One of the first things we have to do when learning French is learning French pronunciation. It’s not something that happens overnight, but if we don’t master it, we will have trouble down the road. Many words are almost identical, and the only thing that distinguishes them is a sound.
You may have heard that in French we only pronounce half of the words. Well, that’s somewhat true. You will rarely pronounce all the letters in a word. There are a few exceptions, but they’re just a handful.
We already practiced some pronunciation in a previous post, but there are more sounds that we still need to learn. Allons-y! (Let’s go!)
When it comes to pronouncing vowels in French, there are basically two kinds of sounds: oral sounds and nasal sounds.
As the name implies, oral sounds are formed in the mouth. They’re the easiest sounds to replicate.
Let’s look at some examples:
In the words above, the pronunciation of the vowels is practically the same in English.
On the other hand, we have nasal sounds. To pronounce them, we have to pass air through both our mouth and nose. Your vocal cords must vibrate, but you just pronounce the vowel, not the consonant. Sounds complicated?
Nasal sounds are formed by the combination of one or more vowels plus the letters m or n. Therefore, there are many variants to them.
Let’s look at some examples:
mon (my for masculine)
All of the words above have nasal sounds. When you see a vowel preceding m or n, in most cases the sound will be nasal. However, there is an exception. If the m or n precedes a vowel, we don’t nasalize the sound.
an (nasal) – âne (non-nasal)
un (nasal) – une (non-nasal)
More Vowel Combinations
Let’s look at some common vowel + consonant combinations.
ai, ei – open e sound
au – pronounced like o
an, en – similar to song before the ng (nasal sound)
eu – similar as u in put
in, un – similar to saying “cat” while pinching your nostrils (nasal sound)
oi – pronounced like wa
ou – similar to ou in soup
on – similar to saying “oh” while pinching your nostrils (nasal sound)
ui – remember u in French is long and doesn’t exist in English
It seems like a lot, right? It is. Don’t worry. If you’re struggling to pronounce these sounds, rest assured you’re not the only one. It requires a lot of practice to master them.
Watch the video below for a better illustration of what we just learned. Pay attention especially to nasal sounds.
There are many more vowel combinations, but luckily, many of them are pronounced alike. Let’s take a look.
am, em are pronounced like an/en
im, ain, aim, ein, eim, um, ien are pronounced like in/un
om is pronounced like on
oin – this one is tricky because it’s a combination of oi + in (nasal)
The Ch Sound
Ch has two sounds. The first one is pronounced like sh and is the most common.
The second pronunciation is similar to k and is mostly used for words of Greek origin.
The Gn Sound
This sound doesn’t exist in English. For Spanish speakers, it’s a breeze. Think of the word piñata. In French, you will pronounce gn as the Spanish ñ, something like ny.
gagner (earn or win)
Not that hard, right?
S, ss, and sc
Let’s start with s. When placed at the beginning of a word or between a consonant and a vowel, the pronunciation is that of a normal s. You would pronounce it as you do in sun, sea, or silk.
However, when it is placed between two vowels, it’s pronounced as z instead of s.
Look at the following examples and try to determine the correct pronunciation.
The ss sound is very simple. It’s always pronounced as the s in sun.
So, what is the difference between poison and poisson? What about dessert and désert? Remember a single sound can make the difference!
Sc has two pronunciations. When preceding e or i, it’s pronounced like s.
scène (scene or stage)
However, if it precedes something else, we have to pronounce both letters separately.
Not Pronouncing the Final Letter
If French is known for something, it’s for dropping the last letter of almost every single word. But don’t worry! If you remember CFRL (CaReFuL), you will know whether you should pronounce the last letter of a word or not.
Look at the following words:
The last letter is pronounced in all the words above. Now, if a word ends in something else, the last letter is not pronounced. Examples:
There are a few exceptions where you have to pronounce s or t, but you have to memorize them. Examples:
I will just mention this briefly as this would require a full article. In French, it’s very common to unite words under special circumstances. It’s what we call le liaison. Look at the example below.
un homme (a man)
Normally, you wouldn’t pronounce the n in un. However, in the example above you have to do it.
The liaison has a lot of rules. In some cases, you have to use it, while in other cases, it’s the opposite or even optional. We will talk about it in further detail in a later post.
I hope you found this useful. French pronunciation can be hard, especially when you have to learn sounds that don’t exist in your native language.
For many people, nasal sounds are the hardest to imitate. They require a lot of practice, but it’s not impossible to master them.
As you saw in this post, there are some rule exceptions. It would be easier if there were none, but we have to deal with it.
If you liked this post, please don’t forget to like it and share it. Au revoir!