French is different to English. But it’s certainly not harder.
Think of all the English words that are difficult even for anglophones to pronounce, much less everyone else! “Rural juror”, “isthmus”, “Benedict Cumberbatch”…
Just like English, French pronunciation only needs a bit of practice to get right. In this pronunciation guide, I’ll walk you through the most troublesome sounds to pronounce, as well as a few subtle, easy ways you can change your pronunciation to make huge headway toward sounding like a native French speaker.
Note that when describing how to pronounce these French words, I make reference to English words that sound similar. Where possible, I tried to use words that would work in the majority of English dialects and accents, but if in doubt, imagine them being pronounced in a standard British or standard American dialect.
How to Pronounce the French “u” Sound
There’s no sound like the French “u” in English. It’s not the same as an English “oo” sound. French has both the English “oo” and a distinct “u” sound (denoted by y in the International Phonetic Alphabet), so you’ll want to learn to pronounce them differently in order to avoid any, ahem, misunderstandings.
For example, there aren’t many scenarios where you can mix up the words “thanks a lot!” and “thanks, nice ass!” in French conversation and still be understood! So don’t get your “merci beaucoup” and “merci beau cul” mixed up! To correctly pronounce the “u” sound, try this. Say a normal English “ee” sound (like at the end of the word “free”). Now, without moving your tongue, shape your lips into an “ooh” sound. Basically your lips are saying “oo” while your tongue is still saying “ee”. And voilà! You have the French “u” sound!
Exercise: Try pronouncing the following pairs of words, to really hear the difference between “u” and “ou”:
- jus and joue
- en-dessus and en-dessous (don’t mix these ones up; they have exact opposite meanings!)
- cure and cour
- juin and bédouin
(Pro Tip: copy and paste these words to searches on forvo to hear natives pronounce them to see if you hear the difference)
The Subtle Difference Between “é” and “ais”/“ait”/“et” in French
When you speak the following sentences, does the conjugation of the verb “parler” sound the same?
- J’ai parlé avec lui
- Je parlais avec lui
Many French learners will pronounce these in exactly the same way. In fact, they should not sound the same. This is surprising to some French learners if they’re not actively listening for the difference in sound.
The first one, parlé, ends with more of an English “ay” sound (IPA representation ‘e’), almost like “parlay”. Parlais, however, ends with a sound that doesn’t really exist at the end of any English words, hence English speakers’ tendency to hear and pronounce it like “é”. It sounds more like the English word “let” without the T at the end (IPA representation ɛ). You might wonder what the big deal is here since the two sounds are so similar, but French speakers will definitely hear the difference.
Exercise: Try these word pairs to help you distinguish the sounds:
- fée and fait
- sacré and secret
- gelé and gelais
- pellé and palais
The Real Way to Pronounce “d” and “t” Before the Letter “i”
Here’s a nice, easy change you can make in your pronunciation that will vault you closer to native pronunciation. Think of the French word “petit”. How should you pronounce the second syllable? Lots of French learners would answer that you pronounce it like the English word “tea”, but this isn’t entirely true. In many French dialects (certainly many parts of France and most of French-speaking Quebec), there’s a hidden, light “s” sound in there, making it sound a bit like “tsee”.
The same effect happens with the letter “d” before “i”. The word “dire” ends up sounding more like “dzire”. Keep in mind that the “z” is a subtle sound though; it’s almost eaten up by the D.
Even though it’s a subtle sound, it’s noticeable enough that French speakers themselves have been known to have a laugh about it!
Next time you’re listening to a native French speaker, listen for this sound in these types of syllables and make an effort to imitate them.
Exercise: Here are some words to practice with:
“En”/“an” Versus “in”
These are the characteristically “nasal” sounds that are a dead giveaway to non-French speakers that someone is speaking French. They’re really not difficult for anglophones to master. Most of the difficulty lies in making sure to not mix up the sounds. It doesn’t help that the “in”/“ain” sound in France sounds more like the “en”/an” sound in Quebec!
For “en”/“an”, try saying the word “song”, but stop just before your throat closes into the “ng” sound. You’ve just pronounced the French word cent (or sang, s’en, “sans”, or sent…but I digress!)
For “in”/”ain”/”eint”, say the word “clang” but stop just before your throat closes into the “ng” sound. You’ve just pronounced the French word clin. Easy!
The latter can be a bit more difficult for French learners, if they overthink it and end up pronouncing it like “en”/“an”. Here are a few examples to let you hear the difference:
emporter and importer
grattant and gratin
étant and éteint
lentement and lendemain
Dropping the L in Your “il” and Your “elle”
Pronouncing your “il” and “elle” like French speakers is both easier than pronouncing it the “proper” way, and an effective way to make your colloquial speech sound much more natural.
Consider the following two sounds:
Say each sound aloud several times in a row. Which one can you say more quickly and easily? I bet the second one is easier. And French speakers agree! So when it comes to the phrase “il y a”, French speakers simplify it to sound like “ee-ya”. A couple of examples:
- Est-ce qu’il y a du pain?
- Oui, il y a beaucoup de pain
It doesn’t end there, however. In everyday French conversation, particularly when you’re speaking quickly, you can drop the L from “il” and “elle” in the majority of sentences! This is especially true when the next word in the sentence starts with a consonant. Here are some examples:
- Qu’est-ce qu’il fait? (”skee” fait)
- Elle connait la réponse (”eh” connait)
- Tu sais qu’il veut ça (”kee” veut)
- Je veux qu’elle m’appelle (”keh” m’appelle)
How “ce que” Melts into “skeu”
Another easy way to sound way more natural in your speech is to change your “ce que” to just “skeu”. You already do this in spoken phrases such as, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?”, but native speakers do it other places in a sentence as well. For example, when saying a sentence such as, “Ce qu’il dit est important”, ignore the e in “ce”. Make the words “Ce qu’il” one syllable: “skeel” – or rather, “skee”; remember the guideline about dropping the L.
It seems like a small change to make, but my French friends told me that my speech sounded more natural one day shortly after I changed this pronunciation, even though I hadn’t told them what I had changed.
Exercise: Practice with these examples:
- Écoute ce que je te dis (”skeu” je te dis – or, rather dzee. Remember the “ts”/”dz”rule)
- Ce que tu fais est mauvais (”skeu” tu fais)
- Je veux ce qu’elle a (”skell” a)
The Infamous French “r”
The letter “r” is the holy grail of pronunciation goals for French learners. There’s no sound quite like it in most other languages. The best advice I can offer about this sound is to not give up, no matter what. It will come!
Even if you think your French “r” right now sounds like the noise people make when they think they’ve swallowed an insect, keep it up. It’s still better than pronouncing it like an English “r”. For one thing, people will see that you’re trying, so they’ll be willing to help and encourage you. For another, you do have the right idea. Just try to soften it up a bit. It’s sort of like a Spanish J sound (or the ‘ch’ in the Scottish “loch”), but it’s voiced, and pronounced a bit further back in the throat. Don’t worry about perfecting a “uvular trill” in the back of your throat at this point. It’s really not necessary, and many native French speakers never bother pronouncing it that way anyway.
Exercise: A useful way to practice this sound is with is the sentence “Regardez mon frère”, which gives you four “r” sounds in different positions: the beginning of a word, the middle of a word before another consonant, the middle of a word after another consonant, and at the end of a word. If you can say all the “r” sounds in this phrase correctly, you’re there!
A final note on the French “r”: if you truly don’t feel like you’ll ever get it, don’t worry; there are many parts of French Canada where the “r” sounds much closer to a guttural sound like a Spanish “r” than it does to a classic French “r”. You can always say that’s what you are going for!
The “re” Disappears at the End of Some Words
If that French “r” is still bothering you, what if you could simply ignore it a few times?
You probably think that with all those words that end in “re”, it must be really difficult to speak French quickly and fluidly. Take the sentence, “Je vais le faire après être revenu”. Those last two words are tough to say, with the two “re” sounds one after the other. Well, here’s a secret: most native speakers agree, so they just drop the “re” sound at the end ofêtre! The sentence ends up sounding like “Je vais le faire après ett revenu”. Much easier!
You can generally do this for most words ending in “re” after a consonant, such as to-form (infinitives) of verbs, and words like “votre”.
Exercise: Try these other phrases to help you get the hang of it:
- Je vais prendre mon bain (“prend” mon bain)
- Voulez-vous du lait dans votre café? (dans “vot” café)
- Elle va le mettre sur la table (”mett” sur la table)
How to Practise on Your Own
One way to practise is to just speak out loud the words or phrases you have difficulty with. You should also consider recording your voice regularly and playing it back to yourself to monitor your improvement. Ask a native speaker to record some sentences containing the pronunciations you’re having the most trouble with, so you can play them back and repeat them yourself.
Listen to some high-quality French videos to hear proper pronunciation of French words. Listening to newscasts is the best way, because news presenters generally speak in a clear, moderate-speed voice. Here are a few of my favourites:
- France 24: This first-rate news channel brings you world and local French news live from their website. Not only will you benefit greatly from hearing near-perfect pronunciation of most of the words you’re having trouble with, you’ll also be keeping up with current events.
- FranceTV: Get local news programmes from all around France no matter where you are.
- Radio France: A live French radio news stream available on the internet. This listening resource is a bit more advanced since it’s audio-only, but this is a good thing; if you can’t see the face of the news presenters, you’ll have to rely only on the sound of their voice to understand, and you’ll pick up on correct pronunciation that much faster.
My friend Idahosa also has a fun online course that trains people on French pronunciation.
How do You Know if You’re Doing it Right?
Follow the above tips, and you’ll greatly improve your French pronunciation. But how can you be really sure that you’re getting the hang of it? You’ll want to get some feedback from a native French speaker. Yet another reason why speaking with real people is so important! I recommend you schedule a video call or an in-person meet up with a native speaker, and ask them explicitly beforehand to correct your pronunciation while you speak.
This isn’t something you’ll want to do every single time, however. I really think that fluid speaking ability, about a variety of everyday topics, is more important than accent. But scheduling regular sessions just to work on pronunciation – in addition to scheduling regular chats where you don’t keep stopping to talk about pronunciation – will quickly help your accent, and your fluidity, become more like a native speaker.