Drapeaux You too can learn French !

Created by Jacques Léon
Page design by Roberth Andersson

Lesson 1 - Pronunciation guidelines

A written course in not the best suited means to learn how to pronounce a language, especially when you have never heard it. In addition, the way people pronounce their own language may tremendously vary from one place to another and is strongly dependent on the local culture, customs and neighbouring influences. This remark is particularly true for French language : there are startling pronunciation differences between the French spoken in southern France, in northern France, in Belgium, in Switzerland, in Québec and in the many French speaking African countries (Marocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Zaïre, Burundi, Rwanda, Cameroon, Gabon, Niger, Burkina Fasso, Tchad, etc.), in such a way that people may not understand each other! So, you understand that we have to agree on a standard. Hopefully, such a standard exists and is commonly referred to as "international French" also improperly called "Parisian French". The aim of this first lesson is to give you guidelines for the pronunciation of the main French sounds, i.e. single vowels, vowels combinations and the consonants whose pronunciation differs from the English one. This is not an exhaustive description of the French pronunciation since it does not make any sense to try to cover all aspects of the pronunciation of a language until you can hear the actual sounds.

French Speaking Contries Image

As mentioned above, learning how to pronounce a language from a written course is a tough job. Some of you have suggested to include sound files in the text to ease the comprehension of the following lesson. It is now available !!! To take advantage of this new feature, you are required to have the software MPLAYER.EXE on your PC since the format of the sound files is .WAV. MPLAYER comes with the multimedia kit of WINDOWS 3.x.
The letters or the words you can hear are indicated by the following sign headphone.
So, French pronunciation will be no longer a dark mystery for you !!!

For MAC users, a freeware called SoundApp is able to read and play various sound file formats. Especially, it can convert WAV files into Macintosh AIFF or SND files. Click here to download it from MIT. Also, for UNIX users, the SOX program converts WAV files into AU files. Click here to download it from the Netherlands. Though English and French share a good bunch of words, their pronunciation is completely different. Moreover, in French there are some sounds that does not even exist in English. Let's start with the vowels.

1. Single vowels


  1. In most cases, the final e in a word is not pronounced. Examples : bouche [bouch'] (mouth), jambe [jamb'] (leg), lampe [lamp'] (lamp).
  2. When followed by a doubled consonant (l, t, p, r, m, n), e is pronounced like the English -ay as in "say", "bay", but without the glide towards i and more open. In French, this sound is referred to as "è" (e with a grave accent). Examples : pelle [pèl'] (shovel), mettre [mèttr'] (to put), lettre (letter), terre [tèr'] (land).

2. Accentuated vowels

One of the most striking differences between the French and the English words is the use of accented characters in French. Almost every vowel - excepting "y" - can be accentuated. Some accents change the sound of the vowel, others don't. The accents (shown in conjunction with the letter e) are:

  • the grave accent - è
  • the sharp accent - é
  • the circumflex accent - ê
  • the diaeresis ë
  • Accents which change the vowel sound

    headphoneé is pronounced like the English -ay as in "say", "bay", but without the glide towards i.
    Same thing for headphoneè and ê but with a much more open sound.
    Examples : headphonefrère (brother), père (father), mère (mother), événement (event), headphoneblé (wheat), bête (beast or stupid), headphonetête (head).
    A diaeresis on an "i" makes the syllable sound as if there were two syllables. Examples : naïf (naïve) is pronounced [na-if] instead of [nèf] (ai is normally pronounced as an è in French).
    â is more open than an "a". Example : mâcher (to chew), pâte (paste)
    ô is more closed than "o". Example : hôte (host), contrôle (control)

    Accents which do not change the vowel sound

    In all other situations, the accent does not affect the sound of the vowel i.e. : à, ë î ù, ü. So, what's the need for them? The answer is simple : no need ! But French people are reluctant to change the spelling of their language (as English people !) as opposed to Spanish and German people. Most of the French accentuated characters have historical origins. For instance, the "^" was used to indicate that in old French, the vowel was followed by an "s". Thus, the modern French words forêt (forest), hâte (haste), hôte (host), pâte (paste) were spelled as follows in old French : forest, haste, hoste, paste. As you can notice, there were identical as their English counterparts, or, more precisely, these English words directly come from old French !

    3. Vowels and consonants combinations

    4. Consonants

    Most of consonants in French are pronounced in a fairly same way as in English, however, there are some exceptions. In the following list, we're only going to review the consonants whose pronunciation differs in French and in English.

    General rule
    The following consonants : d, n, p, r, s, t, x, are generally not pronounced when located at the end of a word (note that they are not pronounced but they generally change the sound of the preceding vowels). Conversely, all the other consonants (i.e. the following consonants : c, f, k, l, q, z. The other consonants like b, j, g, v, w, etc. are rarely or never located at the end of a word) are pronounced. As many good rule, there are lots of exceptions ! In the progression of this course, the pronunciation rule will be indicated when necessary.
    Examples : trois [troi] (three), vent [ven] (wind), fonds [fon] (fund).
    Exceptions : see numbers.
    The French "r" sound is fairly different from the english one. In English, "r" is soft, round. In contrary, in French, "r" is guttural and must be pronounced like Scottish people do (maybe, a little bit less guttural !).
    The French "j" is pronounced like the English "g". Examples : jardin (garden), jour (day).
    In French, the pronunciation of "g" depends on the subsequent character. If followed by "a", "u", or "o", "g" is pronounced like the "g" in "garden". If followed by "e" or "i", it is pronounced like the second "g" in "language". Examples : langage (language), langue (tongue).
    The French sound for "gn" is very similar to the Spanish "ñ" or like the sound "nié". Examples : gagner [gañé] (to win), mignon [meeñon] (cute).
    The French "ch" is pronounced like the English "sh". Examples : chambre [shambr'] (room), chat (cat), chaussure (shoe).
    In French, the character "h" is not pronounced when located at the beginning of a word. Examples : haricot [arico] (bean), homme [om'] (man), hâche [ach'] (ax)
    As in English, most French words add an "s" when plural, however, the last "s" in a word is never pronounced. Examples : maison and its plural form maisons are pronounced the same way. There are, however, some exceptions to this rule, for instance, plus (more) is pronounced [plüss].
    1. the pronunciation rules which apply to "s" and "ss" when located within a word, are the same as in English.
    2. when a word begins with an "s", the "s" is pronounced like "ss" (soft "s"). It is actually the same rule as in English.

    5. Numbers 1-10

    1. headphoneun
    2. headphonedeux [deu]
    3. headphonetrois [troi]
    4. headphonequatre [catr']
    5. headphonecinq [sinc]
    6. headphonesix [seess]
    7. headphonesept [sèt']
    8. headphonehuit [uit']
    9. headphoneneuf [neuf'] with an open "e"
    10. headphonedix [diss']

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