Now that you've decided to learn French, it's time to dig into the language learning process. The best place to get started is by learning French pronunciation starting with the French alphabet. The French alphabet is the foundation of all French pronunciation and a great way to develop a good French accent and spelling skills.
The French alphabet looks very similar to the English alphabet, but there are a few key differences. There are a total of 26 letters in the French alphabet. Standard French contains 13 oral vowels and up to 4 nasal vowels, but there are 5 additional accented letters that can be applied to change the sound of a letter. Crazy, right? But don’t worry; it’s just a matter of studying a little bit, listening to French and repeating the sounds as much as possible.
Here are some of the most basic French words to get you started. Further on in this lesson we will look at the pronunciation of these and more French words.
- vous - you
- vous avez - you have
- un - a
- un hôtel - a hotel
- les - the (plural)
- les aïeux - the ancestors
- rue - road/street
- inacceptable - unacceptable
- l’autoroute - The highway
- soixante - sixty
First, let's take a look at some basic French pronunciation rules.
Basic French Pronunciation Rules
Keep it Smooth with French Liaisons
One of the fundamental rules of pronouncing French (and many other Latin-based languages) is that everything has to flow. That’s one of the reasons why French sounds so beautiful to us. If you’re speaking French correctly, everything should come out like a beautiful, continuous melody.
That’s where liaisons come in.
Liaisons are a phonetic link between two words that may sound awkward if left unconnected. Let’s take a look at some examples:
While the rules for French liaisons are rather complicated, they can be divided into two basic categories:
Liaisons that are required when speaking:
- After pronouns e.g. vous avez
- Numbers and nouns e.g. deux amis
- One syllable prepositions e.g chez eux
- After determiners
- After preceding adjectives
And liaisons that are forbidden when speaking:
- When using full names e.g.
- After et
Liaisons may seem complicated at first, but they will become easier the more you listen to spoken French. After a while, you’ll automatically be able to notice where a liaison is needed (and where it isn’t) and how to make it sound natural in your speaking.
What Not To Pronounce
Much like English, the French language isn’t written phonetically. The same sound can be represented by several different combinations of letters, and there are many cases of silent French letters. Two of the most well known are the silent “e” and the silent “h.”
The Silent “e”
The letter “e” is often silent in French, especially at the end of a word. Here are some examples:
The silent final “e” poses an interesting situation when it comes to masculine and feminine adjectives and nouns. In the case of feminine adjectives and nouns, this typically means that the final consonant of the masculine form will now be pronounced.
Here are some examples:
open (+masculine noun)
open (+feminine noun)
italien (m) / italienne (f)
Italian (m) / Italian (f)
le chien / la chienne
The (male) dog / The (female) dog
The Silent “h”
As you’ve probably noticed from every French speaker’s failed attempt to say the word “hamburger” in English, the “h” in French is a 100% silent letter no matter where it’s located in a word. The only exception to this is when the preceding letter is “c,” in which case the “ch” combination makes a “sh” sound or “k” sound.
Here are a few examples of the silent “h”:
Le haricot vert
The Final Consonant
As you’ve probably already noticed, there are a ton of French letters that simply aren’t pronounced at the end of words. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it! In French, silent letters, or lettres muettes, have rules and exceptions just like many other linguistic concepts. In general, the final consonants of a word are usually silent in French except in some cases of the letters c, f, l or r.
Let’s take a look at some examples of silent consonants at the end of words:
And now for some silent consonants at the end of words that are usually pronounced:
Pronouncing Difficult French Sounds
There are a few sounds in the French language that are particularly difficult for English speakers because they don’t exist in English. Let’s take a look at some of these sounds and how to pronounce them.
The Infamous “r”
made of sugar
The Tricky French “u”
What’s so difficult about the French “u,” you may wonder? Brace yourself: along with the “r,” the French “u” has a pronunciation at doesn’t exist in the English language. Naturally, that makes it one of the most most tricky sounds to get right.
To pronounce it, you’ll need to pronounce “ee” in English and hold out the sound while rounding your lips.
Here’s some practice:
“u” or “ou”?
In addition to the “u,” there’s also the “ou,” which is pronounced just slightly differently. It’s important to make a distinction between the two.
Let’s practice differentiating between the u and ou:
The Subtle Difference Between “é,” “ais,”“ait,” and “et”
Buckle up, because it’s time to dig into some phonetic nuances. The French “é,” “ais,”“ait,” and “et” sounds are an endless source of headaches for English speakers who just can’t seem to tell the difference between them. And what do we do when they all sound more or less the same? We pronounce them the same way, of course! Obviously, this can be a problem that may lead to misunderstandings.
That’s why it’s important to practice, practice, practice. Pay attention to the difference between sentences like “j’ai parlé avec lui” and “je parlais avec lui” when spoken by a native speaker and try to imitate it syllable by syllable. Then repeat it until you feel comfortable.
Try these word pairs to help you differentiate between the sounds and practice your pronunciation:
Single “s,” Double “s” or “z”?
But it’s just an “s,” right? While it may seem like the letter “s” is pretty straightforward (especially compared to other French sounds), pronouncing the “s” is more complicated than it seems. And trust us, there’s an important difference between “fish” and poison”! The different pronunciations can be divided into three categories:
Pronounced like a normal “s” (as in “sit”)
Pronounced with a “z” sound (like the “s” in the English word “cousin” or “busy”)
If a consonant is present on one side of the “s,” however, then it’s pronounced “s”:
Pronounced with an “s” sound
It’s important to keep in mind that a liaison can always change the “s” sound. Let’s look at an example:
In this case, the letter “s” makes a “z” sound when used in the liaison, but isn’t pronounced if the word “vous” is said by itself.
And, of course, always remember: “s” on the end of any French word is usually silent.
Tips for Practicing on Your Own
Learning all of the French pronunciation rules may seem complicated, but like anything, it will get easier with time and practice. It’s important to practice your pronunciation as much as possible until you’re confident with all of the French sounds.
Here are some great, fun ways to practice:
- Watch a movie, series, documentary or video and repeat the character's lines
- Watch a movie, series, documentary or video with French subtitles and read the subtitles along with the characters
- Listen to the French radio and repeat the broadcaster’s lines
- Sing along with music in your target language
- Read a passage from a book, newspaper, or magazine out loud
- Talk to yourself in your target language (it may sound silly, but it really helps!)
Whenever you practice, pay attention to how consonants sound at the beginning and end of words, as this may differ depending on their location in a word. Considering choosing a new letter each week to focus on and then find a list of words to practice.
Take the time to study French vowels with every possible accent and pairing so you get used to differentiating between each accent and combination of letters. As those who have studied French probably already know, a small accent can make a very big difference in meaning! Try to focus on a new vowel with all of its possible accents or a new vowel pairing each week.
Finally, remember that learning French takes time, and the more you practice and listen, the more you'll be able to recognize words as they're spoken and pronounce them correctly.
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