronunciation GuideExampleEnglish Translation
om, onPronounce like ong in 'song'nom, nonname, no
um, unPronounce like ung in 'sung'un, brunone, brown
am
an
em
en
Pronounce like 'ahng'champ
an
temps
en
field
year
time
in
im
in
aim
ain
ein
Pronounce like 'sang'simple
vin
faim
bain
plein
easy
wine
hunger
bath
full
ienPronounce like 'ee-ang'bienwell / 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.

French Phonetics

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.

ConsonantsPronunciation GuideExampleEnglish Translation
cBefore e or i sounds like s cecithis
cElsewhere it sounds like k caras
çSounds like sçathat
chSounds like 'sh'château castle
gBefore e or i sounds like s in 'measure' général general
gElsewhere sounds like g in 'go' garestation
hSilent hôtel hotel
jSounds like s in ‘measure' jeI
qu, qSounds like kquiwho
rPronounced at the back of the throatrireto laugh
sAt the beginning of a word sounds like s salleroom
sBetween two vowels, it sounds like z roserose

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:

For example:

👍 passpor(t)
👍 Pari(s) 

On the other hand, and r are pronounced. For example: 

👍 hotel (hotel)
👍 Professeur (teacher)

How to speak French - Learn French for free with Mondly!

French Variations

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.

SyllablePronunciation GuideExampleEnglish Translation
erat the end of a word of two syllables or more sounds like 'ay' parlerto speak
ezat the end of a word sounds like 'ay' neznose
ailat the end of a word sounds like ‘ah'ee' travailwork
eil, eillesound like 'a'ee' soleil
bouteille
sun
bottle
illusually sounds like 'ee'y' juilletJuly
gnsounds like ni in 'onion' signalsignal

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 ‘erdo 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’

  • Learning French: Where to Begin

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!

 

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