Pronunciation is an important but often overlooked aspect of language learning. Speaking French with a native accent will help you understand French speakers, as well as make it easier for them to understand you.
Accent and pronunciation are two of the biggest reasons foreign languages seem foreign. If you're able to get them right you'll be well on your way to fluency.
In this post we break down the French sounds system vowel by vowel and consonant by consonant. Our goal is to provide you with a the ultimate resource for French pronunciation!
What's in an accent?
Many people assume that you have to be born with an accent. Either you have the genetics or you don't. French people are born with French accents, and English speakers with English ones.
In reality though, there's no physical difference between the mouth of the average Frenchman and your average native English speaker. An accent is made up of individual sounds (vowels and consonants), which are made by moving your tongue and or lips in specific positions.
If you can physically move your tongue and lips in the right position,then you can speak French in a native accent. It's as simple as that.
Notice I said simple and not easy.
For your entire life your tongue and lips have been accustomed to one set of positions (or more if you have more than one native language). Introducing them to completely new positions will be awkward and uncomfortable for awhile before your mouth adapts. But if you start slowly and focus on mastering a few sounds at a time, you will able be to speak in French with corrent accent.
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)
When discussing accents we don't want to waste time worrying about a myriad of French spelling rules. So to avoid them we'll refer to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The IPA is basically an alphabet that represents verbal sounds. This alphabet is the same across all languages.
It allows us to easily compare sounds from French and English without getting hung up on how each language is written. That's why we'll be using the IPA in this post. Any IPA letters will be denoted with [brackets].
A more in depth look at what the IPA is and how it came to be
Intro to the French sound system
In this post we've sorted French sounds by their similarity to English pronunciation. We start with French consonants and verbs that have the same pronunciation as English ones. Then we cover French sounds which are similar to English sounds, but with a slight differentiation. Finally we look at French sounds that have no similar equivalent in the English sound system.
We've included audio, as well as diagrams to help you understand how French pronunciation works.
French sounds that are the same as English ones
Consonants that are the same as in English
grève (a strike -as in from work-)
*This sound typically only appears in French words which are borrowed from English.
Vowels that are the same as in English
idiot (idiot female)
French sounds similar to English ones
Consonents that are similar to English
Similar to [ɫ] sound in feel*
*The English [ɫ] brings the front and back of your tongue toward the roof of your mouth. The French [l] only brings the front of the tongue toward the top of the mouth (see diagram below).
Vowels that are similar to English
chatte (cat female)
Similar to shot or thought*
*The french [a] is slightly more forward in the mouth than the American [ɔ] in shot or thought, only with the French [a] the tongue is slightly more forward (somewhere in between the English shat and shot). See diagram below.
Half way between [i] in free and [ɛ] in bed*
The English [i] is high up in your mouth, while the English [ɛ] is more in the middle. The French [e] is halfway between those two English vowels. See diagram below.
Similar to [o] in so*
*The o sound in the English word so is actually two vowel sounds combined: [o] and [ʊ] (in IPA this kind of double vowel sound is known as a diphthong). These two vowel sounds together in the English word so kind of sound like this: Sooouh.
For the French vowel [o] simply drop the American uh sound at the end.
French sounds you won't find in English
Vowels not found in English
French rounded vowels
French rounded vowels are made by taking the mouth formation from English vowels and rounding your lips without moving your tongue.
Similar to [i] in free*
*Take the English [i] sound and round your lips without moving your tongue to get the French [y]. See diagram below.
Similar to [ɛ] in bed*
*Take the English [ɛ] sound and round your lips without moving your tongue to get the French [œ]. See diagram below.
Similar to [ʌ] in but*
*Take the English [ʌ] sound and round your lips without moving your tongue to get the French [ɔ]. See diagram below.
Half way between [i] in free and [ɛ] in bed, but with mouth rounded*
*Take the French [e] sound and round your lips without moving your tongue to get the French [ø]. See diagram below.
As the name implies nasal vowels are vowel sounds that allow air to pass through your nose as well as your mouth. English actually has some nasal vowel sounds. Think of the difference between the a sound in the English word can't, vs the a sound in the English word cat. The a sound in can't is a nasal one.
If you were to hold your nose closed while saying the word cat nothing happens. If you hold your nose while saying can't, then you'll notice the sound is blocked. This in essence is a nasal sound, and you can do the same type of test when practicing French nasal vowels.
For help on how to pronounce these vowels correctly refer to the video below.
Same tongue position as the [ɑ] sound in hot (but allow air to go through your nose and your mouth)
Same tongue position as the [ɛ] sound in bed (but allow air to go through your nose and your mouth)
Same tongue position as the [ɔ] sound in thought (but allow air to go through your nose and your mouth)
Consonant sounds not found in English
[ ɲ ]
Think of it as saying [j] sound as in you, while at the same time making an [n] sound as in nice*.
It's also helpful to think of this sound as an [n] sound made by touching the middle of your tongue to the top of your mouth (see diagram below)
Move your tongue all the way forward, as if you're going to make the [i] sound in free. Then round your lips as if making the [w] sound in weep, while keeping your tongue in the [i] position(see diagram below*).
The tongue position of [ɥ] is the same as [i]. However the lips are rounded when making a [ɥ] sound.
rester (to stay)
Think of the tongue position for the English [g] in good. Now move your tongue even further back until your uvula (the dangling thing in back of your throat) vibrates against your tongue (see diagram below*).