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
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 .
So, French pronunciation will be no longer a dark mystery for
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
- Pronunciation: like the first "a"
in "marmalade" or in "heart", but just a little
bit less open.
- Examples: table (table), sac (bag), chat
(cat), rat (rat), baggage (luggage), sa (his/her), bras (arm),
- Similar sounds: â (more open than a)
- Pronunciation: like the indefinite article
"a" in English with a sharper sound, or like the second
a in "marmalade".
- Examples: cheveu (hair), deux (two), second
[segon] (second), oeuvre (work, as in master works), soeur (sister),
heure (hour), beurre (butter).
- Similar sounds: "eu" and "oeu".
The latter one is more open than e and eu.
- Pronunciation: like the English "ee"
- Examples: pipe (pipe), minute (minute), courir
(to run), midi (midday), nid (nest).
- Pronunciation: two different sounds:
- an open "o" more or less as the English "more"
- a closed one like the English "go" and "low"
- Most of the times the "o" in French is open. It
is closed when located at the end of the word. Note that the difference
between open and closed "o" is not as stressed as it
is in English between the words "open" and "control".
- Open o: botte
(boot), grotte (cave), développer (to develop), homme (man)
- Closed o: vélo
(bicycle), indigo (indigo)
- Similar sounds: (to a closed o): "au",
"eau", "ô". Examples: eau (water), auto
(car), contrôle (control).
- Pronunciation: the French sound for "u"
does not exist in English. While in most languages "u"
is pronounced like the u in "bush", in French it differs
dramatically. The French "u" is exactly the same sound
as the German "ü". As we're going to see later,
the sound "u" as the English "bush" exists
in French as well, but it is formed by the vowel combination "ou".
- Examples: voiture (car), minute, humain (human).
- Pronunciation: pronounced the same way as
a double French "i".
- Examples: noyer [noi-ier] (to drown), rayer
[rai-ier] (to scratch), loyer [loi-ier] (lease), pays [pai-i]
- In most cases, the final e in a word is not pronounced. Examples
: bouche [bouch'] (mouth), jambe [jamb'] (leg), lampe [lamp']
- 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:
Accents which change the vowel sound
is pronounced like the English -ay as in "say", "bay",
but without the glide towards i.
Same thing for è
and ê but with a much more open sound.
Examples : frère
(brother), père (father), mère (mother), événement
(wheat), bête (beast or stupid), tête
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
- Pronunciation: like the "u" in
- Examples: bouche (mouth), genou (knee), cou
- Pronunciation: pronounced like the combination
- Examples: oie (goose), doigt [doa] (finger)
- au, eau
- Pronunciation: "ô"
- Examples: eau (water), bateau (ship)
- Pronunciation: "ê"
- Examples: maison [mèson] (house),
j'ai (I have), lait (milk), mauvais (bad)
- eu, oeu
- Pronunciation: "e"
- Examples: feu (fire), bleu (blue)
- Pronunciation: "ü-i" (two
- Examples: aujourd'hui (today), fruit (fruit)
- er, et
- Pronunciation: "é"
- Examples: boucher (butcher), boulanger (baker).
Exceptions: hier [ièr'] (yesterday), et (and)
- in, ain, ein
- Examples: matin (morning), main (hand), pain
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]
- 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
- the pronunciation rules which apply to "s" and "ss"
when located within a word, are the same as in English.
- 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
- deux [deu]
- trois [troi]
- quatre [catr']
- cinq [sinc]
- six [seess]
- sept [sèt']
- huit [uit']
- neuf [neuf'] with
an open "e"
- dix [diss']
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