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 words 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. For that, let’s talk about the vowels:
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:
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 your native alphabet 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 BlogFrench Course to help you sound French.
So here’s my “more relatable phonetic alphabet” for English speakers learning French:
|Possible combination of letters||Example|
||ai ; ei ; è ; ê ; e ; et||
||é ; et ; er ; ez||
premier [premié] , first
|e ; eu ; eux||
||œ ; eu||
une fleur [flœr] , flower
||i ; y||
petit [peti] , small
|o ; au ; eau||
||o ; au||
fort [fôr] , strong
[ŵ] ( or [oo] )
||an ; en ; am ; em||
||in ; ain ; ein ; un||
The red corresponds to completely inexistent sounds 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.
On the French vowels, sometimes you will find an accent. There are 3 of them:
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 who’s 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:
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
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)
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” 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
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:
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 émotion ; an 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
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
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
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:
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 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
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…
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
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)…
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
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:
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
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.
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 yellow 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:
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
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
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…
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, ils marchent, elles dansent, elles chantent…
The sound [õ]
It has 2 possible spellings:
Bonjour, hello ; Une réponse, an answer ; Un avion ; An airplane ; Un oncle, an uncle
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 ]:
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…
Un humain, a human ; Une main, a hand ; Un pain, a bread ; Un train, a train…
Atteindre, to reach ; Plein, full/plenty ; Peindre, to paint ; Ceinture, belt
Un, one ; Commun, common ; Aucun, no/none/any ; Chacun, each/each one
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:
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:
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…
It’s only in the word Un pays, a country (and all the words similar to it) that the “y” also becomes two “i” even though it’s between a vowel and a consonant: Un paysage, a landscape ; Un paysan, a peasant…