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Your Ultimate French Pronunciation Guide

Have you ever left a French shop with maquereaux (”mackerels”) when you asked for macarons (lovely meringue-based cookies)? Or maybe you’ve made girls blush after accidentally saying Merci beau cul (”Thank you, nice ass”) when you meant Merci beaucoup (”Thank you very much”)? Are you wondering how to learn French pronunciation once and for all and finally pronounce French words correctly?

Pronunciation is a vital aspect of learning any language, but this is especially true for French pronunciation as it can be really unforgiving on this front. Why is that? Are the French overly particular about pronunciation and too narrow-minded to get your meaning from the context? Well, it’s actually more complicated than that.

Sure, if you mispronounce your order of poisson (”Fish”) in the restaurant, they won’t bring you poison (”Poison”), but it can be really difficult for locals to understand beginner speakers if they didn’t tackle the pronunciation part early on. This is because there are several similar words that can create a lot of confusion.

In this French pronunciation’s best guide, we’ll learn about the most common mistakes you can make with French pronunciation and how to improve. I’ll cover a lot of features of the language, as well as a whole list of the thirty-six French sounds and how to produce them all. Even though this is already quite dense for beginners, there’s a lot more to cover on such a vast topic. But this will work as a first overview and will provide you with a solid foundation!

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1. Introduction to French Pronunciation

So, you may be wondering, “Why is French pronunciation so different?” or “Is French pronunciation hard?” I’ll try to answer your questions.

The French writing system uses the 26-letter Latin alphabet, just like the English language. From these twenty-six letters, thirty-six different sounds are created (which is slightly fewer than the forty-four sounds in English).

Out of these twenty-six letters, three are mostly used for loanwords. These are words imported from other languages and incorporated without translation. These letters are K, W, and, to a lesser extent, Y.

The French language has fourteen vowel sounds, and six of these can’t be found in English. It also has twenty-two consonant sounds, four of which aren’t found in English.

We’ll see that, and additional French pronunciation rules, in more detail soon!

If you want to learn even more about the French alphabet, FrenchPod101 has a Complete Guide for you!

2. Top Five Mistakes to Avoid

Before we get more specific, let’s address the elephant in the room and talk about some of the toughest aspects of French pronunciation and the most common French pronunciation mistakes.

You’ll see that although these features of French can be challenging at first, they’re important to know about from the start so you can pick up the right habits early on.

And if you keep them in mind while learning French, there’s nothing you can’t overcome with regular practice!

1- The French “R”

Our first suspect is the Guttural “R” that has been bullying generations of beginner learners. You might find it easy to pull off, depending on your native language, but it’s usually considered challenging.

Examples of words with the French “R” sound:

  • La rue (”The street”)
  • Regarder (”To look”)
  • Partir (”To leave”)
  • Respirer (”To breathe”)

The guttural “R” sounds are unique and don’t exist in English, where the letter “R” is used for a completely different sound. It has several variations, from a harsh sound from the back of the throat to a softer vibration, and even varies depending on the region in France where it’s spoken.

Finding the right balance between “too harsh” and “too soft” for each word is the tricky part, and is often what differentiates fluent foreign speakers from natives. Now, considering that it’s a very prominent sound in the language, you can understand why it makes the top of this list. Listen to how it should sound, record yourself to monitor your progress, and practice to make it perfect!

2- Nasal Academy

Next on the list are the infamous nasal sounds. Indeed, out of the six French vowel sounds that can’t be found in English, three are nasal sounds. For beginner learners, they can be really difficult to produce, and especially to differentiate.

Example of words with nasal vowel sounds:

  • Un pin (”A pine”)
  • Un pan (”A panel”)
  • Un pont (”A bridge”)

Nasal sounds are produced by blocking the air from leaving your mouth and releasing it from your nose, which is also what you’re doing when you pronounce the N, M or “ng” sounds, such as in “song.”

Listen to the different nasal sounds and learn how to distinguish them. You may think at first that there’s little to no difference, but native speakers will hear it very well and confusing these nasal sounds can often change the meaning of the sentence.

3- Fifty Shades of “ay”

The letter “é” is somewhat similar to the vowel sound in “day” or “hay.”

Sounds easy, right? But look at the unbelievable number of different ways to write it, shown in the table below:

Writing

Where you can find it

Example

é

nouns, adjectives, etc.

école

er

end of an infinitive verb

chanter

ez

second person plural verb ending

Vous chantez

ez

end of a word

nez

e (ss)

start of a word

essence

ed

end of a word

pied

e (ff)

start of a word

effort

Not impressed yet? Let’s move on to the letters “è” and “ê,” as in the vowel sound of the English word “pet”: 

Writing

Where you can find it

Example

è

nouns, adjectives, etc.

mère

e

before a consonant

mer, elle, avec

ê

nouns, adjectives, etc.

pêche

ei

nouns, adjectives, etc.

reine

et

end of a word

carnet

ai

nouns, adjectives, etc.

raisin

nouns, adjectives, etc.

maître

4- Silent Letters

French words end with all kinds of letters that are randomly pronounced or ignored, depending on our mood or the direction of the wind. But wait. Is that really so random?

Have you heard of the CaReFuL letters? If a French word ends with C, R, F, or L (consonants from the word CaReFuL), the final letter is usually pronounced. Otherwise, the final letter is silent. 

Of course, like with most grammatical rules, it comes with its fair share of exceptions. However, the CaReFuL rule will help you figure out most of the words you bump into!

Here are some examples of words where the final letter is pronounced:

  • Un truc(”A thing”)
  • Un dortoir (”A dormitory”)
  • Le chef (”The boss”)
  • Avril (”April”)

There’s one big exception to the CaReFuL rule: Verbs ending with the letters “ER” have a silent R.

  • Aimer (”To love”)
  • Manger (”To eat”)
  • Tuer (”To kill”)

On top of the CaReFuL letters, words ending with B, K, and Q also have their final letter pronounced, but they’re not numerous. For the lack of a better name, I’ll call them the Burger King & Queen letters (not sure I’ll copyright that one…)

  • Le club (”The club”)
  • Un steak (”A steak”)
  • Cinq (”Five”)

All other consonant letters are usually NOT pronounced:

  • Froid (”Cold”)
  • Le poing(”The fist”)
  • Un dragon(”A dragon”)
    (In this case, the letter “N” combines with “O” and creates a nasal sound.)
  • Le parfum(”The perfume”)

(With the exception of all Latin words where the “M” is pronounced, such as Aquariumor Forum.)

  • Un coup(”A hit”)
  • Le marais (”The swamp”)
  • Elle mangeait(”She was eating”)
  • Deux (”Two”)
  • Le riz (”The rice”)

5- Dangerous Liaisons

When you listen to someone speak French while you read along, you’ll notice that French pronunciation doesn’t match what you read. One reason for this is the way words are linked together one after the other with la liaison (”linking sounds”).

Another reason is that in spoken French, we pronounce words in phrases without any pauses; rather, we link them together. This process is called l’enchaînement (”word linking”). We make some links between two vowel sounds, or between a consonant and a vowel. Some links are mandatory while others are forbidden.

Keep an open mind about this linking process. It’s not arbitrary or random, and the liaisons appeared as the language was evolving to make the sentences sound better, smoother, and more natural. Most of the mandatory liaisons make the language more fluid, while the forbidden liaisons often prevent confusion between different meanings.

1. How to do it?

When pronouncing a linking sound, blend the last letter of a word with the first letter of the following word, as in vous vous appelez(”you are” + name), pronounced [vuvuzapeley]. Here, we link the last letter -S to the second vousand the first letter of the verb form appelezwith a Z sound.

With this example, notice that the last letter of the word vous(”you”) is pronounced as a -Z when followed by a word starting with a vowel. This is true, even though the letter -S in vousisn’t pronounced when the pronoun vous(”you”) stands alone or is followed by a word starting with a consonant.

2. Word Linking Between Vowel Sounds

When a word ends with a vowel and the following word also starts with a vowel, both vowels form two syllables, and we don’t add a pause.

For example, with the phrase Tu as un vélo(”You have a bike”), you’d say the entire phrase as if it were one word without any pauses, and the sounds of Tu as seem to merge.

More examples:

French

Pronunciation

English

Ça y est !

[sahihey]

“That’s it!”

J’ai une amie anglaise.

[jhayhunamihoengles]

“I have an English friend.”

Il a écrit un récit étrange.

[ilaheykrihuhreysiheytroenj]

“He wrote a strange story.”

3. Word Linking Between a Consonant and a Vowel Sound

In spoken French, we pronounce the last consonant of a word with the initial vowel of the following word. The last consonant of the first word becomes the first letter of the second word, as in Il arrive (”he arrives”), pronounced [ilhariv]. We link the consonant to the vowel to form a syllable.

More examples:

French

Pronunciation

English

Il habite à Paris.

[ilhabitapari]

“He lives in Paris.”

Cette île est petite.

[setilheypoetit]

“It is a small island.”

Quel âge as-tu ?

[kelajatu]

“How old are you?”

Un enfant

[unenfen]

“A kid”

Mon ancien ami

[unansihuh nami]

“My former friend”

Trop occcupé ?

[tropokupey]

“Too busy?”

Some notable exceptions are:

  • Linking sound of the final letters -S, -X, and -Z:
    We pronounce these letters as a -Z when blending two words together.
    Examples: deux amis (”two friends”); les enfants (”the children”); vous avez (“you have”)
  • Linking sound of final letter -D:
    When we pronounce these letters in conjunction with a word starting with a vowel or a silent -H, they are pronounced as a -T sound.
    Example:Un grand homme (”A great man”)

4. Forbidden Linking Sounds

While some linking sounds are mandatory, some are forbidden (beware of exceptions!)

  • Words following et (”and”).

Examples:et eux (”and them”); et une maison (”and a house”)

  • Words following a singular noun.

Examples: Un soldat anglais(”A British soldier”); Un enfant intelligent (”An intelligent child”)

  • Words after a proper noun.

Examples:Jean a dit (”Jean said”); Roger est parti (”Roger is gone”)

And make sure to stop by our video about the top five mistakes to avoid. The list is slightly different and you’ll get the audio to help you catch the right pronunciation!

3. French Vowel Sounds

There are fourteen vowel sounds in French, and six of these can’t be found in English, including the three nasal sounds. 

I’m not a big fan of English equivalents as they can easily lead to mispronunciations. For example, I mentioned earlier that the French é  is somewhat similar to the vowel sound in “day” or “hay.” These sounds are different enough that if you reproduce the English sound exactly, you would be understandable, but it would make you speak with a heavy foreign accent.

However, I’ll use some French pronunciation to English word equivalents when there is one, to give you a rough idea of how it should sound. Just take it with a grain of salt and keep in mind that listening to French speakers and practicing your pronunciation is how you’ll make it perfect.

Here’s the list of “familiar” sounds with their English equivalent:

English Phoneme

Equivalent

French Phoneme

French Words

[eɪ]

hey; way; say

[e]

manger; blé; été

[ɛ]

let; wet; yeah

[ɛ]

poulet; merci; tête

[i]

see; she; me

[i]

il; ami; merci

[aɪ]

eye; lie; why

[a]

amour; papa; Paris

[ɑ]

not; on; dog

[ɑ]

trois; âne; gars 

[ɔ]

door; long; for

[ɔ]

porte; clope; mort

[oʊ]

go; slow; those

[o]

métro; boulot; dodo

[u:]

who; too; blue

[u]

hibou; choux; coucou

And here’s the list of “new” sounds that exist in French but not in English:

How to Pronounce

French Phoneme

French Words

Make a circle with your lips and try to say “eee” (the [i] sound from “see,” “me,” and “she”).

Focus on the resulting sound and practice until you can produce it naturally.

[y]

lune; perdu; futur

Make a circle with your lips and try to pronounce the syllable sound from the middle of words like “day” and “hey” (similar to the French [e]).

[ø]

deux; feu; heureux 

Make a circle with your lips and try to say “eah” (the syllable sound of the word “yeah”).

[œ]

soeur; frayeur; neuf

The three nasal sounds [ɛ̃], [õ], and [ɑ̃] are made by expelling air through the mouth and nose, ensuring that there’s no obstruction of the lips, tongue, or throat.

If you make it correctly, you should feel the vibration when you touch your nose while producing these sounds.

[ɛ̃]

pin; faim; train

[õ]

oncle; saison; blond

[ɑ̃]

temps; dent; avant 

4. French Consonant Sounds

Correct Pronunciation

There are twenty-two consonant sounds, four of which don’t have direct English equivalents.

Here’s the list of “familiar” consonant sounds with their English equivalents:

 

 

 

English Phoneme

Equivalent

French Phoneme

French Words

[b]

Bob; burger

[b]

bonjour; bras

[d]

dare; devil

[d] (blade)

dent; aide

[f]

fire; fly

[f]

feu; offre

[g]

gossip; girl

[g]

gare; gorille

[k]

king; queen

[k]

quoi; lac

[l]

love; life

[l]

lit; geler

[m]

mad; men

[m]

moi; amour

[n]

new; normal

[n] (blade)

non; donner

[ɲ]

onion

[ɲ]

oignon; châtaigne

[p]

park; pet

[p]

parc; apte

[s]

Spin; city

[s] (blade)

silence; force

[ʃ]

Sherlock; shield

[ʃ]

chien; arche

[ʒ]

usual; pleasure

[ʒ]

journal; marge

[t]

time; travel

[t] (blade)

temps; teinte

[v]

vampire; viking

[v]

vin; arriver

[w]

west; wing

[w]

oui; loin

[j]

you; yeah

[j]

yeux; faille

[z]

zero; zone

[z] (blade)

zéro; zone

And here’s the list of “new” sounds that exist in French but not in English:

How to Pronounce

French Phoneme

French Words

Listen and practice until you find the right mouth position and pitch variation. You can use this video for reference.

[ɥ]

Lui; huit

To pull this one off, you’ll need to vibrate your throat as if gargling. Sometimes, the sound you produce will be too harsh or too soft, and it’s only a matter of listening and repeating.

How you position your mouth and place the sound is similar to the English -K sound, but with your throat closed.

[ʁ]

rue; rire

[ʁ*]

partie; porter

[χ]

truc; être

5. Challenge Your Pronunciation

Introduction

Now that you’ve had a good overview of French pronunciation, it’s time to put your skills to the test! How better to learn French pronunciation than with a few toughies? These ten words are nothing difficult for native speakers and won’t twist any local tongue, but they usually make foreign learners struggle:

  • Voyage (”Travel”)
    Nothing fancy here, just a tough combination of consonants.

  • Ecureuil (”Squirrel”)
    Put the French “U,” the guttural “R,” and the [œ] vowel in the same word, and good luck pronouncing it!
  • Accueillir (”To welcome”)
    Once your eyes stop bleeding over that insane spelling, you can try to say it.

  • Fourrure (”Fur”)

A lot of “R” sounds and the juxtaposition of “U” and “OU” make this one challenging.

  • Important (”Important”)
    This fun word has two different nasal sounds that are easy to get mixed up and one more “R.”

  • Intéressant (”Intéressant”)
    Same as above: More practice with nasals and the “R” sound will help you pronounce this word.
  • Porte-à-porte (”Door-to-door”)
    Besides the harsh “R” sounds, it’s interesting to note how the words are linked. It sounds somewhat like porta porte.
  • Serrurerie (”Locksmith”)
    Way too many “R” sounds in one word! This one is actually tricky even for locals.
  • Ennuyeux (”Boring”)
    A mix-bag of intertwined consonants and difficult vowel sounds.

  • Mercredi (”Wednesday”)
    Would you like a bit more “R” for the road?

Do you need more of a challenge? Check out our free vocabulary list about The Hardest French Words.

6. Why is Correct Pronunciation in French Important?

Secrets to Learning

Proper pronunciation is important, very important. Some say it’s even more important than getting the grammar perfectly correct! Why would this be?

1) Good Understanding 

If communicating with native speakers matters to you when learning French, you need to be understood when you talk, and you need to be able to understand the native speakers. After all, without understanding, the purpose of language is null and void! In order to be understood, you need to be able to speak the language in a way that is familiar to native speakers, or at least recognizable by them. 

When learning to speak a new language, you will learn that the more you progress the more intricate it becomes! For instance, almost every language has vocabulary that may look the same in writing, but because the words are pronounced differently, they have very different meanings. This means that you may say a word in French, and because of a slight change in pronunciation, the meaning of the word changes completely. Understandably, this can make for pretty embarrassing situations! At worst, your mispronounced French will sound garbled to a native speaker. 

Knowing the nuances of how a word or letter is pronounced will also help you to understand spoken French better.

No worries if this feels hard; you’re learning, and with our help at FrenchPod101, you will not have a problem with mispronunciation if you follow our advice and examples carefully.

2) Good Communication 

Not pronouncing French or any other language correctly can lead to a lot of frustration because you’re unable to express what you mean, and you will not be understood correctly. Even if you have total knowledge of French grammar, and can write it like a native, not knowing how to speak it properly will only make for very frustrating communication all around.

3) A Good Impression 

Even if you’re only a beginner, it is possible to speak any language correctly. This way, you are bound to make a good impression on native speakers, and when you’re more fluent, you will be likely to garner a lot more respect than a fumbling newbie speaker who doesn’t care much for correct pronunciation. 

People often have a lot of patience for someone who is learning to speak a new language, but native speakers are more likely to address you and engage with you in conversation if you work hard on your accent. This is simply because you’ll be able to understand one another! So, proficiency in pronunciation can mean the difference between having none or plenty of French speaking friends. It will also serve you well in the workplace, and make you popular with your French speaking managers and employers or employees.

Learning to speak French properly is also a sign of respect for not only the language, but also the native speakers and their customs. 

7. Secrets to Learning the Correct French Pronunciation

Mistakes

1) Use voice recording tools to perfect your pronunciation

FrenchPod101 has plenty of resources to help you with your French pronunciation, so be sure to make thorough use of our recordings with native French speakers. These are available not only to demonstrate to you how you should pronounce French vocabulary, but also sentences and dialogues. Watch and listen to these over and over again to train your ear, and watch the teacher’s mouth as she speaks in the video lessons. Then, copy the speech as best you can. Later, you can record yourself to hear if you sound like a native speaker and compare yourself with native speakers. Great for self-motivation.

2) Practice in front of the mirror.

And see that you’re copying the correct lip and mouth movements.

3) Use our FrenchPod101 dictionary!

Use the French dictionary provided by FrenchPod101 to look up words and listen to the audio pronunciation. This will go a long way towards giving you an idea of how to pronounce a word or letter correctly.

4) Train your ear to the language!

Make an effort to listen often to French music and recorded books, and watch plenty of French movies and/or TV shows in French. This will train your ear to the language, and you’ll be surprised how quickly you pick up the accent. Remember, this is the way we learned to speak when we were young - mostly by listening to the adults talking, and repeating what they say!

5) Practice, practice, practice… 

Repetition of the same thing may be boring, but in learning a new language, you’re creating new pathways in your brain. For these to remain and become habitual, you will need to repeat the correct pronunciation often.

6) Make friends with a native French speaker.

Don’t be shy to address them in French! Ask them to correct you when you make a pronunciation mistake - this is a wonderful way to practice and learn the language first-hand, and also to make new friends.

7) Practice your pronunciation with your French teacher!

If you’re a serious student and don’t know where to meet native French speakers, consider investing in FrenchPod101’s Premium PLUS plan. This means you will have your own native French teacher available to practice your pronunciation with, and much more! Sen

8. How FrenchPod101 Can Help You Improve Your Pronunciation

Improve your pronunciation!

In this guide, you’ve learned a lot about French pronunciation and how to deal with the various specific sounds of the language, including some sounds that may seem alien to English speakers. Do you feel ready to start practicing and learning how to blend in with a flawless accent? 

A good exercise for improving pronunciation is to listen to audio or video material of any kind (YouTube or its French counterpart Dailymotion have enough to keep you going for the next couple of centuries), and try to mimic the sounds from native speakers.

Recording yourself will allow you to isolate the difficult sounds that you need to improve on and to monitor your progress until you’re satisfied with your pronunciation.

FrenchPod101 also has tons of free vocabulary lists with audio recordings that can help you practice a wide variety of words if you really want to learn to speak French like a native. We also have a video series dedicated to French pronunciation so that you can learn to pronounce French words correctly.

Remember that you can also use our premium service, MyTeacher, to get personal one-on-one coaching and have your private teacher record audio material especially for you. This is one of the best ways to learn French pronunciation from a native speaker. If you’re having trouble with specific sounds, your teacher can send you some samples and also listen to your own recordings, to help you make your pronunciation sound perfect.

9. How to Download Your Free Guide to Beginner French

Download Your FREE Guide to Beginner French!

If you want to master the French language and become fluent, get this French eBook!
You need physical worksheets to practice on.

This eBook is a MUST-HAVE for all French learning beginners!

FREE French eBook

Download your FREE French practice sheets PDF today and learn the French language in no time!
This is a must-have guide for absolute beginners

Log in with Your Free Lifetime Account and we’ll give you a bundle of PDF cheat sheet including Survival Phrases, Romantic Lines, Learning Tips… — absolutely FREE!

3 Reasons to Learn French Through PDF Lessons

Let’s now take a closer look at how studying French lessons in PDF format can help you reach your dream in up to half the time of normal video or audio lessons!

① Saves Minutes on Your Data Plan

Learning French through PDF lessons can dramatically reduce your data use. Once a lesson or tool is downloaded, you can then access it offline via your computer or smartphone any time or place regardless of Internet access. And once you’ve downloaded the French lessons in PDF format, you can actually access them faster than logging in and trying to do so via a live site. So not only will learning French using PDF lessons save minutes on your data plan—it will save you some significant time as well as the lessons add up!

② Print and Take All French Lessons and PDF Tools With You Anywhere

Sometimes, a tiny smartphone screen just isn’t adequate, especially when you are trying to learn something new. The great thing about PDF lessons, tools or files is that they can be quickly printed and taken anywhere after you download them. In fact, printing out French lessons in PDF format can actually save you time when compared to going through the material on a smartphone with a small screen—even with the extra printing time!

③ Great Study Tool to Boost Retention and Mastery

Studying video or audio lessons online is a great way to learn a language because students can play and rewind sections as many times as needed until the lesson is mastered. But when you review the same French lessons again in PDF format, an incredible thing happens: your retention dramatically improves! Thanks to Time Spaced Repetition, seeing the information again in written format helps reinforce the information in your mind and improves both retention and recall. The benefits of learning French using PDF lessons quickly add up to significant time savings for you, your data plan, and your dream of learning a new language!

Why are we giving it away?

Learning to read and write is a must for all beginners. Although you get video lessons on how to write in French at FrenchPod101, you’ll still need physical worksheets to practice on. That’s why you’re getting this printable tutorial PDFs as a gift.

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How to Introduce Yourself in French
Can you introduce yourself in French? Don’t worry! Check out the 10 French Lines You Need To Introduce Yourself with this free Review Sheet. From “My name is…“ and “I live in…” down to “My hobbies are…” Just review the 10 lines. It will only take you 2 minutes. Then, introduce yourself in the comment section below!
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Has anyone thanked you today? We will. Thank you for reading this article and learning with us! In fact, today, you’ll learn the many different ways to say “Thank You” in French. It’s one of the most important French phrases. Check it out and watch the video too to practice your pronunciation.

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