How to Pronounce More Than 2,500 Words in French

Basic rules and audiofiles teach correct French pronunciation

man doing work at desk with headphones on
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Anyone with the great good fortune of having studied in Paris at the Cours de Civilisation Francaise at the Sorbonne, one of the world's great universities, remembers the cours's famed phonetics class. Since this program is affiliated with a national university, the school's mission is to "uphold French culture around the world" by teaching French as a foreign language and French civilization (literature, history, art and more).

Unsurprisingly, the study of phonetics is an important part of the program.

Phonetics is, in everyday parlance, the system and study of sounds uttered in speaking a language: in short, the way a language is pronounced. In French, pronunciation is a big deal, a very big deal. 

Pronounce words correctly and you'll be understood. You might even be accepted into French society as a person who speaks French like the French. That is a high compliment in a country that prizes the correctness and poetry of its language. 

About 7,000 students go through the cours annually, mostly from Germany, the US, the UK, Brazil, China, Sweden, Korea, Spain, Japan, Poland and Russia.

Open Your Mouth

The preponderance of students come from Germany, the US and the UK, who speak Germanic languages that require them to show little physical evidence of actually speaking. These students learn a hard lesson their first day: To express French correctly, you must open your mouth.

For this reason, students are drilled in pursing their lips generously to form an O when they are speaking a French O (oooo), stretching their lips wide when they say a hard French I (eeee), dropping the lower jaw decisively when they say a soft French A (ahahahah), making sure the sides of the tongue hit the roof of the mouth and the lips are tightly pursed when they pronounce the curvy French U (a bit like the U in pure).

Learn the Pronunciation Rules

In French, there are rules governing pronunciation, which involves intricacies such as silent letters, accent marks, contractions, liaisons, musicality and plenty of exceptions. It's essential to learn some basic pronunciation rules, then start speaking and keep on speaking. You'll need a lot of practice to figure out how to say things correctly. Below are some basic rules governing French pronunciation with links to sound files, examples and even more information on each point.

Basic Rules of French Phonetics

The French R

It's difficult for English speakers to wrap their tongues around the French R. Granted, it can be tricky. The good news is that it is possible for a non-native speaker to learn how to pronounce it well. If you follow instructions and practice a lot, you'll get it.
How to pronounce the French R

The French U

The French U is another tricky sound, at least for English speakers, for two reasons: It's hard to say and it's sometimes difficult for untrained ears to distinguish it from the French OU. But with practice, you can definitely learn how to hear and say it.
How to pronounce the French U

Nasal Vowels

Nasal vowels are those that make the language sound like the speaker's nose is stuffed up.

In fact, nasal vowel sounds are created by pushing air through the nose and mouth, rather than just the mouth as you do for regular vowels. It's not so difficult once you get the hang of it. Listen, practice and you will learn. 
Nasal vowels

Accent Marks

Accents in French are physical markings on letters that guide pronunciation. They are very important because they not only modify pronunciation; they also change meaning. Therefore, it's crucial to know which accents do what, as well as how to type them. Accents can be typed on any English-language computer, either by copying them from a library of symbols in your computer software and inserting them into your French text, or by using shortcut keys to directly insert them into French text.
French accents | How to type accents

Silent Letters

Many French letters are silent, and a lot of them are found at the end of words.

However, not all final letters are silent. Read over the following lessons to get a general idea of which letters are silent in French.
Silent Letters | Silent E (elision)

Silent H ('H Muet') or Aspirated H ('H Aspiré')

Whether it's an H muet or an H aspiré, the French H is always silent, yet it has the strange ability to act as both a consonant and a vowel. That is, the H aspiré, although silent, functions like a consonant and does not allow contractions or liaisons to occur in front of it. But the H muet functions like a vowel, which means that contractions and liaisons are required in front of it. Just take the time to memorize the types of H used in very common words, and you'll understand.
H muet | H aspiré

'Liaisons' and 'Enchaînement'

French words are pronounced so that they seem to flow one into the next thanks to the French practice of linking sounds, known as liaisons and enchaînement; this is done for ease of pronunciation. These sound linkages can cause problems not only in speaking, but also in listening comprehension. The more you know about liaisons and enchaînement, the better you'll be able to speak and to understand what's being said.
Liaisons | Enchaînement

Contractions

In French, contractions are required. Whenever a short word like je, me, le, la, or ne is followed by a word that begins with a vowel or silent (muet) H, the short word drops the final vowel, adds an apostrophe, and attaches itself to the following word. This is not optional, as it is in English; French contractions are required. Thus, you should never say je aime or le ami. It is always j'aime and l'ami. Contractions never occur in front of a French consonant (except for the H muet).
French Contractions

Euphony

It may seem odd that French has specific rules for "euphony," or the production of harmonious sounds. But that's the case, and this and the language's musicality are two big reasons why non-native speakers fall in love with this language. Familiarize yourself with the various French euphonic techniques to use them.


Euphony

Rhythm

Have you ever heard anyone say that French is very musical? That's partly because there are no stress marks on French words: All syllables are pronounced with the same intensity, or volume. Instead of stressed syllables on words, French has rhythmic groups of related words within each sentence. It may seem a little complicated, but read the following lesson and you'll grasp what you need to work on.
Rhythm

Now Listen and Speak!

After you've learned basic rules, listen to good spoken French. Begin your French phonetics journey with a a beginner's audio guide to pronouncing individual letters and combinations of letters. Then use the links in the French Audio Guide below to learn how to pronounce full words and expressions. Follow up by searching YouTube for French movie trailers, music videos and French television talk shows to see dialogues in action. Anything that shows a real-time dialogue will give you an idea of the inflections used in statements, questions, exclamations and more. 

Of course, nothing can top going to France for a few weeks or months of immersion in the language. If you are serious about learning to speak French, one day you must go. Find French language classes that suit you. Stay with a French family. Who knows? You might even want to enroll in the university-level Cours de Civilisation Francaise de la Sorbonne (CCFS). Speak with your university at home before you go, and you might be able to negotiate credit for some or all of your CCFS classes if you pass the cours's final exam. 

French Audio Guide 

As for the French Audio Guide below, it contains more than 2,500 alphabetical entries. Click on the links and you'll be sent to the entry pages, each with French words and expressions, sound files, English translations and links to additional or related information. The terms have been culled from their original homes in assorted vocabulary and pronunciation lessons, which gives this a useful range of vocabulary. Any vocabulary you don't find here, you'll find in the highly regarded Larousse French-English dictionary, which has clear French audiofiles with native speakers.

Key to Abbreviations
in The French Audio Guide

Grammar and Parts of Speech
(adj)adjective(adv)adverb
(f)feminine(m)masculine
(fam)familiar(inf)informal
(fig)figurative(pej)pejorative
(interj)interjection(prep)preposition