The pronunciation of French words… one of the most feared exercise for French learners. Anybody who start to learn French is surprised by very specific sounds and a very weird spelling of the words. It’s one of the main reason why people give up on learning French.

The pronunciation of French letters is not always easy, it’s true. Speaking and reading French seem very difficult when you are a beginner. That’s why if you want to learn French, you need to know a few information concerning French letters and their corresponding sounds.

In this article, I want to give you some general explanations regarding French pronunciation, especially for beginners. You will see that it might seem difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. You just have to get used to a few sounds and patterns to be able to say any word that comes your way.


1) The alphabet and the vowels

You probably know that French uses the same alphabet as English. If you've never heard it before:

 that was fast, I know, but it’s ok, you don’t really need to learn how to pronounce each letter. The most important sounds you need to learn are the vowel sounds.
So let’s talk about the vowels:
; E ; I ; O ; U and Y (this latter can also be a consonant). In French, these sounds are very short, meaning your mouth doesn’t move as you say them. In English however, you have longer sounds, you can see somebody’s mouth moving:
A ; E ; I ; O ; U.


2) The vowel sounds

Now that you know how to pronounce the vowels individually, you must know that combined together with other letters, vowels will create new vowel sounds. In French, there are 15 vowel sounds. It’s not that much, isn’t it?

The issue is that there are many combinations of letters possible to pronounce them, and that’s why people often get confused when they have to read in French. Even worse, in traditional books teaching French, you often have the international phonetic transcription to “help” you understand how to pronounce the words… Come on, honestly, who ever had the feeling of being helped by this indecipherable alphabet?

I believe you need a more simplified phonetic transcription more related to English to help you learn how to pronounce French words. So that’s what I did for you, I created a simplified phonetic transcription which I use in this blog and also in the 1st part of the Blog French Course to help you sound French.




Possible combination of letters




 un papa   [papa]  ,  a daddy
ai  ;  ei  ;  è  ;  ê  ;  e  ;  et
 un capitaine  [kapitên]  ,  a captain
é  ;  et  ;  er  ;  ez
premier  [premié]  ,  first
e  ;  eu  ;  eux
un milieu  [milie]  ,  a middle
œ  ;  eu
une fleur [flœr]  ,  a flower
i  ;  y
petit [peti]  ,  small
o  ;  au  ;  eau
un bateau  [bato]  ,  a boat
o  ;  au
fort [fôr]  ,  strong
une lumière  [lumiêr]  ,  a light
un doute  [dŵt]  ,  a doubt
an  ;  en  ;  am  ;  em
un enfant  [ãfã]  ,  a child
un avion  [aviõ]  ,  an airplane
[ ĩ ]
in  ;  ain  ;  ein  ;  un
un humain  [ùmĩ]  ,  a human
noir  [noar]  ,  black
un point  [poĩt]  ,  a point

The red corresponds to the nasal sounds which are completely inexistent in English. We will study them later on in this article.

Of course, this table is just a quick summary of the pronunciation of French words. You need a bit more information to really understand it, and that’s the rest of the article.

I know it might still seem a bit weird when you look at the transcription, but if you listen to the audio, you will easily associate the combinations of letters to the pronunciation thanks to this transcription.


The accents

On the French vowels, sometimes you will find an accent. There are 3 of them:


Acute accent - é - -


Grave accent

à è - - -
Circumflex accent â ê î ô


In this small table, you can see on which letter the accents are placed. For example you see in the first line that the acute accent exists only on the letter “e”. By the way, the letter “e” is the only one whose pronunciation change when it has an accent.

Let’s talk more in detail about this letter “e”, which is the most used letter in the French language.


3) The letter “e” in French

As you can see on the phonetic transcription table, the “e” is used for 4 different vowel sounds:

The sound [e] 

This sound is the most basic sound of the letter “e” since that’s how you pronounce it in the alphabet.

It has 3 possible spellings:

  • “e” :

You will often find it in short words: Je ; le ; ne ; de ; que ; ce ; se ; me ; te

Or at the beginning of longer words:

 Regarder, to watch
 Un melon, a melon
 Une cerise, a cherry
 Demain, tomorrow
 Venir, to come

  • “eu”

This one can be confusing because it’s also very often pronounced [œ].

You will hear the sound [e] when you have it at the end of a word:

Bleu, blue
 Le feu, the fire
 Le milieu, the middle
 Un neveu, a nephew

Or also at the end of words finishing with the sound [z] (which are often feminine words):

Danseuse, dancer (female) ; 
 Curieuse, curious (feminine) ; 
 Coiffeuse, hairdresser (female)

  • “eux”

This one is always at the end of a word, usually adjectives:

Courageux, courageous
 Ambitieux, ambitious
 Dangereux, dangerous

Note that it’s very important to master this sound [e] because it’s the one French people use when they hesitate! So it’s extremely useful if you want to sound French.

The sound [œ] 

It’s a bit like the previous sound [e], but more open. It has 2 possible spellings:

  • “eu”

“eu” is very often pronounced [œ] when it’s followed most of the time by an “r” usually at the end of a word.

Une couleur, a color
 le meilleur, the best
 Une fleur, a flower
 Un docteur, a doctor
 Intérieur, interior…

However, it’s not always an “r”, it can also be another consonant sound:

Seul, alone
 Jeune, young
 Un peuple, a people/nation
 Neuf, nine
 Une feuille, a leaf/paper

  • “œ”

That’s a rarer spelling, but you will it find in the 4 very common words:

Une sœur, a sister
 un cœur, a heart
 un œil, an eye
 une œuvre, a work (of art).

The sound [é] 

It has 4 possible spellings:

  • “é”

This one is very easy: whenever you see it, you know you have to pronounce it [é].

You usually find it when the letter “e” is the first letter of a word:

Un étranger, a foreigner ;
Écrire, to write
 Écouter, to listen
 Une émotionan emotion

On the “e” of the prefixes “dé, mé, pré”:

Développer, to develop
 Mélanger, to mix
 Préférer, to prefer

At the end of the past participles of the verbs of the first group (finishing in “-er”) in the compound tenses like the passé composé:

J’ai mangé, I ate
 J’ai développé, I developed
 J’ai donné, I gave

  • “et”

This one is interesting. You find it at the end of a word, and officially, it should be pronounced [ê], not [é]. But when you hear people talk, many people (including me) actually pronounce it [é]. It depends on each person, and also on the words.

Un billet, a ticket
 Un sujet, a subject
 Un projet, a project ; 
 Un effet, an effect ; 
 Un paquet, a package

  • “er”

I know this one is a bit weird… Many French learners will say “Why the hell does an “e” and an “r” produce the sound [é] ?! ”. In fact, it’s very useful because it’s the mark of the verbs of the 1st group (in their infinitive form) which are the most numerous and the easiest to conjugate:

Manger, to eat
 Danser, to dance
 Attraper, to catch
 Tomber, to fall

You can also find “er” at the end of names of professions:

Le boulanger, the baker
 Le fermier, the farmer
 Le pompier, the fireman
 Le cuisinier, the cook

  • “ez”

This one is the less common. You will only find it when you conjugate verbs of the 1st group in the 2nd person plural “vous”.

Vous mangez, you eat
 Vous dansez, you dance

The only exception is the word:

 Le nez, the nose

The sound [ê] 

Alright, here’s a big one. It has 6 possible spellings:

  • “ai”

This one also is pretty simple. You can find it in any type of words:

Faire, to do
 Un aigle, an eagle
 Français, French
 Vrai, true

You also hear it a lot with the conjugation of the imperfect tense:

Je chantais, I was singing
 Tu marchais, you were walking
 Il étudiait, he was studying

The 2 only two moments when “ai” is not pronounced [ê] is when it is followed by an “n” or by the sound [y] (so usually when it’s followed by two “l”):

pain, bread
 travailler, to work.

  • “ei”

This one is a bit like the previous “ai”, but it’s less common since you don’t have it in the imperfect tense conjugation.

However, just like for “ai”, when “ei” is followed by an “n”, it makes another sound.

But unlike “ai”, usually when it’s followed by the sound [y], it keeps the sound [ê].

A few French words with “ei” :

Une reine, a queen
 Une oreille, an ear ;
Le Soleil, the Sun
 La neige, the snow

  • “è”

Just like for “é”, this one is very easy: whenever you see it, you have to pronounce it [ê].

You will often find it in words ending with an "s" not being the plural mark:

Après, after
 Le congrès, the congress
 Près, near
 Le progrès, the progress

Or also when the letter “e” is preceded by a syllable containing a mute "e":

Une crème, a cream
 Célèbre, famous
 Un athlète, an athlete
 Une guère, a war

  • “ê”

Also very simple, like the previous one, whenever you see it, pronounce it [ê]. In addition, you may notice that the circumflex accent often replaces an “s”:

La forêt, the forest
 La fête, the party (fiesta) ; 
 Un prêtre, a priest
 Une tempête, a storm (tempest)…

  • “e”

The letter “e” itself is pronounced [ê] when it’s in the last syllable of the word, in front of a consonant and does not have an accent:

Un bec, a beak
 Vert, green
 La mer, the sea
 Hier, yesterday

Or also when it’s in front of a double consonant:

Une pierre, a rock
 Une assiette, a plate
 Une adresse, an address
 Une rébellion ; A rebellion

  • “et”

This one is the same we saw before: it’s up to you to decide if you want to pronounce the words ending in “et” with the [ê] sound or the [é] sound, it’s not very important: billet, sujet, projet, effet, paquet


4) The letter “o” in French

The “o” in French has 2 different pronunciation

The sound [o]  (closed) 

This sound is closed, and it has 3 different spellings:

  • “au”

Generally, when the sound [o] is in the beginning or in the middle of a word, you write it “au”:

Un autre, another
 Un restaurant, a restaurant
 Chaud, hot ; 
 Faux, false

  • “eau”

When [o] is at the end of a word, generally you write it “eau” :

Un bateau, a boat
 Un cadeau, a present
 Un château, a castle ; 
 Un couteau, a knife

The word:

 “beaucoup, a lot” is an exception.

  • “o”

It’s also possible to find the letter “o” itself pronounced [o] at the beginning or in the middle of a word (sometimes with a circumflex accent):

 Une chose, a thing
 Le dos, the back (body part) ; 
 Un hôpital, a hospital
 Un hôtel, a hotel… ; 
 Un océan, an ocean

The sound [ô]  (open) 

  • “o” and “au”

“o” and “au” are usually pronounced [ô] when they are followed by two consonants or when, without the circumflex, they precede the letters “l” or “r”:

La pomme, the apple
 Une école, a school
 la colle, the glue
 de l’or, gold
 Paul, Paul


5) The sounds [ŵ] and [ù]

That’s usually a tough one for English speakers because the [ù] sound doesn’t exist in English.

But you do have the [ŵ], it basically corresponds to the “oo” in English (choose, boot, spoon…).

Now let me tell you why I transcript it [ŵ] and not [oo]: Because the “oo” in English is a long sound, whereas the “oo” in French is a short sound, just like any other vowel sound, so I wanted to mark the difference.

And why a “ŵ” ? Because whenever you pronounce the consonant letter “w” in English, if you say the beginning extremely slowly, you actually make the sound “oo”.

The sound [ŵ]  -  “ou” 

In French, the sound [ŵ] is always written “ou”, and there are thousands of words with this sound.

Bouger, to move
 Le cou, the neck
 Trouver, to find
 Courir, to run

When the word is a noun ending in “ou”, its plural take an “s” at the end (regular rule). However, there is an exception for 7 nouns which take an “x”:

Des bijoux, jewels ; 
 Des cailloux, pebbles ; 
 Des genoux, knees
 Des choux, cauliflowers ;
Des joujoux, toys
 Des hiboux, howls

The sound [ù]  -  “u” 

So many people told me [ŵ] and [ù] are the same, but they’re not! And it’s very important to know the difference between them, because if you don’t pronounce them properly, your sentence could mean something entirely different, and it could be quite embarrassing as well…

A good tip I’ve heard is to form your mouth like you’re about to go in for the worst kiss of your life, and then try to pronounce the letter “e” in English a little bit clipped (still holding your lips like fish lips). It should force you to pronounce the sound [ù].

Here’s a few words where you can see the difference between [ŵ] and [ù]:

Une boule” and 
une bulle” : “a ball” and “a bubble

Une poule” and 
un pull” : “a chicken” and “a sweater

Une roue” and 
une rue” : “a wheel” and “a street

And the last one you cannot make the mistake:

Le cou, the neck
 le cul, the ass


6) The nasal sounds: [ã] ; [õ] ; [ ĩ ]

The dreadful nasal sounds… completely inexistent in English, I’ve highlighted them in red in the phonetic table.

There are very technical explanations to make you understand how to pronounce them properly. Complicated stuff like this : “Nasal vowels are produced by the passage of air through the nasal cavity by lowering the soft palate (the velum), allowing air to pass through the mouth and the nose”.

To be honest, I don’t think that’s very useful to know, because you’re not going to think about “lowering your soft palate in order to make air pass through your mouth and your nose” every time you pronounce a nasal sound…

I think the best is simply to try to imitate the sound when a native French pronounce it. Even if it may not be perfect, it’s ok because it will be understandable. You will probably have your native accent behind, and that’s totally normal because you cannot sound French overnight (especially if it’s a sound you never had to use before). Just “try to sound French” at the beginning, and keep on repeating day after day, months after months, and you will be able to pronounce these nasal sounds more and more like a French person.

The sound [ã] 

It has 4 possible spellings:

  • “en”

There are thousands of examples of words with “en” inside. It can be at the beginning, the middle or the end of a word. However, if it’s at the end of a word, it’s very often followed by a mute “t”:

Différent, different
 Entrer, to enter
 Attendre, to wait
 Un moment, a moment

  • “em”

The “em” spelling appears when it’s followed by a “b” or a “p” :

Ensemble, together
 Longtemps, for a long time
 Septembre, September
 Un exemple, example

  • “an”

Just like for “en”, there are numerous examples of words with “an” (maybe even more), and when the word ends in “an”, it usually takes a mute “t” at the end:

 Avant, before
 La France, France
 Une langue, a language/tongue
 Important, important…

  • “am”

Same rule, when the sound is followed by a “b” or a “p”, it becomes “am”:

La chambre, the room
 La jambe, the leg
 Une lampe, a lamp
 Un champ, a field


Careful, many people make the mistake of pronouncing the “ent” [ã] when it’s the ending of the 3rd person plural for regular verbs in the present tense. It’s not a [ã] sound, but a mute “e”:

Ils mangent, They eat
 ils marchent, they walk ;
 elles dansent, they dance ;
 elles chantentthey sing...

The sound [õ] 

It has 2 possible spellings:

  • “on”

Bonjour, hello
 Une réponse, an answer
 Un avion ; An airplane ; 
 Un oncle, an uncle

  • “om”

Always the same rule:

Une ombre, a shadow
 Un compte, an account
 Comprendre, to understand
 Tomber, to fall

The sound [ ĩ ] 

This one has 5 possible spellings (not including the rule with the “m” before the letters “b” and “p”), but the four first ones don’t really follow any rule (except the 1st one). You just have to know that these combination of letters are pronounced [ ĩ ]:

  • “in”

The only rule is that when the word starts with the sound [ ĩ ], the spelling is always “in” (or “im” if followed by a “b” or a “p”):

Un instant, an instant
 Inviter, to invite
 le matin, the morning ; 
 le chemin, the path ; 
 Impossible, impossible…

  • “ain”

Un humain, a human
 Une main, a hand
 Un pain, a bread
 Un train, a train…

  • “ein”

Atteindre, to reach ; 
 Plein, full/plenty ; 
 Peindre, to paint
Une ceinture, belt

  • “un”

Un, one
 Commun, common
 Aucun, no/none/any ; 
 Chacun, each/each one

  • “en”

This one happens only when “en” is preceded by the letters “i” or “y”, and is at the end of the word (so in fact you always have the sound [iĩ]). You will often find it for names of nationalities as well:

Un chien, a dog
 Bien, good
 Un moyen, a mean
 Nigérien, Nigerian
 Italien, Italian


7) The sounds: [oa] and [oĩ]

I hesitated to count these two sounds as vowel sounds since they are both in fact a combination of two different vowel sounds. But the pronunciation of these two combinations is so fast, that it really sounds like another unique vowel sound.

The sound [oa

This one is a combination of the sound [o] (or [ŵ] for some people) + the sound [a]. It has only one possible spelling:

  • “oi”

Voir, to see
 Trois, three
 Une voiture, a car
 Le roi, the king…

The sound [oĩ

This one is the combination of the sound [o] (or [ŵ] for some people) + the nasal sound [ ĩ ]. It’s less frequent than the previous one, and it also has only one possible spelling:

  • “oin”

Moins, less
 Loin, far
 Un point, a point
 Un besoin, a need


8) The letter “y” in French

Just a quick point for the letter “y”, which can either be a vowel or a consonant.

When it’s a vowel, it’s always pronounced [i], and you usually find it alone in a sentence:

Il y a beaucoup de vent, There is a lot of wind.

You can find it in a few words as well:

Psychologie, psychology
 Synonyme, synonym…

When it’s a consonant, generally the rule is that the “y” replaces two “i” when it’s between two vowels of a same word:

Un voyage (voi-iage), a trip ; 
 Envoyer (envoi-ier), to send
 Payer (pai-ier), to pay
 Appuyer (appui-ier), to press

 Un pays, a country, is the only word (with all its derivatives) where the “y” also becomes two “i” even though it’s between a vowel and a consonant (pai-i).
 Un paysage, a landscape
 Un paysan, a peasant