French pronunciation guide: 5 things you need to know

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From simple French words like bonjour (hello) and au revoir (goodbye), to more complicated head-scratchers like mille feuille (vanilla slice), French pronunciation can be a tricky business.

But doesn’t the thought of speaking in that sultry, authentic accent make it worth the work?!

While there’s lots you can pick up from watching French movies on Netflix or having conversations with French native speakers, when you’re starting out it always helps to understand some of the theory. 

We’ve put together a beginner’s guide – complete with French pronunciation audio recordings and mouth positioning tips – to help those of you learning French transform your accent. So let’s get straight down to it – or, in the words of the French, alors, c’est parti! (So, let’s do this!) 

Improve your French pronunciation with our 5 essential tips  

1. Ou vs. u

Ou. U. Ahhhhh. 

French pronunciation wouldn’t be complete without the subtle difference between these two sounds. 

Want in on the secret? The difference lies in how you position your mouth and tongue!

Spelling of soundsExamples


ou

vs.

u


tout (all)


vs.

rue (road)

Mouth position

Ou: Your lips are parted and slightly rounded – as if you’re blowing out your birthday candles. Your tongue stays back, touching neither the roof or bottom of your mouth.

U: Your lips are parted and slightly rounded. But this time, your tongue sits nearer the front, touching your bottom front teeth.


Need extra help? 

We’re Busuu, the app that makes learning languages like French easier for everyone. We’d be happy to lend a hand! Learn how to pass for a native with our online lessons on French pronunciation.


 2. É vs. è

Two ‘e’ sounds. One often written with an accent that points upwards (é – accent aigu), and other typically written with an accent that points downwards (è – accent grave).  

The tricky bit? Unlike ou and u, these two ‘e’ sounds can be spelled in a variety of ways. 

We’ve spelled them all out for you (see what we did there?!) in the table below.

Spelling of soundsExamples
é:
– é 

– e

– er (on the end of a verb)
L’élève est fatiguée. (The pupil is tired.)


è:
– è 

– ai
 
– ê 

faire (to do/to make)

inquiète (worry/doubt)

fête (party)

forêt (forest)

Mouth position

É: Spread your lips wide, as though you’re smiling, and keep your tongue back inside your mouth.

È: Open and poise your mouth, as though you’re applying lip balm. Then, touch the tip of your tongue to your bottom front teeth.

3. The ‘s’ sound

In French, sometimes we pronounce the ‘s’ sound, and sometimes ‘s’ is a silent letter. And just like the é versus è sounds, the sound won’t look like your bog-standard ‘s’

Once you get going, though, knowing the difference will become second nature to you. In the meantime, here’s a few rules to help you tell the difference. 

Different spellings and scenariosExamples

s – the kinds we do pronounce:

s
– At the beginning of a word

– Between two consonants

– Between a consonant and a vowel

ss

t + ie/io

c (at the beginning of a word)

ç
Ce garçon a assisté au cours de français. (This boy attended the French course.)






s – the kind we don’t pronounce:

s (at the end of a word*)
Mes parents sont gentils. (My parents are kind.)

*Here’s a fun fact: now, with French pronunciation rules come a few exceptions.

While we French native speakers don’t tend to pronounce the ‘s’ on the end of words, there are a few cases where we do.

One, for instance, is plus (more). We pronounce the ‘s’ at the end of plus when the word is used in a positive context. 

For example:

You pronounce the ‘s’ in plus here:

J’en veux plus
I want more.

It’s a different story in this next example. For in this instance, the meaning of plus is negative. Together, ne… plus means “anymore” or “no longer”.

Je n’en peux plus.
I can’t take it anymore.

Mouth position

S – the kinds you do pronounce: You make a hissing ‘s’ sound, like a snake, by snapping your teeth shut and holding the tip of your tongue at your mouth’s threshold.

S – the kind you don’t pronounce: Your mouth can take a break – no hissing ‘s’ sound needed!

4. On vs an

Next up are the infamous French nasal sounds.

Don’t fret if you can’t hear the difference right away. Hang in there – we’ll take you through it.


Different spellings and scenarios
Examples

on:
– on

– om

blond (blonde)



an:

– an

– am

– en

– em


Le sac est blanc. (The bag is white.)



Quel est le plan pour demain? (What’s the plan for tomorrow?)

Mouth position

On: Your lips are parted and rounded, as though you’re about to blow out your birthday candles. Meanwhile, your tongue sits at the back of your mouth, without touching your teeth.

An: Your lips are parted and rounded. Move your tongue further forward than you would when pronouncing the sound ‘on’, but still try and keep your tongue away from your teeth.

5. The ‘g’ sound

In French, you pronounce some ‘g’ sounds softly, like the soft ‘g’ in the English word “gin”. 

Meanwhile, you pronounce other ‘g’ sounds more harshly, like in the English word “gap”.

Now, knowing whether to use a hard or soft ‘g’ depends solely on the letter that appears after the ‘g’… 


Different spellings and scenarios
Examples

g – the soft sound:

– ge

– gi
Gilles a man à la gare. (Gilles ate at the station.)


g – the hard sound:

– g (appearing before a consonant)

– go

– gu

– ga
Greg regarde les teaux. (Greg is looking at the cakes.)

Mouth position

G – the soft sound: Snap your teeth together, and brush your tongue’s tip against the ridge behind your upper front teeth. Check you’re feeling the vocal vibrations by touching your throat!

G – the hard sound: Keep your front teeth together, and connect your tongue to your top teeth. Check you’re feeling the vocal vibrations by touching your throat!


And there you have it! We’ve covered everything there is to know about French pronunciation when you’re starting out.

Having said all that, try not to get caught up in the pernickety details. 

The best thing you can do right now focus on recognising the sounds. 

Who cares if your accent isn’t perfect? And if the opportunity to speak up arises, throw caution to the wind and give it a shot. No matter how questionable you think your accent sounds.


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Eloy was the Senior French Language Expert at Busuu. He was born in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, but his parents are both from Galicia in Spain. He grew up speaking Galician and Spanish at home, and French at school and with friends. Later, he went to university in Brussels. After he graduated he spent two years living in the Caribbean. He loves nature and travelling and can’t go a day without going swimming!