French pronunciation

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.

French prounciation

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:

Simple

vous

you

With liaison

vous avez

you have

Simple

un

a

With liaison

un hôtel

a hotel

Simple

les

the (plural)

With liaison

les aïeux

the ancestors

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:

rue

road/street

inacceptable

unacceptable

l’autoroute

The highway

soixante

sixty

cabine

cabin

Masculine or Feminine?

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:

ouvert

open (+masculine noun)

ouverte

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”:

Un hamburger

A hamburger

Le haricot vert

French bean

huit

eight

hiver

winter

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:

froid

cold

grand

big/large

beacoup

a lot/many/much

temps

time/weather

petit

little/small

And now for some silent consonants at the end of words that are usually pronounced:

avec

with

cinq

five

hiver

winter

The general rule regarding French word endings is that when in doubt, you probably don’t pronounce it. Remember, though: much like English, French is full of exceptions, and the best bet is to immerse yourself in French as much as possible to practice pronouncing words in context.

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”

For many English speakers, the French “r” is either a source of laughter or endless frustration. While it may be the most difficult sound to learn, it’ll also eventually become the most fun (we promise). To pronounce it, you’ll need to use your throat and imagine you’re trying to gargle. The French “r” is pronounced in the same place as the English “k”, but with your throat closed.

Let’s practice:

arriver

to arrive

vraiment

really

en sucre

made of sugar

le frère

the brother

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:

tu

you (casual)

vue

sight

jus

juice

“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.

In order to pronounce the “ou,” all you need to do is think “soup.” You’ll probably find this sound much easier to pronounce than the “u,” since it already exists in English. When compared to “u,” your tongue will be out further than “ou” when it’s being pronounced.

Let’s practice differentiating between the u and ou:

tu

you (casual)

tout

all

vue

sight

vous

you (formal)

jus

juice

joue

play

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:

fée

fairy

fait

fact

sacré

sacred

secret

secret

gelé

frozen

gelais

gels

pelle

shovel

palais

palace

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:

1. Single S at the beginning of a word

Pronounced like a normal “s” (as in “sit”)

salut

hello

samedi

Saturday

2. Single S in the middle of a word (surrounded by vowels)

Pronounced with a “z” sound (like the “s” in the English word “cousin” or “busy”)

la maison

the house

poison

poison

cuisine

kitchen

If a consonant is present on one side of the “s,” however, then it’s pronounced “s”:

les escargots

the snails

3. S in a letter combination

Pronounced with an “s” sound

poisson

fish

dessert

dessert

4. Final S in a liaison

It’s important to keep in mind that a liaison can always change the “s” sound. Let’s look at an example:

vous avez

you have

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.

5. Silent Final S

And, of course, always remember: “s” on the end of any French word is usually silent.

le corps

the body

anglais

English

dans

in/into

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.

À bientôt!
Marie-Claire Rivière


Rocket Reinforcement

Reinforce your learning from this lesson with the Rocket Reinforcement tools! Improve your knowledge and retention of the French you learn!

Hear It Say It!

0 / 60

Write It!

0 / 60

Know It!

0 / 60