French Pronunciation for Speakers of American English
This tutorial presents an overview of the rules of European/metropolitan 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 (European) 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|
|[e]||[ɛ]||wait - wet|
|[o]||[ɔ]||coat - caught|
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
Many English speakers tend to say [u] instead of [y] and [ə] instead of [ø] or [œ]. Personally, I still find it 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.
|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:
- Vowels are pronounced slightly
longer when they are in the final closed syllable (a consonant follows
the vowels in the same syllable). For example, the vowel [i] in tir is
longer than the vowel [i] in tirer because tir is a closed
syllable, while ti is an open syllable (and rer is a
This is represented with a colon in IPA: long [i] = [i:]
- The vowel [e] can only occur in open syllables (no consonant
follows it in the same syllable) in French. In closed syllables, [ɛ] is
used; however, [ɛ] can also be found in open syllables.
(This is a major difference with English as [ɛ] can
never be found in open syllables at the end of a word.)
- In stressed open syllables, only [ø] is
possible. In stressed, closed syllables, only [œ] is
possible, unless the syllable ends in [t], [tR], or [z] - in which case, [ø] can
occur. In unstressed syllables, whether open or closed, either vowel can
- Generally, [o] always occurs in stressed open syllables, and [ɔ] occurs in stressed closed syllables. Nevertheless, [o] can also occur in stressed closed syllables, depending on the spelling of the word: when the letter o is followed by [m], [n], [z]; when the letters au are not followed by [R]; and by the letter ô.
Semi-vowels can also be called glides or approximants.
|IPA||Phonetic spelling||Sample words||General spelling|
|[w]||w||fois, oui, Louis||oi, ou|
|[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.
|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|
A phrase with all nasal vowels is: un bon vin blanc
Many of the consonants in French are very similar to the consonants in English. A few differences include:
- [p], [t] and [k] are NOT aspirated in French so try not to let that
extra puff of air escape from your lips.
- 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].
- 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
- [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
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 Between vowels Before consonant Final rusé droit arrêt partout mer rang gris courir merle pire rose trou pleurer corde sourd
- In the majority of words with the grapheme ch, the pronunciation
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
- 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.
anguille jaguar aiguille question adéquat quiescent fatigue iguane ambiguïté qualité aquarium équilatéral guérilla lingual linguiste équivalent square ubiquité distinguer Guadeloupe quartier équateur équidistant
- 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.
final s silent final 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.)
- The final consonant of many words is silent. Sometimes a final c, f,
l or r are pronounced though.
Final c, f, l, r silent
blanc cléf outil parler franc cerf sourcil chercher tabac nerf gentil habiter estomac persil fermer
Final c, f, l, r pronounced
- Similar to English, final -e in most words is not pronounced. For
feminine adjectives and nouns, this generally means that the final consonant
of the masculine form will now be pronounced.
vert verte grand grande canadien canadienne boulanger boulangère chat chatte
- As mentioned above, a few silent letters were placed in French orthography for the prestige of being more similar to Latin. Other letters are now silent for other historical reasons (i.e. perhaps the pronunciation changed, but the spelling did not.) The following words all have silent letters:
- A few plural nouns change their pronunciations to include silent letters, whereas these consonants are pronounced in the singular form:
|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
|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.
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 written consonants involved in liaison generally include d, s, x and p. However,
the pronunciation of d, s, and x 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]. 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):
- after determiners: un, les, des, ces, mon, ton, quels, etc.
- before or after pronouns: nous, vous, ils, elles, les, etc.
- after preceding adjectives: bon, mauvais, petit, grand, gros, etc.
- after monosyllabic prepositions: chez, dans, sous, en, etc.
- after some monosyllabic adverbs: très, plus, bien, etc. (optional after pas, trop, fort)
- after est (optional after all other forms of être)
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.
- photography - photographie
- authority - autorité
- nationality - nationalité
- passion - passion
- education - éducation
- regiment - régiment
- monument - monument
- melodramatic - mélodramatique
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
|Yes/No Question||Are you leaving?||2 - 3||Est-ce que vous partez ?||2 - 3|
|Information Question||Where are you going?||2 - 3 - 1||Où 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|
|il y a||y a|
|ils + vowel||y'z|
|elles + vowel||è'z|