Pronunciation is a crucial piece of how to learn French. Many English speakers find it the most frustrating part, even more than learning grammar fundamentals. That does not mean it is impossible, though. The sounds may be harder to make with your mouth, but the rules are much more consistent than those for English. So, once you get how each syllable sounds in French, instead of associating it with the English alphabet, the words are pretty much pronounced how they are spelled.
If you have read our French for travel article, you might recognize some of these tips. This guide will dive deeper. It will cover not only how to pronounce French letters and syllables that differ from English, but other French pronunciation rules like syllable stress, accent marks and le liason.
Of course, there is only so much you can learn about pronunciation through reading alone. The best things you can do to practice pronunciation are listening to native speakers and speaking out loud until you can emulate them. Some great ways to listen include news, podcasts, movies, and TV series. Getting a tutor or conversation partner is also a good idea.
How Do You Know Which Syllables to Stress?
Before getting into the weeds of phonetics, let’s start with something pretty easy: syllable stress. If you listen to a native French speaker, you will notice that they speak with a fairly even tone. But what you may not notice with an untrained ear is that they always put a slight emphasis on the last syllable.
Let’s look at some cognates as examples, since they take away all the other variables.
Word English Stress French Stress Revolution/Révolution rev-o-LU-tion rev-o-lu-TION Important im-POR-tant im-por-TANT Communication com-mun-i-CA-tion com-mun-i-ca-TION
French accent marks can easily trip up English speakers, as we are not accustomed to them. But they are not scary once you get used to them. Here are all of the accent marks, their French names, and explanations of what they do.
É – Accent aigu
The accent aigu only appears above the letter E. Pronounced like ay.
Examples of words that include it: desolé, médicin
È – Accent grave
The accent grave usually appears above the letter E, but can appear above any vowel. Pronounced like the E in the English word get.
Examples of words that include it: problème, deuxième
Ç – Accent cedille
The cedille appears under the letter C. Makes the sound soft, like an S as opposed to hard like a K.
Examples of words that include in: français, garçon
Ö – Accent trema
The trema can appear over any vowel. Makes the second vowel in a pair voiced. It is often used with names and places.
Examples of words that include it: coïncidence, Zoë
Ô – Circonflexe
The circonflexe can appear over any vowel. It does not significantly alter the pronunciation. There is a movement to remove it from the language, but it is still important to recognize it and know which words include it.
Examples of words that include it: être, hôtel
If you want to know how to type French accent marks with either the special characters feature or keyboard shortcuts, check out this guide.
Vowels and Semivowels
You probably know what a vowel is, but you might not know what a semi-vowel is. Semi-vowels are sliding sounds like “wah,” “wee,” and “way” that exist in the little space between consonants and vowels. This table will not only tell you how these letters are pronounced in French, but help you tell the difference between the same vowels with and without accent marks.
The table, and all others in the guide moving forward, will spell out pronunciations in both the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and English approximations. Getting familiar with the IPA is a good idea for any language learner, as English approximations are just that: approximations. Our pronunciation rules are inconsistent and some sounds from other languages do not exist in English.
Letter IPA symbol English Approx. Example words a a bra La (the) à ɑ bra (longer) Là (there) e (mid syllable) ɛ: fair Mer (sea) e (end of syllable) œ her Le (the) e (end of word) n/a silent Tasse (cup) é e may Passé (past) è ɛ: fair Mère (mother) y,i i feet Ski (ski) o ɔ off (British) Poste (post) oi w water Roi (king) ou u food Roue (wheel) ai,ei ɛ best Fait (made) au,eau o story Eau (water) eu,œu œ her Sœur (sister) ui, uy ɥ wee Huit (eight) ie, ye j yet Payer (to pay)
Most consonants are pronounced the same way in English and in French, so this table will focus on the ones that are not.
Letter IPA symbol English Approx. Example words c (after e or i), ç s center Ceci (this) c (anywhere else) k kiss Car (because) ch ʃ shoe Chère (expensive) g (before e or i), j ʒ measure Général (general) g (anywhere else) ɡ go Gare (train/bus station) qu,q k kiss Qui (who) r ʁ Guttural R Regarde (look) s (beginning of word) s sir Sans (without) s (middle of word) z rose Chose (thing) th t style Thé (tea)
A few notes about specific consonants
La cedille makes the rule of soft c’s apply to c’s that precede other letters.
To master the guttural R, pretend you are gargling water from the back of your throat.
The “th” sound English speakers know from words like “thick” does not exist in French.
Nasal sounds are a distinctive feature of French. The dialect spoken in Quebec is particularly nasal. English has nasal sounds, but they are all consonants: m, n, and ng. In French, the nasal sounds are vowel-consonant combinations.
When you say them, redirect air that would normally come out of your nose. To see what that feels like, say “sing”, “sang”, “song”, and “sung” out loud in English, and notice how your tongue presses against your soft palate.
Sound IPA symbol English Approx. Example words om, on ɔ̃m/ɔ̃n “on” in song Nom (name) um, un œ̃m/œ̃n “un” in sung Parfum (perfume) im, in, aim, ain, ein Ɛ̃m, Ɛ̃n “an” in sang Vin (wine) am, an, em, en ɑ̃m, ɑ̃n “ahn” Champ (field) ien jn “ee-an” Bien (well)
To understand the way they work, it is especially important to listen to native speakers and imitate them.
The evolution of the French language is a wild ride that a lot of consonant sounds did not make it to the end of. The details of it are kind of difficult to understand if you are not a linguistic historian. These include H at the beginning of words and D, G, M, N, P, S, X , and Z at the end of words. There are some exceptions for names and words that originated in other languages.
In certain cases, e’s in the middle of words are skipped over. This is called the e muet or an unvoiced e. It applies to words like acheter and appeler. It is also how all “-er” verbs conjugated in the futur simple are pronounced.
Notable French Syllables
These are some combinations of letters that are not intuitive to English speakers. Some of them are instances when a letter that is usually pronounced is silent. Others are diphthongs that are uncommon or non-existent in English. For the non-linguists, a diphthong is when two vowel sounds make up one syllable like the “ou” in loud.
Syllable IPA symbol English Approx. Example words er (end of 2+ syllable word) e may Parler (to speak) or the infinitive of any “-er” verb ez (end of word) e may Parlez or any other “-er” verb with the present tense “vous” ending ail (end of word) ɑi “ah-ee” Travail (work) eil, eille ɛi “ay-ee” Soleil (sun) ill ij “ee-y” Billet (ticket) gn ɲ canyon Gagner (to win)
What’s le liason?
No, not the dangerous kind! Le liason is when speakers pronounce a consonant that is usually silent because the following word starts with a vowel or silent h. When you say it, you slide the words together. In the IPA, this slide is expressed like this ‿.
Here are some examples:
Written IPA English Approx. Nous avons nuz‿ɑvɔn noo-zav-ON Vous allez vuz‿ɑle voo-za-LAY Petit enfant p’tİt‿ɑnfɑn p’tee-ton-FON Les hotels lez‿ɔtɛl lay-zoh-TEL
Becoming Fluent in French
There you have it: French pronunciation demystified. As you listen and practice, feel free to come back to this guide as often as you need to. Use it as a resource to learn the patterns and make sense of what you hear.
Couple your study of French pronunciation with learning the French past, present, and future tenses for extra practice. Don’t forget to book a session with a tutor or conversation partner and check out your local social meetup options.