(Want to see new videos automatically? Subscribe to my YouTube Channel!)
Hi, this is Gabe from Towerofbabelfish.com.
We’re going to look at French pronunciation, and we’ll break it up into two parts:
One, learning how to hear and say the sounds accurately.
Two, learning the connection between the way words are spelled and the way they sound.
This video addresses the first of these goals, which is itself best addressed in two parts – here, we’ll talk about theory – where your tongue should be, what your lips are doing, etc. This will get you in the general ballpark.
To get more accurate, you’ll need to do some careful listening and mimicking of recordings – you’re looking for words that sound similar to your ear but are pronounced differently – roux and rue, nôtre and notre, etc. You’ll find resources for this in the video description and I’m in the process of making an Anki deck with native speaker recordings to help.
If you haven’t seen the first three videos on English pronunciation, go do that now, especially the vowels video, because French vowels are tricky and you need to know what’s going on in your mouth in English before you try to add French to the mix.
So! Let’s get started. French has 21 consonants and at least 15 vowels, compared with English’s 24 consonants and ~13 vowels. Of these, you’ll need to learn 3 fairly new consonant sounds, 8 fairly new vowels, and some little adjustments to your English sounds here and there. We’ll start with the vowels, since they’re a bit harder.
I’m going to be comparing everything to American English. If you have a different dialect, the principles are the same. Remember, the goal is to understand what’s going on in your mouth, and then move in the direction of the French sounds. The fine tuning occurs later, when you work with recordings.
First, we’ll talk about the vowels that French and English share.
/i/ as in beat or “lit” are both more or less the same – they’re frontal, closed and unrounded.
/E/ as in chaise or bet is also about the same. This vowel rides the front side of the trapezoid, and is much more open than /i/
/u/ as in boot is very close to the French. French is a little more backed and I’d say a little more rounded than some dialects of English, which might pronounce this name as Lou, and in French “loue” – you need make absolutely sure that your lips are in a tight circle, out in front. “loue”
One thing about speaking French is that it uses the lips muscles quite a bit more than English does. French has 8 rounded vowels, compared with English’s 3-4, and even with the unrounded vowels, there’s a bit of lip tension, as if they’re getting ready to say one of the rounded vowels. So if you feel your lips getting tired, you’re probably doing it right.
You’ll recognize a few more of these vowel symbols in the French vowel chart.
We’ve seen /O/ as a pot, /a/ as in father, and /e/ as in the diphthong “LANE” and the British “bed”, and we’ve seen the schwa, as in about and the tree.
As I mentioned at the end of the English vowels video, these tell you approximately what to expect in terms of rounding, backness and height, but aren’t 100% precise. These 4 vowels sound slightly different in French, so we’ll use the English sounds we know and work towards the French sounds.
Feel free to pause the video occasionally and practice some of these sounds, or watch it a few times.
The English open O, /O/ as in talk is further back than the french /O/ as in toc. To get a sense of front and back in this position, compare the English pot and pet for a moment, and notice how your tongue comes forward for E. For the French open /O/, you’ll let your tongue come just slightly forward from the English open O – say just 25% of that motion – in the direction of E to get un toc. Comparing similar french and English words, we have (odd, talk)
/a/ as in father is a bit more open and a bit further back compared with the French /a/.
We’ll do the exact same thing we just did with the open O, this time comparing father and fat. FAT is more closed and more frontal than FATHER, and that’s exactly what we want to put into our French vowel. Notice how your tongue moves slightly up and slightly forward for /ae/,
Again, we take 25% of that motion from /a/ to /ae/. So where with an american accent you would say: tah, in French you would say “ta”: la bas, lama
I’m not going to make a distinction between the two /a/ vowels in French, because I haven’t met many French speakers who do. This distinction is disappearing in the French language, and you can see how much overlap there is already in the vowel chart. If you want to put these two sounds into your French, you’ll use the same technique, and you’ll need to find some recordings of French speakers who really make a difference between words like patte and pâte, which I don’t do accurately enough to teach very well.
The “closed e”, /e/ is substantially more closed in French than it is in English – as in the first half of the English diphthong ei “A” or the British “bed.” We’ll get at it in two ways, one from I, and one from the open E. One of these will probably be easier for you, depending upon whether you have a better sense of your tongue’s height or of its backness. We’ll go from ih first. Comparing pit to put should give you a sense of coming forward on the I and back on the U. To get to /e/, you need to go a bit further forward with the rounded part of your tongue. Starting with uh, you’re going forward to ih, and then even further to /e/
If we come from the open E, we can compare the heights of E and i, and we’ll go about halfway between them to get /e/. Comparing all 3 sounds, we get, les lits, été les grèves
At this point, we can talk about the rounded vowels. As I mentioned earlier, French uses many more rounded vowels than English does, and three of these come from rounding the frontal vowels i, e, and E. In English, the only rounded vowels are backed bowels like u, and PUT and CAUGHT and diphthongs like “O”, so we need to learn to make rounded frontal vowels.
When you go from the vowel /i/ to /u/, your tongue naturally tends to back as soon as your lips round, so for French you need to learn to separate those two movements. We’ll start from the vowel “i”.
When you start from “i” and try to round your lips, your tongue will likely pull back just a little bit, which is exactly what we want. If you look at the chart, can see that all the rounded front vowels are all a little further back than their unrounded siblings.
If I really try to force a tongue position of /i/ and round my lips – i start with /i/ and round my lips to YYY, then I’m not quite there. However, if I let my tongue do what it wants to do naturally and pull back a bit, then I’ll get /y/.
Comparing these two vowels, we get i and y, and comparing these two, we get /y/ and /u/
You can do the same thing with the other two rounded vowels.
For eu as in “Feu”, we can either go from our new vowel /e/, or maybe easier, you can start with a familiar vowel from english, I, and keep your tongue from moving quite as much.
For oeu as in “coeur”, you can go from open E to OE: maire, meurre
The schwa in French, like the schwa in English, is an unclear, unaccented vowel. To my ear, the French schwa is almost identical to the closed rounded EU as in feu. Some dialects will let it open up a bit, in the direction of coeur. No matter what, it’s rounded and frontal, and I’d stick to keeping it closed.
So..if you’ve studied French, then you might notice something is missing from this vowel chart – where are the vowels for words like un, cinq, onze, cent?
French has 3 or 4 nasal vowels, during which air is allowed to escape through the nose at the same time as the mouth. If I pinch my nose while trying to say those four words, I’d get un, cinq, onze, cent, compared with, say coeur, brève, sauter, sache.
English does this a little bit, like how the vowel in the word ‘and’ is different from ‘add’, but we always move into an ‘n’ or ‘m’ consonant, and in French, you don’t, in general. Like any vowels, the nasal vowels in french have specific characteristics of roundness, backness and height – they just have a nasal component too.
To mark this in IPA, you take the vowel that has the 3 characteristics you want, and you add the nasal diacritic. So for the first vowel, ã, as in cent, sans, you start with a tongue and mouth position of /a/ as in ‘sa’, and you nasalize it. cent sans.
The next nasal vowel is rounded and backed, and usually written as an open /O/ in dictionaries, though some linguists are arguing for /o/, since it’s it’s actually become a bit more closed in recent years. I’ll go from /o/ as well, Comparing these two words, we have beau bon, o, on,
It doesn’t really matter which symbol you use, as long as you get a good sense of the sound, and you know what’s meant when you see it in a dictionary.
The third nasal vowel is a nasalized open /E/, and is found in words spelled ‘in’ and ‘im’: vingt, cinq, simple. Comparing these two words, we have sec cinq e E
The fourth nasal vowel doesn’t exist in all dialects of French.
It shows up in words spelled with ‘un’ or ‘um’, and is based on the rounded open “oe” as in coeur. Many French speakers just use the nasalized open E, and you’re free to do the same.
I like the distinction, personally, and you can hear it when comparing the words: brin brun, For many French speakers, these words are the same. brin brin
Those are the French vowels, and that’s the main hard part. French doesn’t really have diphthongs, though they do have three approximants, which are close to diphthongs, just the timing’s different. You can’t stay on approximants; you have to move on to the vowels.
two of them are familiar: /j/ and /w/, based on /i/ and /u/, respectively, and producing glides like
/wi/ /roi/ as well as /veillé/ /brouillant/
The third is fairly foreign sounding, as it’s based on the rounded front vowel /y/. Again, it’s like an /i/ with lip rounding. If you want to think about it in consonant terms, it’s a labialized palatal approximant, meaning that the lips are tightly rounded, like the labialized velar approximant /w/, but instead of the back of the tongue coming up towards your soft palate, like in /w/, the middle of the tongue comes up towards the roof of your mouth.
English speakers often have a hard time distinguishing the two labial approximants, and works like: huis oui, lui and Louis. are sometimes hard to tell apart. If you practice repeating after recordings of difficult pairs like those, it will make a huge difference in both your accent and your listening comprehension.
If you look at the rest of the consonant chart, all but two should be pretty familiar from English – Those two would be the uvular R and the palatal nasal /n/. We’ll start with the palatal nasal.
The palatal nasal is made with the middle of the tongue touching the roof of your mouth – “agneau” “anneau”
As for the uvular R, it has a few variants. They’re all uvular, though the manner can change a bit from region to region and from person to person.
You have the uvular trill, the uvular fricative (which seems the most common), the uvular approximant, and the unvoiced uvular fricative. Some of these sound weird out of context, but if I stick them in a word like “arrondissement”, they make a lot more sense.
I’d go for the voiced uvular fricative if I were to pick one, but you should know that you’ll hear a mixture of sounds when you listen to French native speakers, as well as an occasional alveolar rolled r.
At this point, we’re basically done. The unvoiced plosives pas, ta cas are less aspirated than their english siblings, PA TA KA, and the lateral alveolar /l/ is just alveolar – the back of the tongue isn’t raised, like our velarized alveolar l.
To quickly review, we have
[All the vowels]
and the four nasal vowels
the french schwa, /e/
for consonants, we have the uvular R, the palatal nasal, and the labialized palatal approximant /y/
unvoiced plosives aren’t strongly aspirated, and /l/ isn’t velarized.
In the next video, we’ll talk about the spelling rules – how you go from what you read to what you say. To practice these sounds, check out some of the resources in the video description – you can find a ton of recordings at forvo.com, and have native speakers record your own texts at Rhinospike. I’ll be supplying an Anki deck soon and it’ll be linked below when it’s ready.
Subscribe above and until next time!
Remember to also tap into our free-to-use list of French language resources right here to help you on your journey to fluency.