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When you start learning French, the pronunciation can seem really tricky. This is especially the case as it has a lot of sounds that aren’t found in English.
French is different to English. But it’s certainly not harder.
Think of all the English words that are difficult even for anglophones to pronounce, much less everyone else! “Rural juror”, “isthmus”, “Benedict Cumberbatch”…
Just like English, French pronunciation only needs a bit of practice to get right. In this pronunciation guide, I’ll walk you through the most troublesome sounds to pronounce, as well as a few subtle, easy ways you can change your pronunciation to make huge headway toward sounding like a native French speaker.
Note that when describing how to pronounce these French words, I make reference to English words that sound similar. Where possible, I tried to use words that would work in the majority of English dialects and accents, but if in doubt, imagine them being pronounced in a standard British or standard American dialect.
How to Pronounce the French “u” Sound
There’s no sound like the French “u” in English. It’s not the same as an English “oo” sound. French has both the English “oo” and a distinct “u” sound (denoted by y in the International Phonetic Alphabet), so you’ll want to learn to pronounce them differently in order to avoid any, ahem, misunderstandings.
For example, there aren’t many scenarios where you can mix up the words “thanks a lot!” and “thanks, nice ass!” in French conversation and still be understood! So don’t get your “merci beaucoup” and “merci beau cul” mixed up! To correctly pronounce the “u” sound, try this. Say a normal English “ee” sound (like at the end of the word “free”). Now, without moving your tongue, shape your lips into an “ooh” sound. Basically your lips are saying “oo” while your tongue is still saying “ee”. And voilà! You have the French “u” sound!
Exercise: Try pronouncing the following pairs of words, to really hear the difference between “u” and “ou”:
- jus and joue
- en-dessus and en-dessous (don’t mix these ones up; they have exact opposite meanings!)
- cure and cour
- juin and bédouin
(Pro Tip: copy and paste these words to searches on forvo to hear natives pronounce them to see if you hear the difference)
The Subtle Difference Between “é” and “ais”/“ait”/“et” in French
When you speak the following sentences, does the conjugation of the verb “parler” sound the same?
- J’ai parlé avec lui
- Je parlais avec lui
Many French learners will pronounce these in exactly the same way. In fact, they should not sound the same. This is surprising to some French learners if they’re not actively listening for the difference in sound.
The first one, parlé, ends with more of an English “ay” sound (IPA representation ‘e’), almost like “parlay”. Parlais, however, ends with a sound that doesn’t really exist at the end of any English words, hence English speakers’ tendency to hear and pronounce it like “é”. It sounds more like the English word “let” without the T at the end (IPA representation ɛ). You might wonder what the big deal is here since the two sounds are so similar, but French speakers will definitely hear the difference.
Exercise: Try these word pairs to help you distinguish the sounds:
- fée and fait
- sacré and secret
- gelé and gelais
- pellé and palais
The Real Way to Pronounce “d” and “t” Before the Letter “i”
Here’s a nice, easy change you can make in your pronunciation that will vault you closer to native pronunciation. Think of the French word “petit”. How should you pronounce the second syllable? Lots of French learners would answer that you pronounce it like the English word “tea”, but this isn’t entirely true. In many French dialects (certainly many parts of France and most of French-speaking Quebec), there’s a hidden, light “s” sound in there, making it sound a bit like “tsee”.
The same effect happens with the letter “d” before “i”. The word “dire” ends up sounding more like “dzire”. Keep in mind that the “z” is a subtle sound though; it’s almost eaten up by the D.
Even though it’s a subtle sound, it’s noticeable enough that French speakers themselves have been known to have a laugh about it!
Next time you’re listening to a native French speaker, listen for this sound in these types of syllables and make an effort to imitate them.
Exercise: Here are some words to practice with:
“En”/“an” Versus “in”
These are the characteristically “nasal” sounds that are a dead giveaway to non-French speakers that someone is speaking French. They’re really not difficult for anglophones to master. Most of the difficulty lies in making sure to not mix up the sounds. It doesn’t help that the “in”/“ain” sound in France sounds more like the “en”/an” sound in Quebec!
For “en”/“an”, try saying the word “song”, but stop just before your throat closes into the “ng” sound. You’ve just pronounced the French word cent (or sang, s’en, “sans”, or sent…but I digress!)
For “in”/”ain”/”eint”, say the word “clang” but stop just before your throat closes into the “ng” sound. You’ve just pronounced the French word clin. Easy!
The latter can be a bit more difficult for French learners, if they overthink it and end up pronouncing it like “en”/“an”. Here are a few examples to let you hear the difference:
emporter and importer
grattant and gratin
étant and éteint
lentement and lendemain
Dropping the L in Your “il” and Your “elle”
Pronouncing your “il” and “elle” like French speakers is both easier than pronouncing it the “proper” way, and an effective way to make your colloquial speech sound much more natural.
Consider the following two sounds:
Say each sound aloud several times in a row. Which one can you say more quickly and easily? I bet the second one is easier. And French speakers agree! So when it comes to the phrase “il y a”, French speakers simplify it to sound like “ee-ya”. A couple of examples:
- Est-ce qu’il y a du pain?
- Oui, il y a beaucoup de pain
It doesn’t end there, however. In everyday French conversation, particularly when you’re speaking quickly, you can drop the L from “il” and “elle” in the majority of sentences! This is especially true when the next word in the sentence starts with a consonant. Here are some examples:
- Qu’est-ce qu’il fait? (”skee” fait)
- Elle connait la réponse (”eh” connait)
- Tu sais qu’il veut ça (”kee” veut)
- Je veux qu’elle m’appelle (”keh” m’appelle)
How “ce que” Melts into “skeu”
Another easy way to sound way more natural in your speech is to change your “ce que” to just “skeu”. You already do this in spoken phrases such as, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?”, but native speakers do it other places in a sentence as well. For example, when saying a sentence such as, “Ce qu’il dit est important”, ignore the e in “ce”. Make the words “Ce qu’il” one syllable: “skeel” – or rather, “skee”; remember the guideline about dropping the L.
It seems like a small change to make, but my French friends told me that my speech sounded more natural one day shortly after I changed this pronunciation, even though I hadn’t told them what I had changed.
Exercise: Practice with these examples:
- Écoute ce que je te dis (”skeu” je te dis – or, rather dzee. Remember the “ts”/”dz”rule)
- Ce que tu fais est mauvais (”skeu” tu fais)
- Je veux ce qu’elle a (”skell” a)
The Infamous French “r”
The letter “r” is the holy grail of pronunciation goals for French learners. There’s no sound quite like it in most other languages. The best advice I can offer about this sound is to not give up, no matter what. It will come!
Even if you think your French “r” right now sounds like the noise people make when they think they’ve swallowed an insect, keep it up. It’s still better than pronouncing it like an English “r”. For one thing, people will see that you’re trying, so they’ll be willing to help and encourage you. For another, you do have the right idea. Just try to soften it up a bit. It’s sort of like a Spanish J sound (or the ‘ch’ in the Scottish “loch”), but it’s voiced, and pronounced a bit further back in the throat. Don’t worry about perfecting a “uvular trill” in the back of your throat at this point. It’s really not necessary, and many native French speakers never bother pronouncing it that way anyway.
Exercise: A useful way to practice this sound is with is the sentence “Regardez mon frère”, which gives you four “r” sounds in different positions: the beginning of a word, the middle of a word before another consonant, the middle of a word after another consonant, and at the end of a word. If you can say all the “r” sounds in this phrase correctly, you’re there!
A final note on the French “r”: if you truly don’t feel like you’ll ever get it, don’t worry; there are many parts of French Canada where the “r” sounds much closer to a guttural sound like a Spanish “r” than it does to a classic French “r”. You can always say that’s what you are going for!
The “re” Disappears at the End of Some Words
If that French “r” is still bothering you, what if you could simply ignore it a few times?
You probably think that with all those words that end in “re”, it must be really difficult to speak French quickly and fluidly. Take the sentence, “Je vais le faire après être revenu”. Those last two words are tough to say, with the two “re” sounds one after the other. Well, here’s a secret: most native speakers agree, so they just drop the “re” sound at the end of être! The sentence ends up sounding like “Je vais le faire après ett revenu”. Much easier!
You can generally do this for most words ending in “re” after a consonant, such as to-form (infinitives) of verbs, and words like “votre”.
Exercise: Try these other phrases to help you get the hang of it:
- Je vais prendre mon bain (“prend” mon bain)
- Voulez-vous du lait dans votre café? (dans “vot” café)
- Elle va le mettre sur la table (”mett” sur la table)
How to Practise French Pronunciation on Your Own (10 Steps)
Now you know some of the basic rules of French pronunciation, you'll want to embed them into your memory. By far the best way to improve your pronunication is by actually speaking French. That way, you'll be building French pronunication into your muscle memory.
Here are 10 steps you can follow to get real world French pronunciation practise:
Step 1: Start Small: Practise the Pronunciation of Individual Letters
This is especially useful if you’re an absolute beginner or near-beginner in French. You’re still getting used to the sounds of the language, and you don’t yet know very much vocabulary.
Apprendre à lire is a fabulous website for getting the hang of French pronunciation. It teaches the pronunciation of every sound in the language. Click on any letter to see an assortment of games to familiarise you with the sound of that letter. The first game in each section is always the same (and it’s the most useful, I think). Open the game and click the speaker icon beside each image — get out your headphones and turn up the volume for this — and then click the image itself if you hear the featured letter pronounced in that word.
This won’t improve your pronunciation if you only treat it as a listening exercise. Good pronunciation in any language comes from muscle memory. How do you get muscle memory? Repetition
Don’t underestimate the power of repetition. Repeat each word after you listen to it. Not just once. Repeat five, ten, or even twenty times each until you can pronounce it as closely as possible to the recording. When you’ve gone through all the letters (or as many as you have time for today), go back to the first letter and see how much easier it is to pronounce and understand the words this time.
Step 2: Imitate the Facial Expressions and Body Language of Native French Speakers
The more you act like a French speaker, the more you’ll sound like one.
Watching videos of French speakers using everyday language is one of the best ways to observe the natural body language of native speakers.
Yabla contains a treasure trove of videos featuring native French speakers. Yabla’s integrated video player lets you view subtitles in French or English (or both, or neither), and slow down the playback speed.
Pick a video that has closeups of native French speakers. Watch that video several times. Try to imitate not only the speech, but the body language, of the speakers. Purse your lips when you say the “u” sound. Open your mouth wide when you pronounce words such as “pas” and “voilà”.
Above all, ignore anyone in the room with you who thinks you look silly.
My friend Idahosa also has a fun online course that trains people on French pronunciation through the power of imitation.
Step 3: Learn to Sing a French Song
Learning how to sing French songs will improve your fluidity when speaking the language. This is because if you want to sing along to a song, you need to keep up with the speed of the singer. Once you can sing along to a French song or two, speaking French more quickly and smoothly will become much easier.
Using songs to improve your French speaking skills is also a lot more fun than any other “repeat after me” method. Pick a song that you really enjoy listening to, and it will hardly be any effort at all to learn.
Depending how much time you have free today, you can learn an entire song, or opt for just one verse or the chorus. Either way, it’s best to learn one verse at a time, rather than try to learn the whole song at once.
To make it easier to listen to just one verse at a time, I recommend you open the song in iTunes, or another music player that lets you set the start and stop points of the song. Listen to the song once, and make a note of the timestamp for the beginning and end of each verse. Then adjust the song’s settings so that the start time of the song is at the beginning of verse 1, and the stop time is the end of the same verse. Now listen to the song on repeat, and just that verse will be repeated.
Even if you’re an advanced French speaker, look up the lyrics online and follow along to them while you listen. Otherwise it’s just too easy to misunderstand them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve misheard the lyrics of English songs, despite being a native speaker. (I wondered for years why Elton John’s Rocket Man was “burning all his shoes up there alone”!)
Ask a native speaker to translate the lyrics if there are any words or phrases you’re not sure of. There are many communities online where you can ask. italki has a question and answer section where you can native speakers questions about French. The Fluent in 3 Months (Fi3M) forum also has many helpful French-speaking members.
Sing out loud to the lyrics as you listen. This is not optional. It’s essential to improve your speaking skills. Once you can sing the entire verse without getting tripped up, move onto the next verse if you have time today.
The next time you’re talking with a native speaker, watch how quickly and easily you’re able to use the vocabulary from the song you memorised. The more songs you learn, the more you’ll notice this effect.
Step 4: Have a Conversation with a Native French Speaker
This will always be the most effective way to improve your speaking skills in any language. What better way to instantly improve your speaking ability than to get live feedback from a native speaker?
One 30 minute conversation with a native French speaker won’t just improve your speaking and pronunciation. It’s also a huge confidence booster. There’s no feeling quite like the one you get when you use your target language to successfully communicate with a real person.
And once you've had one conversation, you'll definitely want to have another.
Asking for feedback on your pronunciation isn’t something you’ll want to do every time you chat with a native French speaker, however. I really think that fluid speaking ability, about a variety of everyday topics, is more important than accent. But scheduling regular sessions just to work on pronunciation – in addition to scheduling regular chats where you don’t keep stopping to talk about pronunciation – will quickly help your accent, and your fluidity, become more like a native speaker.
Don’t know any native French speakers nearby? No problem. Check out italki to find dozens of French teachers and tutors from around the world. Their prices are very reasonable, and many of them can schedule a lesson with you on short notice (i.e. today, or even right now).
Step 5: Record Yourself Speaking French
I know, I know. Listening to an audio recording of yourself can be a pretty cringeworthy experience. Listening to yourself speak a foreign language can be downright painful.
Push through the pain. It’s worth it. The reason it’s painful is because you’re hyper-aware of every nuance of your speech, from intonation to pronunciation, in ways that you just can’t hear when your voice rumbles in your skull when you speak live. This makes audio recordings a fantastic method of exposing problem areas in your spoken French that you didn’t even know you had.
Record yourself reading a short paragraph in French (this can be anything: a French news story, a book, or even the French section of the multilingual instruction manual for your DVD player), then play it back multiple times and make note of the places where you hesitate or mispronounce a word. Pronounce the troublesome words several times until they come more easily, and then repeat the exercise.
There are lots of free programs you can use for recording your voice. QuickTime is a good one. Simply click File -> New Audio Recording. Your smartphone probably has a built-in dictophone app you can use as well.
If you have a bit of money to spare, Premium takes the idea of recording your voice to the next level. It contains hundreds of French lessons, and each lesson contains lines of dialogue recorded by a native speaker. The webpage has built-in functionality to let you record your own voice reading the lines of dialogue (or even individual words). Then you can play back your recording and the native speaker’s recording – either separately or simultaneously – to compare your pronunciation to the native speaker’s.
Step 6: Exaggerate Your Pronunciation
If you’ve identified your weaknesses in French pronunciation, but can’t seem to overcome them, try exaggerating them in your mouth as you speak. Aim for an almost stereotypical accent. It’s counterintuitive, but it can help you sound more natural.
The French “R” sound is a prime example. Nearly every French language learner has trouble with it in the beginning, unless the sound appears in their native language.
Pick a word that contains a couple of Rs (e.g. regarder (“to look at”), prêtre (“priest”), préfère (“prefer”)) and pronounce it over and over. Really attack that R sound. It helps to do it in front of a mirror, but bring a squeegee in case your efforts cause a splash.
After a little while, try saying the word normally. You’ll almost certainly notice an immediate difference in how easy it is to pronounce this time.
Step 7: Learn a French Tongue Twister
Tweak your talking talent; try a tongue twister or two.
This exercise is along the same lines as learning French songs. If you can master some French tongue twisters (une virelangue en français), then using normal, everyday French will become easier by comparison.
Step 8: Learn Your Liaisons
French isn’t known as la belle langue for nothing. The different features of the language combine to give a pleasing, “romantic” quality to spoken French.
Liaisons are a key feature that contributes to the beauty of French. Consider the following French phrase:
“Vous êtes dans un grand avion.”
If you pronounce this sentence without using any liaisons, it ends up sounding like
“Voo ett dahn un grahn avion.”
That sounds kind of awkward, especially between “voo” and “ett”, and between “grahn” and “avion”. The different vowels clash when there isn’t a consonant separating them. It doesn’t sound very French.
On the other hand, if you pronounce it authentically, it sounds like
“Voo zett dahn zun grahn davion”
Ahhh, that’s better.
Even English has a few mechanisms to avoid awkward vowel clashes. When you say “the tree”, the word “the” sounds almost like the word “thus” without the S. But when you say “the apple”, you change your pronunciation of “the” so it sounds like “thee”. In the same way, the indefinite article “a” becomes “an” before a word starting with a vowel.
The rules behind liaisons in French can take some getting used to, and aren’t always intuitive. Take a look on the web for some tutorials to help you master them. Spell and Sound is a great place to start. It contains recorded samples of native French speakers pronouncing liaisons.
Listen to the recordings and repeat after them. Have I mentioned yet how important it is to do these exercises out loud? You’ll never improve your speaking skills if you don’t speak.
After a few exercises, try to guess the pronunciation of each phrase before you listen. Always be aware of the need for a smooth transition between the words. Your spoken French will sound more natural and fluid as a result.
Step 9: Invest in a Talking French-English Dictionary
Unlike most Romance languages, French spelling is highly inconsistent. Silent letters abound; there are several different ways to spell a single French sound; certain words, such as événement, are “misspelled” for historical reasons, so now they don’t match up with their pronunciation. And don’t get me started on the word oeuf: the F is pronounced in the singular form, but add an S (oeufs), and neither the F nor the S are pronounced!
The list goes on. Written French just isn’t a reliable reference for French pronunciation.
If you want to improve your French speaking skills, trust your ears more than your eyes. A talking French-English dictionary will let you do just that.
Find a passage of written French that suits your reading level, and use your talking dictionary to help you with any words you have trouble with.
As you read, don’t forget to (altogether, now!) speak out loud.
Step 10: Speak English with a French Accent
Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it. This is another useful exercise for lower beginners who don’t know enough French to read an entire passage or say more than a few words in a row.
Think of something to say in English (talk to your dog, read your friends’ Facebook posts, or sing a show tune) but do it with as French an accent as you can muster. Don’t worry that you might sound offensive or stereotypical. Do it in the privacy of your home. The purpose is to help you get used to how French sounds in your mouth, on your tongue, and in your throat. It’ll prepare you for when you learn a bit more and can speak for a few minutes exclusively in French.
Bonus Step: Listen to Spoken French
Listen to some high-quality French audio to hear proper pronunciation of French words. Listening to newscasts is the best way, because news presenters generally speak in a clear, moderate-speed voice. Here are a few of my favourites:
- France 24: This first-rate news channel brings you world and local French news live from their website. Not only will you benefit greatly from hearing near-perfect pronunciation of most of the words you’re having trouble with, you’ll also be keeping up with current events.
- FranceTV: Get local news programmes from all around France no matter where you are.
- Radio France: A live French radio news stream available on the internet. This listening resource is a bit more advanced since it’s audio-only, but this is a good thing; if you can’t see the face of the news presenters, you’ll have to rely only on the sound of their voice to understand, and you’ll pick up on correct pronunciation that much faster.
French Pronunciation: From Bad to Good to Amazing
Follow the above tips, and you’ll greatly improve your French pronunciation.
And remember: It’s impossible to go from sounding “bad” to sounding “good” in French without first sounding bad.
This should be obvious. But too many French language learners feel uncomfortable at the idea of foreign-sounding words coming out of their mouth, so they cling to their native accent when speaking in French.
You need to get over this fear if you want to improve your spoken French. Start with the above exercises, and you’ll be able to observe actual improvement in your speaking skills today. This should give you the confidence and motivation that you need to keep improving, keep achieving little victories, until you’ve reached your goal.
What techniques have you used to improve your French pronunciation? Let me know in the comments.