French Pronunciation for Speakers of American English

This tutorial presents an overview of the rules of French pronunciation, focusing on the vowels, consonants, stress and intonation patterns that are different from American English. For more practice with comprehension and pronunciation, please check the listening and repetition exercises linked in the left sidebar.

This page uses standard IPA symbols to represent the sounds in French. If you are not familiar with the IPA, I have also tried to include words in Amerian English with similar vowel sounds, but please note that the vowels are not exactly the same in the two languages. Recordings were done by a native speaker of French from Haute-Savoie, France.


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Pure Vowels

Vowels in French are pure vowels, i.e. they are not diphthongs as in American English. Americans pronounce a and e with an extra yuh sound at the end, and o and u with an extra wuh sound at the end. You must not do this in French! The distinction between long and short vowels exists in French, but a few American short vowels do not exist ([ɪ] as in did and [ʊ] as in put) so make sure to never pronounce these vowels when speaking French. Also notice that the [æ] sound in cat does not exist in French either.

Vowels in Contrast

Long Vowels Short Vowels Similar English
[a] [ə] not - nut
[i] ---- sheep
[e] [ɛ] wait - wet
[o] [ɔ] coat - caught
[u] ---- moon


Words in Contrast

[a] - [ə] rapporter reporter
[e] - [ə] des mains demain
[e] - [ɛ] pré près
[o] - [ɔ] paume pomme

 

On the other hand, French has three front rounded vowels that do not exist in English, which may take a while to get used to since English only has back rounded vowels. However, they are the rounded counterpart of vowels that do exist in English, so you simply need to round your lips when pronouncing these vowels.

Vowels in Contrast

Unrounded Rounded
[i] [y]
[e] [ø]
[ɛ] [œ]

Many English speakers tend to say [u] instead of [y] and [ə] instead of [ø] or [œ]. Personally, I still find it very hard to hear the difference between [ø] and [œ] in fast speech, but I can distinguish them if they are isolated vowels.

Words in Contrast

[u] - [y] sous su
[ə] - [ø] ce ceux
[ø] - [œ] jeûne jeune

 

Here is a review of the vowels in French, with phonetic spellings for American English speakers (forget the diphthongs though!), sample words in French and the general spelling for these vowels in French orthography.

 

Pure Vowels

IPA Phonetic spelling Sample words General spellings
[i] ee vie, midi, lit, riz i, y
[y] ee rounded rue, jus, tissu, usine u
[e] ay blé, nez, cahier, pied é, et, final er and ez
[ø] ay rounded jeu, yeux, queue, bleu eu
[ɛ] eh lait, aile, balai, reine e, è, ê, ai, ei, ais
[œ] eh rounded sœur, œuf, fleur, beurre œu, eu
[a] ah chat, ami, papa, salade a, à, â
[ɑ] ah longer bas, âne, grâce, château a, â
[u] oo loup, cou, caillou, outil ou
[o] oh eau, dos, escargot, hôtel o, ô
[ɔ] aw sol, pomme, cloche, horloge o
[ə] uh fenêtre, genou, cheval, cerise e

[ɑ] is disappearing in modern French, being replaced by [a]. Vowels that do not exist in English are marked in blue.


Other rules to remember about pure vowels in French:


Semi-Vowels

Semi-vowels can also be called glides or approximants.

Semi-Vowels

IPA Phonetic spelling Sample words General spelling
[w] w fois, oui, Louis oi, ou
[ɥ] ew-ee lui, suisse ui
[j] yuh oreille, Mireille ill, y

Some words ending in -ille(r) pronounce the l, however: ville, mille, tranquille, distiller, osciller, etc.

 

Words in Contrast

[wa] - [a] loi la
[ɥ] - [y] lui Lu
[ej] - [e] pareil paré
[aj] - [a] bail bas

Notice that words ending in -eil or -eille are pronounced [ej], while words ending in -ail or -aille are pronounced [aj].


Nasal Vowels

Nasal vowels can be a bit tricky to understand in everyday speech, but learning how to pronounce them correctly isn't too difficult.

Nasal Vowels

IPA Phonetic spelling Sample words General spelling
[ã] awn gant, banc, dent en, em, an, am, aon, aen
[ɛ̃] ahn pain, vin, linge in, im, yn, ym, ain, aim, ein, eim, un, um,
en, eng, oin, oing, oint, ien, yen, éen
[œ̃] uhn brun, lundi, parfum un
[õ] ohn rond, ongle, front on, om

[œ̃] is being replaced with [ɛ̃] in European French; though this distinction is kept in Belgian and Quebecois French

Words in Contrast

Nasal Vowel Nasal Consonant
franc franche
brun brune
indien indienne
bon bonne


A phrase with all nasal vowels is: un bon vin blanc


Consonants

Many of the consonants in French are very similar to the consonants in English. A few differences include:

  1. [p], [t] and [k] are NOT aspirated in French so try not to let that extra puff of air escape from your lips.

  2. Consonants that are alveolar in English are generally dental in French. Try to rest your tongue just behind your teeth instead of on the alveolar ridge for [t], [d], [s], [z], [l] and [n].

  3. The letter h is never pronounced, but you need to remember to distinguish the h non-aspiré from the h aspiré. Most words belong to the first group, but for the words that have an h aspiré, there are two characteristics that make them different: the definite article does not reduce to l' (called elision) but remains le or la and word boundaries are maintained so that sounds do not link (absence of liaison - see below). Most words with an h aspiré are of Germanic origin.


    h non-aspiré
    h aspiré
    l'habitude la hache
    l'herbe le hall
    l'heure le haricot
    l'histoire le hasard
    l'homme le hibou
    l'honneur le homard
    l'huile le hockey

  4. [R] is articulated further back in the throat (with the back of the tongue) and is usually the hardest French consonant for English speakers to pronounce correctly. It is a voiced uvular fricative sound and does not have an effect on preceding vowels the way that American English r does. It must remain consistent in all positions, regardless of the other vowels and consonants that may be adjacent to it.


    Initial
    After consonant
    Intervocalic
    Before consonant
    Final
    rusé droit arrêt partout mer
    rang gris courir merle pire
    rose trou pleurer corde sourd

  5. In the majority of words with the grapheme ch, the pronunciation is [ʃ], but it is also pronounced [k] in words of Greek origin. It is silent, however, in the word almanach.


    ch = [ʃ]
    ch = [k]
    chercher archéologie
    réchauffer chaos
    chérubin chrétien
    architecte écho
    catéchisme orchestre
    Achille chœur

  6. The graphemes gu and qu can be pronounced three different ways: [g], [gw], [gɥ] and [k], [kw], [kɥ], respectively. The majority of words are pronounced with simply [g] and [k], but the spelling will not tell you which sound to pronounce, so you'll just have to learn them individually.


    [g]
    [gw]
    [gɥ]
    [k]
    [kw]
    [kɥ]
    anguille jaguar aiguille question adéquat quiescent
    fatigue iguane ambiguïté qualité aquarium équilatéral
    guérilla lingual linguiste équivalent square ubiquité
    distinguer Guadeloupe   quartier équateur équidistant


  7. Even though most final consonants are not pronounced in French (see below), there are a few exceptions, especially with words ending in -s. In words ending in a consonant + s or -es, the s is silent. However, if a word ends in -as, -ès, -is, -os, or -us, then the s is sometimes pronounced.


    s = silent
    s = pronounced
    cadenas atlas
    débarras pancréas
    accès aloès
    exprès palmarès
    logis oasis
    clos vis
    dessous albatros
    confus sinus
    dehors ours

Silent Letters

French, like English, is not written phonetically. Vowels can be represented by several different letter combinations and many letters are actually not pronounced. (You can thank early "linguists" who changed the spelling of many French words, with complete disregard to pronunciation, so that it was closer to Latin orthography.)


sept rang fils trop
rompt sang pouls camp
aspect œil saoul chocolat
instinct fauteuil cul crédit
pied ail Renault riz
nid drap sirop nez

 


un œuf des œufs
un bœuf des bœufs
un os des os

e caduc

La loi des trois consonnes states that [ə] may be omitted in pronunciation as long as it would not cause three consonants to be together. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, and some dialects of French do not delete it anyway (such as in the south of France.) However, this is extremely common in everyday French and English speakers need to be able to comprehend words with dropped syllables.

Phrase-final e is always dropped, except in -le in the imperative. It is also dropped at the end of nouns, articles and verbs. One exception to the three consonant rule is in the case of consonant clusters, such as br, fr, gr, pr, tr, etc. If the e precedes these clusters, and the e itself is preceded by a consonant, then it can be dropped: un refrain = un r'frain


Disappearing e

Careful Speech
Normal Speech
samedi / lentement / sauvetage sam'di / lent'ment / sauv'tage
sous le bureau / chez le docteur sous l'bureau / chez l'docteur
il y a de / pas de / plus de il y a d' / pas d' / plus d'
je ne / de ne / tu ne je n' / de n' / tu n'
je te / ce que / ce qui j'te / c'que / c'qui

 

Notice that dropping e in je also results in [ʒ] to become [ʃ] whenever it is found before voiceless consonants, such as [p], [t], [k], etc.


Liaison

A loss of word boundaries in French makes it difficult to comprehend the spoken language for beginning learners. All of the words seem to be linked together without any clear divisions because the syllable boundaries do not correspond to the word boundaries. In many cases, the last consonant from one syllable (which is usually silent) will become the first consonant of the next syllable (therefore, it is no longer silent). This linking between syllables is called liaison, and it may or may not be required and the pronunciation of the consonant may or may not change. Liaison leads to many homonymous phrases, which can hinder comprehension. You must pay attention to the liaisons in verb conjugations as well or you may mistake one verb for another.

The consonants involved in liaison generally include d, s, and x. However, their pronunciation is changed so that they become [t], [z] and [z], respectively. The letter n that is written after nasal vowels becomes the nasal consonant [n]. Peculiarly, the f of neuf is pronounced [v] only before ans and heures and in all other cases, it remains [f]. And remember that h aspiré prevents liaison from happening, i.e. there is no [z] sound between des and haricots.


Examples of Liaison

elles arrivent mon amour
ils ont les ours
vieux arbres dans un sac
dix heures très aimable
attend-il ? plus ouvert
grand ami il est allé

There are a few instances when you should always use liaison (liaison obligatoire):

  1. after determiners: un, les, des, ces, mon, ton, quels, etc.
  2. before or after pronouns: nous, vous, ils, elles, les, etc.
  3. after preceding adjectives: bon, mauvais, petit, grand, gros, etc.
  4. after monosyllabic prepositions: chez, dans, sous, en, etc.
  5. after some monosyllabic adverbs: très, plus, bien, etc. (optional after pas, trop, fort)
  6. after est (optional after all other forms of être)

Stress

French is a syllable-timed language, so equal emphasis is given to each syllable. This is quite unlike English, which is a stress-timed language, and which gives emphasis to one syllable in each word - the stressed syllable - and reduces the vowels in the rest of the syllables (usually to [ə] or [ɪ].) All vowels in French must be pronounced fully, and each syllable must be pronounced with equal stress, though the final syllable of each word is generally considered the "stressed syllable."

Listen to these words in English and French and see if you can hear the difference in stress. Stressed syllables in English are marked in bold.


Intonation

Intonation in French is slightly different from English. In general, the intonation rises only for a yes/no question, and the rest of the time, the intonation falls. French intonation starts at a higher pitch and falls continuously throughout the sentence, whereas in English, the stressed syllable has a higher pitch that what precedes and follows it.

Listen to these sentences in English and French and see if you can hear the difference in intonation. Bold marks the higher pitch. Notice that even if the intonation pattern seems similar, the syllables with higher pitches are often in different locations. The numbers below refer to the pitch: 1) low, 2) medium, 3) high, 4) extra high.


English Intonation vs. French Intonation

Sentence Type English Intonation French Intonation
Yes/No Question Are you leaving? 2 - 3 Est-ce que vous partez ? 2 - 3
Information Question Where are you going? 2 - 3 - 1 est-ce que vous allez ? 4 - 2 - 1
Imperative Do it. / Don't do it. (2) - 3 - 1 Fais-le. / Ne le fais pas. 4 - 2 - 1
Exclamation What a surprise! 2 - 3 - 1 Quelle surprise ! 4 - 2 - 1
Declarative I bought a dress. 2 - 3 - 1 J'ai acheté une robe. 3 - 2 - 1

 


Informal Reductions

In everyday speech, there are other reductions in addition to e caduc. Many of these reductions are made for ease of pronunciation and are considered informal. The most common ones are reducing tu to t' before a vowel and omitting the final syllable of words ending in -re. Listen to these reductions in careful speech and everyday speech:


Informal Reductions in Spoken French

Careful Speech Everyday Speech
tu es t'es
tu as t'as
tu étais t'étais
tu avais t'avais
mettre mett'
notre not'
autre aut'
il y
il y a y a
ils + vowel y'z
elle è
elles + vowel è'z
parce que pasq'
quelque quèq'
puis pis

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