Most French pronunciation guides are really only about pronunciation rules for the language. They tend to fall short of teaching you how to actually hear and pronounce said sounds. Here at The Mimic Method, we think this latter part is even more important than just recognizing the location of a sound in word spelling.
Although there are many rules and spellings, French is quite a regular language. Yet many times the letters and combinations of letters will sound different than how they are written. Luckily, except for a few words here and there, almost all French words will follow certain patterns and rules.
By the end of this French pronunciation guide, you should be familiar with most of the sounds associated with the different combinations of the French alphabet. You may even discover a few tricks to overcome things like the dreaded ‘throaty’ R sounds.
French Alphabet vs. Sounds
There are 26 scripted letters in the modern French alphabet. But there are at least 38 phonetic sounds in modern French speech. Although English and French have almost identical alphabets, the same characters do not always represent the same sound in both languages. The challenge will be to rewire the your brain so you can produce sounds for letters that sound different from what you’re used to.
The reason why there are more sounds than letters is that these sounds are used for the same combination of letters – or syllables – when spelled at different places in words. It is really a matter of hearing these patterns and incorporating them into your own speech.
The other reason has to do with regional dialects, which introduces new sounds to spoken speech. For instance, there is the Quebecois accent vs. Parisian French. And this pattern continues for other similarly spelled words in the dialect.
|Alphabet||"Name" of Letter||In Words|
|W*||duble vay||wasp, won|
* These letters appear only in foreign words.
Note that the list of letters in the chart above is NOT indicative of all the sounds that go with them. As said earlier, most guides just teach you things like the alphabet and make you miss out on the nuances of sounds which really give you better pronunciation. This traditional approach is a “learn by eye” approach. At The Mimic Method, we like to use a “learn by ear” approach to language learning.
But to make things easier for you, for the rest of this guide we’re going to be talking about the alphabet as well as the sounds behind the patterns in the alphabet starting with the most important group – vowel sounds.
What is a vowel?
Vowels are created by completely opening the vocal tract and allowing air to flow out unobstructed. What determines the sound of a vowel is the position of your tongue within your mouth. To help in this process, you will first develop a physical awareness of your tongue’s location in your mouth.
The chart here is a Vowel Chart. A vowel chart plots the location of a vowel sound in your mouth.
The three vowel sounds on this page are the extremes in Vowel Height and Backness. In other words, the other vowel sounds for a given language are going to occur at some point between these three extremes.
You will rely mostly on your ear to do this. But it can help you a great deal by starting on the nearest English vowel and going in the right direction from there.
Do as the speaker in the audio file and alternate back and forth out loud to yourself: EEEE! —> UUUU! —> AAAA! —> UUUU! —> EEEE! —> UUUU! etc. Look at at the chart and try to create a mental connection between the visual directions on the chart and your tongue movement in the mouth.
There are two unique features which make the vowel sounds distinctively French.
- The tongue positions are more extreme
- Vowels sound crisper, shorter in length
Compared to other latin languages such as Spanish or Italian, French has a rich menu of vowel sounds. In French, there are actually more combinations of vowel letters than there are sounds – different combinations of letters and placement in a world will determine a unique sound.
Since we all speak our native languages without thinking about the movements in our mouth, you probably can’t feel what direction your tongue is moving when you speak. That’s why the first step is developing an awareness and control over your tongue’s movement. Let’s start by examining the French vowels in more detail.
French has two kinds of vowel sounds; Oral and Nasal. For now, we will start with the Oral vowels.
A Sounds – chat, moi, là, pâte
This sound is similar to the A-sound we would use in English words like cat, pat, that. There’s also a Parisian version of this that is between this sound and the back of the mouth (think somewhere in between the words shack and shock). This sound is always spelled with either a or à. Note: The accent grave (à) does not change the pronunciation.
There is a secondary A-sound we would make in the American words pot, caught, poppa. An example in French is the word pâte.
These A sounds are towards the bottom-back part of our mouth. For this, our tongue needs to come further down and further forward than in English.
It’s common for people to have the tendency to close this vowel (as explained in the next section). So be sure to always exaggerate its openness by lowering your jaw as much as possible when saying this sound.
Try to exaggerate and lower your jaw as much as possible when creating the A vowel sounds.
E Sounds – les, passé, tuer, grande
These sounds are more open (tongue lower in mouth) than the vowel sound in the English words hey, bay, say, lays. Typically, the E vowel in the words hey, bay, say, lay glide up near the I vowel. This does NOT occur in French (as explained in the next section).
The second E sound is the same sound as in American fair, Mary, pear, dare and French words père, mère. The /ai/ diphthong in French usually has this sound as well.
The third E sound is the vowel sound in American duck, puck, putt, luck. French examples include brebis, gredin.
There is another instance of the sound E that is silent because it tends to disappear at the end of words or inside words. It usually is heard when dropping it would make words difficult to pronounce. Instead, the preceding consonant is pronounced (i.e., “grande” is gran-duh).
Mimic my pronunciation of E so that you can feel the difference. Remember to keep your E vowels short and crisp.
I – il, qui, si
This sound has the exact same tongue position as the vowel sound in the English words see, knee, he, she. Typically, it is shorter in length than in English. Remember to keep your I vowel short and crisp. It helps to smile wide when creating this I vowel.
O – eau, mot
The primary O sound is more open (tongue lower in mouth) than the vowel sound in the English words no, so, go, toe. When this sound occurs in English, it glides towards the U vowel forming a diphthong. This does not happen in French. The English version is also rounded, meaning you will curl your lips at the end of the sound. Rounding does not occur in French.
The secondary O sound occurs in English words like dog, walk, small.
Remember to keep the O vowels short and relax your lips (do not round them too much).
U Sounds – roue, feu, choeur
The U vowel has the exact same tongue position as the vowel sound in the English words who, shoe, two, Sue.
When native speakers make this sound, it is shorter in length than in English. This sound is usually rounded in English, meaning you will curl your lips at the end of the sound. Rounding does NOT occur in French.
/∅/ is a more rounded version of the U sound and close to the uh sound heard in American fur. Try pronouncing this and then dropping the r (it may help to imitate a Boston accent). Typical French words would be feu, nerveux.
/œ/ is similar to American euh sound in girl, furl. You can learn this sound by beginning to pronounce furl but not adding the rl part. You will need to hear some real French pronunciation to adjust the sound however. Typical French words would be peur, leur, choeur.
/y/ is a rounded version of the I Vowel in French. To do this, try to say ‘eee’ and then keep that sound while rounding your lips.
Remember to keep these sounds short and crisp and keep your lips relaxed to avoid rounding the vowel (unless you are saying /y/, /∅/, /œ/)
Note: The vowel u is silent in cases of Q (qu).
So to review, here are five primary vowel characters of French:
Nasal Vowels generally sound unnatural to English speakers because the sounds don’t occur naturally in any English words. The closest we come is when we say ‘huh?’
These sounds of French occur in an incredible variety of spellings so it is important to become aware of them.
You can find out where to make the nasal vowels based on an oral pair. This means that the sound pair is in the exact same spot, but the difference is that you nasalize it. If you make the oral vowel /ɔ/ (dog, caught) and lower your velum to allow some air to pass through your nasal passage WITHOUT changing anything else in your speech organ, you will get the nasal counterpart – /ɔ̃/.
In the audio files below, I show this by alternating between the nasal vowels and their oral counterparts. Listen and try to tune your ear to the difference. You can try to mimic the sounds yourself, but do not worry if you can’t get them perfect.
The key to nasal vowel articulation is relaxation. The challenge will be alternating between oral and nasal vowels with speed, precision and ease.
Once again, to not get frustrated if these sound differences are not 100% obvious to you yet. Motor and perception skills take time and practice to develop. Just like everything else in this primer, you should return to this page as often as you gain more practical experience with French pronunciation and sounds.
French Nasal Sounds
|om, on||pronounce like ong in 'song'||nom, non|
|um, un||pronounce like ung in 'sung'||un, brun|
|am, an, em, en||pronounce like 'ahng'||champ, an, temps, en|
|im, in, aim, ain, ein||pronounce like ang in 'sang'||simple, vin, faim, bain, plein|
|ien||pronounce like 'ee-ang’||bien|
As an English speaker you developed hearing and speaking patterns that clash with the French sound system. Fortunately, these tendencies are predictable and fixable once you become aware of them. With vowels, these five tendencies will account for 80% of your pronunciation errors so that’s why it is important to review them early on.
By understanding the things you’re inclined to do wrong, you can begin to make sense of these differences. Below, I categorize and explain all the major English vowel mispronunciation tendencies.
In English, diphthongizing is a fancy word meaning we add an additional vowel at the end of words as we close our mouths. For O we glide it near to U as in the word “hello!” (He-lo->u). For E we glide near to I as in the word “Hey!” (He->i). This does not happen in French. These sounds are short and sweet with no additional vowels added on the end. The audio below demonstrates.
When English speakers say the vowel U or O, they tend to curl their lips in at the end which alters the sound. In French, there is no rounding so your lips should never curl like this. To avoid doing this, you will want to keep these vowels short and crisp. Imitate the audio and try to build an awareness of this lip motion.
As you will review later in this post, there is a French consonant sound known as The Uvular Consonant. In French writing, this sound is represented by the letter “r”. Very often in French, this sound occurs at the end of a syllable, after the vowel (e.g. AR, IR, UR, ER, and OR).
This is called “R-coloring Vowels,” and it does not exist in French. R-coloring vastly alters the sound of a vowel. The main reason an English speaker would pronounce it this way in the first place is because she starts with a visual concept of the spelling.
As a French learner, you may have a strong tendency as an English speaker to replace the French Uvular Consonant with the English /ɹ/ sound. Even more important, it is also one of the most common consonant speech sounds in the language.
For now, just listen to the difference between a vowel that is followed by an uvular fricative and a vowel that is “r-colored.”
Replacing Nasal Vowels w/ Nasal Consonants
To review, you create nasal vowels so that air passes through both the mouth and nose. The resonation of air in the nasal cavity is what makes that unique acoustic quality that we perceive as nasal sound.
We also have nasal consonants, which you create by completely blocking the oral passageway with either your tongue or lips, so that air passes only through the nose.
For example, you make the /m/ consonant sound when you close your lips completely and let air escape through the nose. Similarly, you make the /n/ consonant when you place your tongue against the back of your gums and only let air escape through the nose.
In English, we don’t often produce nasal vowels but we do produce nasal consonants like /m/ and /n/ quite often. As a result, when we hear nasalization in general, we have a tendency to perceive it as either an “n” or an “m” sound. So we have a tendency to create an /n/ or /m/ sound when trying to mimic nasal vowels.
Always remember – your tongue and lips should be completely relaxed when making a French Nasal Vowel, and your mouth should always be open.
You will have a tendency to replace a nasal vowel with a combination of an oral vowel + nasal consonant (e.g. you would turn “ɔ̃” into “ɔn.” The track below demonstrates the difference.
As I’ve said, these five tendencies will account for 80% of your pronunciation errors. Develop an awareness of them now and you can drop them from your speech patterns quickly. Be sure to return this page regularly as you improve your pronunciation.
|English Phoneme||Examples||French Phoneme||Distinction||Examples|
|[i]||me, she, see||[i]||oral||il, épi, lyre|
|[eɪ]||hey, say, lay||[e]||oral||blé, aller, chez, et, j’ai, tes|
|[ɛ]||well, get, yeah||[ɛ]||oral||lait, merci, fète, Noël, forêts|
|[ə]||the, was, about||[ə]||oral|
|[aɪ]||guy, eye, arrive||[a]||oral||ami, patti|
|[ɑ]||hot, on, want||[ɑ]||oral||pas, pâte, trois|
|[ɔ]||all, sorry, talk||[ɔ]||oral||fort, donner, sol|
|[oʊ]||go, don't, those||[o]||oral||mot, dôme, eau, saule|
|[uw]||you, do, who||[u]||oral||genou, roue|
|[ø]||rounded [e]||peu, deux, creuse|
|[œ]||rounded [ɛ]||peur, meuble, ceuile|
|[ɛ̃]||nasal [ɛ]||brin, plein, bain|
|[õ]||nasal [o]||ton, ombre, bonté|
|[ɑ̃]||nasal [ɑ]||sans, vent|
What is a consonant?
Unlike vowel sounds, you create consonant sounds by blocking air from coming out of your mouth. French spelling is very unique in that it uses a lot of consonant letters where there is actually no consonant sounds.
In French pronunciation final consonants are usually silent. As in English, in plural most French words add an S, but the last S in a word is not pronounced. (i.e., enfant and its plural form enfants sound the same).
In this section, we’ll review some important differences between English and French consonants.
|b||"b" or "bb" in beginning or middle of words||[b]||beau, abbesse||[bo], [a.bɛ.sə]|
|end of word||silent||plomb||[plõ]|
|followed by "sor" or "t"||[p]||absolu||[ap.sɔ.ly]|
|c||"c" before a, i or y||[s]||ciel||[sjɛl]|
|"cc" before a front vowel (-e, -i, or -y)||[ks]||accent||[ak.sɑ̃]|
|-c or -cc before a back vowel (-a, -o, -u) or a cons.||[k]||encore||[ɑ̃.kɔ.rə]|
|final after -n||silent||blanc||[blɑ̃]|
|-ct final||[kt], silent||direct, respect||[di.rɛkt], [rə.spɛ]|
|-ç with the çédille||[s]||garçon||[gar.sõ]|
|-ch in words of Greek origin||[k]||Christ||[krist]|
|d||-dor -dd initial or medial||[d]||doux, addition||[du], [a.di.sjõ]|
|in liaison||[t]||grand, arbre||[grɑ̃. tar.brə]|
|f||-f or -ff initial or medial||[f]||enfant, effort||[ɑ̃.fɑ̃], [ɛ.fɔr]|
|in liaison||[v]||neuf, heures||[nœ. vœ.re]|
|g||-g before a front vowel (-e, -i, or -y)||[ʒ]||sabotage||[za.bɔ.ta.ʒə]|
|-gg before a front vowel (-e, -i, or -y)||[gʒ]||suggestion||[syg.ʒɛs.tjõ]|
|-g or -gg before a back vowel (-a, -o, -u) or a cons.||[g]||grave||[gra.və]|
|in liaison||[k]||sang, et, eau||[sɑ̃. ke o]|
|-ge before a back vowel (-a, -o, -u) or a consonant||[ʒ]||pigeon||[pi.ʒõ]|
|-guh before a front vowel (-e, -i, or -y)||[g]||gigue||[ʒi.gə]|
|h||Initial -h is classified as mute and aspirate - both are always silent but,|
|-h initial mute allows liaison or elision||silent||douze_heure||[du. zœ.rə]|
|-h initial aspirate allows no linking||silent||tres *hideuse||[trɛ i.dœ.zə]|
|k||found in words of foreign origin only||[k]||kilo||[ki.lo]|
|l||-l or -ll initial or medial||[l]||large, ballet||[lar.ʒə]|
|-il, -ill, and -ille (but not final -ile)||[j]||soleil, papillons j, famille||[sɔ.lɛj]|
|In the these words and their derivatives||[l]||mille, tranquille, ville||[mi.lə], [trɑ̃.ki.lə], [vi.lə]|
|m||-m or -mm initial or medial||[m]||mardi, flamme||[mar.di], [fla.mə]|
|after a nasal vowel||silent||parfum||[par.fœ̃]|
|in liaison||[m]||nom_à tiroirs||[nõ. ma ti.rwar]|
|n||-n or -nn initial or medial||[n]||neige, année||[nɛ.ʒə]|
|after a nasal vowel||silent||ensemble||[ɑ̃.sɑ̃.blə]|
|in liaison||[n]||en_aimant||[ɑ̃. nɛ.mɑ̃]|
|p||-p or -pp initial or medial||[p]||captive, support||[kap.ti.və], [sy.pɔr]|
|final||silent||trop, trop_en||[tro], [tro. pɑ̃]|
|q||-qu initial or medial||[k]||liqueur||[li.kœr]|
|in liaison||cinq_enfants||[sɛ̃. kɑ̃.fɑ̃]|
|r||Spoken French makes use of the uvular that is appropriate for dialogue and cabaret songs.|
|-r or -rr initial,||[r[||rapide||[rara.pi.də]|
|-r or -rr medial or final||[r]||garage, terrible, hiver||[ga.ra.ʒə], [tɛ.ri.blə], [i.vɛr]|
|-er, -ier, or -yer final in some nouns and adjectives||silent||foyer (noun)||[fwa.je]|
|-er in the infinitive verb form||[e]||parler||[par.le]|
|s||-s and -ss initial or medial||[s]||séance, Debussy||[se.ɑ̃.sə], [də.by.si]|
|-s medial between vowels||[z]||maison||[mɛ.zõ]|
|-s final in exceptions||[s]||hélas, lis, fils||[e.las], [lis], [fis]|
|-sc before a front vowel (-e, -i, or -y)||[s]||descendre||[dɛ.sɑ̃.da.lə]|
|-sc before a back vowel (-a, -o, -u) or a consonant||[sk]||scandale||[skɑ̃.da.lə]|
|-sch initial or medial||[ʃ]||schéma||[ʃɛ.ma]|
|t||-t or -tt initial or medial||[t]||total, glotte||[tɔ.tal], [glɔ.tə]|
|-t in liaison||[t]||tout_un||[tu. tœ̃]|
|-ti in endings -tion and -tience||[sj]||attention||[a.tɑ̃.sjõ]|
|-tie when final||[ti.ə]||sortie||[sɔr.ti.ə]|
|v||-v initial or medial||[v]||souvenir||[su.və.nir]|
|w||-w found in words of foreign origin||[v]||Wagon||[va.gõ]|
|before vowels or -h||[gz]||exemple||[ɛg.zɑ̃.plə]|
|in liaison||[z]||deux_enfants||[d∅. zɑ̃.fɑ̃]|
|z||initial or medial||[z]||zèle, douze||[zɛ.lə], [du.zə]|
|final as an exception||[z]||Berlioz||[bɛr.ljɔz]|
B (bé) – beurre, bon, brebis
As in English word bear. It is essentially the same as the French B in beurre, bon, brebis. Note that in French words like bombe, both b’s are pronounced because of the E vowel afterwards.
C (cé) – leçon, ce, comment, encore
There is a soft C sound which sounds like S in the English word palace. In French, this soft C occurs before I, E or Y. Everywhere else, it will have a hard sound like K. Note that the symbol “ç” is always pronounced as S in garçon, leçon, façon.
D (dé) – drap, dehors, du
D is very close to the American D in dog, but the tongue pushes a little harder against the teeth (using the blade of the tongue) when the D is used in French.
F (effe) – forêt, feu, folle
F is identical to English F in father.
G (gé) – gare, guerre, gourou, digue
There are a few different sounds behind the spelling of G in French.
The American G usually has two sounds as in garage. The second sound does not occur normally in French. For foreign words with this sound, they use DJ to fake the sound (djinn = genie). In short, [ʒ] (vision) before I, E or Y but [g] elsewhere.
H (ache) – hein, ho, hui
In general, H is silent.
J (ji) – geai, gérant, juge, jamais
J is the ZH sound in English pleasure, vision. French has two spellings for this sound. The simpler is the use of J as in Jean-Jacques. The messier one is with G. Whenever G is followed by an E, you use this sound.
K (ka) – pique, calin, cou
K is the same as the K sound in English khaki, flak. Like English, French has multiple spellings for the K sound. The rules
are the same as in English: C before A, O, U is pronounced K. Very few French words use the letter K as they are from foreign words.
L (elle) – bal, folle, ville
L is similar to English L in lake, link. But the tongue is a bit further forward in French (they don’t swallow their l as much as we do). English actually has two “L” sounds: the “dark L” and the “True L.” In French, there is only the “True L.” A common tendency for English speakers is to use both as if they were speaking English. The difference is very subtle but this nuance is definitely helpful in sounding more like a native speaker.
Some tips for this consonant:
- Exaggerate by having your jaw as low as possible
- Give more love to the consonant, dwell on the L sound
M (emme) – mère, môme, mener, nom
M is pronounced the same as from the English word mom. French always spells this sound with M although nasalized
Ms have a different sound. M is silent at the end of words and the preceding vowels are nasalized.
N (enne) – neuf, parking, agneau, besoin
N is like the English words new, another. The doubled up N is always pronounced this way (not nasalized). Single N following a consonant is usually nasalized.
NG is like English “ing” in smoking, parking. This is not a normal sound in French and occurs only in borrowed words like smoking, parking.
GN is not a common sound in English. It is the NYA sound in the word onion. It is always spelled GN.
N is silenced at the ends of words and the preceding vowels are nasalized.
P (pé) – point, père, papier
P is similar to American P in spit, sputter but different from the American P in pit or
putter. Americans put a puff of air (aspirate) with their Ps when starting a word. The French don’t do this. The
difference is not critical for French (although it is for some other languages).
Q (qu) – quel, question, chaque
Q is pronounced like K in the English words crown, karma, quick. Q usually silences the U vowel if it follows afterward: so, the French word question (ke-styon) will differ from English (kwe-stion).
R (erre) – réfrigérateur, boire, pair
The French ‘R’ sounds are very unique and do not exist in English. The pronunciation varies from place to place, even in France. In the South it is trilled more like a Spanish R sound, but in the North/Paris it is produced with the tongue against your soft palate.
This is such an important sound, we have devoted a special portion of this guide if you scroll down below.
At the ends of words, R is silent unless the next word begins with a vowel.
S (esse) – çe, cela, cinéma, cache, poisson
In French this is always the sound when a cedilla (ç) is used in the spelling. It is also the sound when either E or I follow a C.
It is also used for an S beginning a word or when the S is doubled (fosse, poisson).
When S is followed by an H it is like the American sound in show, fish, shall. Although this sound is always spelled with CH in French, sometimes the CH spelling is pronounced as a K sound. Such words are usually of Greek origin (psychiatre,
archange) but you really just have to learn the proper pronunciation.
At the ends of words, S is silent unless the next word begins with a vowel.
T (té) – ta, trop, juste
For this T sound, the French push the tongue harder against the teeth (using the blade of the tongue) when pronouncing this consonant. Practice with word trente. Don’t swallow the last T, make it very clear.
At the ends of words, T is silent unless the next word begins with a vowel.
V (vé) – avez, votre, avant
V is no different from English V.
W (double vé) – voir, quoi, toi, oui, huit
W is pronounced as in American water, willow. As noted above, foreign words with W are usually pronounced as we would but the sound is usually spelled in French with OU followed by a vowel or by OI preceded by a consonant.
There is a similar sound denoted by the symbol [ɥ] and is not found in English. You could start with the word wheat and try to round your lips for the ooo sound while saying the eee part of wheat. This will get you close to the French huit .
X (ixe) – deux, veux, peux
At the end of words, X is silent unless the next word begins with a vowel.
Y (i grec) – yeux, yaourt, fille, famille
This is the Y sound in American yellow. In French, this is usually found as Y plus a vowel. Sometimes it is spelled LL. Y is used mainly in loanwords but also in place names.
Z (zède) – pose, zoo, vous êtes
French uses Z for the spelling, but the letter S can also take on this Z sound if it is surrounded by vowels. At the end of words, Z is silent unless the next word begins with a vowel.
|English Phoneme||Examples||French Phoneme||Examples|
|[b]||bat, book||[b]||bon, robe|
|[d]||dance, doll||[d] (blade)||dans, aide|
|[f]||fly, photo||[f]||feu, neuf, photo|
|[g]||gap, green||[g]||gar, bague, gui|
|[k]||class, kept||[k]||cou, qui, sac, képi|
|[ɫ]||all, eel, cool|
|[l]||link, lat||[l]||lent, sol|
|[m]||mom, map||[m]||mot, flamme|
|[n]||no, tonal||[n] (blade)||nous, tonne, animal|
|[p]||pat, peel||[p]||père, soupe|
|[ʁ]||rue, venir, grand|
|[ʁ*]||porte, part, parle|
|[χ]||frère, truc, contre|
|[s]||sell, school||[s] (blade)||sale, celui, ça, dessous|
|[ʃ]||should, cash||[ʃ]||chat, tacheschéma|
|[ʒ]||garage, vision||[ʒ]||je, gilet, geôle|
|[t]||toy, tap||[t] (blade)||terre, vite|
|[v]||voila, arrive||[v]||vous, rêve|
|[w]||wow, wing||[w]||oui, fouet, joua, joie|
|[j]||yellow, yarn||[j]||yeux, paille, pied|
|[z]||zero, rose, his||[z] (blade)||zéro, maison, rose|
The most difficult movements to master are the Rhotic (French R) consonants. This sound does indeed exist in some dialects of English, but with limited usage.
As a French learner, you may have a strong tendency as an English speaker to replace the French /ɾ/ with the English /ɹ/ sound. Even more important, they are also one of the most common speech sounds in the language. As you saw in the vowel section, English speakers already have a tendency to “R-Color” in between vowel sounds as well.
Doing this wrong is perhaps the biggest giveaway of whether you have a bad accent. Acoustically, the English /ɹ/ sound is completely different from the French R /ɾ/. Yet this is still the most common pronunciation error that English speakers make. Persist in saying the English ‘r’ in your French, and you will NEVER achieve French fluency.
How do I make the French ‘R’ sounds?
As a French learner, you may have a strong tendency as an English speaker to replace the French uvular consonants with the English /ɹ/ sound. These uvular sounds are not only non-existent in English, they are also the most common speech sound in the language.
Doing this is perhaps the biggest giveaway of whether you have a bad accent. Acoustically, the English /ɹ/ sound is completely different from the French Uvular consonants. Yet this is still the most common pronunciation error that English speakers make.
The first step to mastering a new motor movement is to develop a physical awareness of it. The two things you want to focus on are location and movement of your mouth.
The uvula is the dangly thingy at the back of your mouth (no need to get technical here). You were probably fascinated by it as a child, and wondered if it served any other purpose than to wiggle whenever grown-ups snored.
You articulate the French ‘r’ sounds at the Uvula. You make these sounds by raising the backmost part of the tongue UP to the uvula to restrict air flow.
Even though the sound is called “uvular,” your tongue is actually the only active agent. Your real goal is to build an awareness of the back-most part of your tongue and learn how to adjust it so that it comes in contact with the uvula.
In the audio file below I repeat the two velar sounds in English – /k/ and /g/. To create these sounds, you first raise the back of the tongue up to the velum and block air to build up pressure. Then you lower your tongue and release the pressure in a burst of air. The difference between /k/ and /g/ is that for one you are also vibrating your vocal chords.
Now that you have a basic idea of where the uvular lives, you just have to spend some time fooling around until you can pinpoint it in your own speech. In the audio files below, I articulate all three of the uvular sounds relevant to French. Listen closely and try your best to mimic. Do not worry about getting the sound for now.
While feeling these sounds out, be sure to:
- Keep the front/middle of your tongue (what you can see in a mirror) completely relaxed at the bottom of your mouth.
- Keep the tip of your tongue resting against the back of your lower teeth/gumline.
- Do NOT pull your tongue back.
- Do NOT do any excess movements with your lips or tongue (make the uvular consonant in a single movement).
In French, there exists multiple versions of the uvular consonant even though they are all represented by the same letter “r.”
You are most likely to hear this in combination with one of the other voiceless consonants. Listen closely to the audio file below and try to mimic me as I articulate the following syllables: fχa….tχa….kχa….pχa.
Just like its voiceless brother, the voiced uvular fricative /ʁ/ always occurs in combination with other voiced consonants. You may have a tendency to do a voiceless /χ/ in these combos. Listen to the audio and try to mimic as I articulate: vʁa…dʁa…gʁa…bʁa.
The third sound is the voiced uvular approximant. Take the /w/ sound from the word “why.” This is an approximant sound because you bring your lips together, but not all the way. A bit further and you would have a /b/ or /p/ sound.
So, a uvular approximant /ʁ*/ is when the back of your tongue moves close enough to the uvula but doesn’t touch it. The resulting sound is a softer version previous consonant /ʁ/.
The distinction you will struggle with most is between the voiced and voiceless fricative sounds. In the audio below, I alternate between these two sounds in isolation and in real French words. Listen and try to spot the differences.
Hopefully now you have a basic feel for the uvular consonant. Don’t worry if you were unable to do it on your first try. Like I said before, your motor skills take exposure and practice to develop. Just make sure to refer to this page whenever you are stuck.
As your familiarity with French sounds and the uvular consonants grow, you’ll eventually find it become automatic to reproduce these sounds when you speak French!
This covers all of the consonant letters in the French alphabet. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we need to ultimately look behind the letters on paper and figure out the actual sound they represent. Use the chart below to see how these sounds appear in both English and French speech.
How Intonation Works
Intonation has to do with the emphasis or stress of some syllables or words over others. If we keep the rhythm and phonemes the same for a phrase, a change in intonation will result in a change in meaning.
In the English phrase, “Great, we’re having steak for dinner again” I seem to be expressing a genuine feeling of excitement, but with a different tone it seems sarcastic and perhaps suggestive of the exact opposite meaning.
Most language programs focus exclusively on vocabulary and grammar and completely overlook the question of intonation. As a result, most language-learners maintain their native intonation patterns when speaking a foreign language.
Intonation is the most characteristic element of an accent. That’s why when people make fun of accents, they tend to exaggerate the intonation more than anything else.
I know many adults are embarrassed about speaking with a foreign intonation. Our personalities are closely linked to the intonation patterns of our voice, so completely changing them requires stepping out of our comfort zone. You might feel “silly” stepping our of your comfort zone and sounding like someone else, but trust that you will look even sillier if you don’t.
French Intonation Patterns
The basic unit of French rhythm is by syllable. When compared to the English language, French has a more distinct sound and a flat intonation. The stress is mostly even except for the last syllable which is given a tad bit more of an emphasis. In general, the syllables in any sentence or phrase run together in a continuous unaccented stream until they reach the end and the final syllable is stressed because it is followed by a pause.
In any case one should try to produce a smooth flow of syllables when pronouncing French, and not to over-accentuate any words in the middle of a phrase.
Notice the difference in the stress between these two words: In English: im-POR-tant, while in French: ang–por-tahng.
French Pronunciation: The Conclusion
Becoming aware of the nuances of how to sound more like a native speaker is the first step towards fluency and flawless french pronunciation. And that prompts the question: Why do you want to learn French in the first place?
At The Mimic Method, we teach that the goal of learning a language is to connect with people and cultures. So that’s why we make the first step to learning a language about learning what the people actually sound like so you can sound like them, too.