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Improving your French Pronunciation

Updated on December 9, 2014
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Know Your Goal

Since you're on this page, we can both assume that you're interested in improving your French pronunciation. But to what end? Do you simply wish to get through a required French course? Are you trying to create a more natural expression and cadence in your French speech? Whatever your goal is, keep that in mind as you read this page because your goal will define how deep you will go into the pronunciation work.

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

The International Phonetic Alphabet is a system that essentially allows one to spell out the sounds of practically any language. It's the closest thing to a universal alphabet. Not all of the symbols in the IPA are used in every language, however. Naturally, French uses only those symbols that align with its specific sounds just as English uses those symbols that are present in English words.

While learning the IPA may help you with pronunciation, it is certainly not necessary. What you need to take away from the IPA is the concept of simply recognizing the different consonant and vowel sounds and finding a visual system to represent them that you will be able to read and understand.

For example: hélas.

  • In French, h's are not pronounced.
  • The é carries the long A sound.
  • The a carries the "ah" sound like father.
  • The s, though usually silent, will be pronounced in this word.
  • Knowing this, figure out a way to spell out the sounds that you will recognize: Ay-lahs, A-las, etc. Choose whatever helps you.

Use of the IPA to transcribe lines of poetry

A snapshot of transcribing French lines of poetry using the International Phonetic Alphabet
A snapshot of transcribing French lines of poetry using the International Phonetic Alphabet

Pronunciation & Transcription Practice

Let's begin training your phonetic and transcription skills. Below you have a few basic vowel sounds in the French language. I've provided an example of what their English equivalent sound would be and then given you sample words. Your job is to transcribe each word so that you will be able to pronounce it correctly--just like I did earlier with hélas.

First, let's try diable. The i, as I see at the bottom is pronounced like "ee." The a has "ah." Lastly, the e--when at the end of words-- is either swallowed up or carries a soft "uh" sound, depending on the consonants coming before it. So since it sounds more natural to pronounce the bl at the end, I'll use the uh. Therefore, for me, dee-ah-bluh works for diable. Got it? Now, once you get it, say it faster and faster until it sounds more natural and smooth.

Try the rest. (Realize that an s at the end of a word will not be pronounced for these words.)

a, à, â: ah as in “father”

  • la
  • diable
  • bas
  • madame


e (with no consonant after): uh as in “about”

  • le
  • regarde
  • quatre
  • ne
  • me
  • que


e(with a consonant after), è, ê, ë, ais, ait: eh as in “egg”

  • mes, des, ces
  • mais
  • mère
  • fête
  • elle
  • voudrait


é, er, ez, ai: ay as in “say”

  • parlez
  • regarder
  • été
  • j’ai


i, y: ee as in “feed”

  • il
  • merci
  • assister
  • stylo

Source

Let's check your work

How well did you do? Here's how I would have spelled out the second group (e, with no consonant after).

e (with no consonant after): uh as in “about”

  • le (luh)
  • regarde (ruh-gahr-d)
  • quatre (kah-truh)
  • ne (nuh)
  • me (muh)
  • que (kuh)


Got it? How about the fourth group (é, er, ez, ai)?

  • parlez (pahr-lay)
  • regarder (ruh-gahr-day)
  • été (ay-tay)
  • j’ai (jay)


You see? It's not too difficult. Being able to transcribe the words will make you more conscious of the particular sounds and letter combinations. As a result, your pronunciation--now rooted in something substantial--will be more true to the actual pronunciation.

Where do you find the greatest difficulty?

See results

The Rest of the Sounds

Here are the rest of the basic French sounds for you to practice with. As you get into the nasals (ahn, ohn, uhn, ain), it may get more difficult to reach the correct pronunciation. I suggest going to a site like wordreference.com to get audio guidance.

o, ô, au, aux, eau, eaux: oh as in “oat”

  • nos
  • chose (When an s is between two vowels, it will be sounded as z.)
  • écho (ch will act as k sound)
  • note
  • beau-père
  • faux


ou, où: ooh as in “food”

  • vous
  • bonjour
  • toujours


u, û: ew as in “few”

  • étudie
  • culture
  • tu
  • sur

oi: wa

  • moi
  • voilà
  • toi
  • oiseau


an, am, en, em: ahn

  • chante
  • cent
  • dans
  • enfant


on, om: ohn

  • mon
  • nom
  • blonde
  • monde


in, im, ain, aim, ein, eim: ain (like a buzzer)

  • inviter
  • américain
  • vin
  • simple
  • faim


ien: eeyain

  • bien
  • quotidien


un, um: uhn

  • un
  • lundi
  • parfum

Vowel Contrasts

ta/te/tes
le/les/la
de/dis/des
moi/ma/mes
quoi/qui
n'est/n'y/n'a
né/nid/ne
loi/soi/noix
moi/voit/boit
sa/se/ses
me/mes/mis
c'est/ce/ci
Il n'a pas/ Il n'est pas
les lilas/ le lilas
vous/veau/veut
sous/si/su
Pronunciation exercise with basic French vowel sounds

Controlling your pronunciation

To the right is an exercise of vowel contrasts that aim to improve control over your pronunciation. The words in each set should have distinct pronunciations. Be sure to pronounce them correctly.

Try an actual sentence

The following is an excerpt from Victor Hugo's "Demain, dès l'aube." Focus on the various sounds presented and then try to read the lines. If necessary, transcribe them to make it easier to understand the sounds. Once you feel confident with the accuracy, then work on speed. Gradually increase your reading speed until it becomes smooth.

Demain, dès l'aube, à l'heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m'attends.
J'irai par la forêt, j'irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.

Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,
Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,
Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,
Triste, et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.


Check your accuracy with this reading of the poem.

A sample of my pronunciation progression

Putting practice into progression

The adjoining video was a requirement for one of my courses that focused on French conversation. In it, I discuss the movie Cyrano de Bergerac, but that's not the important part. The reason I posted this is that it demonstrates my progress in French pronunciation. As you watch this, though, know that it took many tries to get the finished version that you're watching. Sometimes, my mouth tripped over the strings of French words. I'm saying this to simply say that you should go at your own pace and realize that "perfect" pronunciation doesn't happen overnight.

For further reading/viewing

Singing in French: A Manual of French Diction and French Vocal Repertoire
Singing in French: A Manual of French Diction and French Vocal Repertoire

Here's the book that I used when I first started working with French phonology. It offers specifics in pronunciation but relies on the IPA, though.

 

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