French Pronunciation and Reading: Getting Started


French sometimes seems difficult to read and pronounce. Don't worry, it really does follow consistent rules, and with practice, you'll start to catch on!


Some general tips:

  • Listen to how words are pronounced while you read the word. On these lesson pages, I'll include videos and other resources to help you with this. Google Translate also has a pronunciation feature. This is a computerized voice and isn't always 100% accurate (just listen to it in your native language to see what I mean), but it's a good resource when you don't know where else you can hear the word.

  • Practice saying the words out loud.

  • On your vocabulary list, flashcards, and so on, it can be helpful to write the pronunciation in a way that you can remember it. For example, for the word deux (two), I might write "deh."

  • Keep practicing! The more you practice, the easier it will get.


French pronunciation:

This isn't every rule, but enough of them to get you started!


Friendly reminder: Every language has rules, but also has exceptions to those rules. Try to be patient with the language and with yourself!


Quick review:

  • Vowels are the letters a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y

  • All the other letters are consonants


The French /r/ sound

  • The French /r/ sound is scraped. It's the same sound as when you need to clear phlegm out of your throat (think hacking up a loogie).

  • The /r/ sound is pronounced by touching the back of your tongue to your soft palate (at the back of your throat). The tongue is in the same position as when you say the /k/ sound in the word koala or coat in English.

Practice:



Double "L"

  • When you see the letter sequence "ill," the two "l" letters make a /y/ sound. Example: s'habiller ("to get dressed") is pronounced /sah-bee-yay/.

  • TIP: Imagine the two "ll" turning into the two lines of the letter "y"

  • Any other vowel + "ll": The two "l" letters make a /L/ sound like in English. Example: elle ("she") is pronounced "el."


To summarize:

"ill" = /y/ sound

"a," "e," "o," "u," or "y" + "ll" = /L/ sound



Nasal sounds

French uses a lot of nasal vowel sounds. We don't really have equivalent sounds in English, but you'll get them with a little practice. Listen to the sounds and practice saying them out loud:


The video summarized the nasal sounds as un, on, and an. There are many letter combinations that make these sounds in French. Here are some of them:


The /un/ sound:

  • un

  • im

  • in, ain, ein


The /on/ sound

  • on, ont

  • om


The /an/ sound

  • an, ans, and

  • am

  • em

Practice:



The letter "j"

This is another letter we don't have in English. My attempt to spell the sound: /zhuh/. Hear the sound here.



The end of the word

I've heard people joke that when reading French out loud, you just don't pronounce the last half of the word! This isn't quite true, but there are often more letters than there are sounds at the end of French words. Here are some tips to help you understand which letters to pronounce:


What to pronounce at the end of a word: consonants

  • In general, a CONSONANT is NOT pronounced at the end of a word in French

  • This includes the letter s. In general, don't pronounce it at the end of a word! French uses s at the end of a noun to show it's plural, just like we do in English. It is not pronounced, though! When you are listening to someone talk, it's actually the way they say "the" or "some" that tells you if they're talking about one thing or more than one.

  • The exceptions to this rule are the consonants C, R, F, and L. These ARE pronounced at the end of a word. To help you remember this, think of the word CaReFuL.


What to pronounce at the end of a word: vowels

  • The letter e at the end of a word in French works similar to English. The "e" is silent, but you do pronounce a CONSONANT that comes before it. Example: jaune ("yellow") is pronounced /zhaune/. If it were spelled jaun, it would be pronounced /zhuh/. Tip: Notice that "un" is one of the letter combinations that makes a nasal sound--see the section above!


What to pronounce at the end of a word: la liaison

  • If you have a word that ends in a silent consonant followed by a word that starts with a vowel sound --> you now pronounce the silent consonant. Listen to lots of examples here.



Letter combinations that say "ay"

To me, it seems like French's favorite sound is "ay," as in "day" and "May." There are many letter combinations that make this sound. All of the words and letter combinations below have the same vowel sound, "ay":

  • Les (this is a word that means"the" for something plural)

  • -er (this is the ending of many verbs)

  • -et (the ending to a number of nouns)

  • Et ("and")

  • Mes ("my" when describing something plural)

  • Mais ("however")

  • Vais ("go")

  • Est ("is")

  • é (an "e" + l'accent aigu)

  • J'ai ("I have")

  • Mai (the month "May")

  • Français ("French")

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