say it in french

[estimated reading time 11 minutes]

french pronunciation is a mystery to those outside the language. it looks a little like english, a lot like spanish, more like italian and sounds like — well, it sounds like nothing else. french might be the most distinct of linguistic sound groups of the modern languages. you can identify it without hearing any of its words at a long distance because there’s simply nothing else with the same cadence and rhythm and compressed soundscape. the problem is simple, though. if you’re coming from english, chinese, korean, hindi or arabic, what do you do with all those phonemes that don’t appear in your native language? and what about the sounds you’re used to making that simply don’t exist in french? it’s so confusing. but let’s try to solve that.

brightness and noses

we’ll start in a place many people think is insignificant but really makes a huge difference and simplifies the whole issue. french vowels have two options — bright and open or bright and nasal. if you haven’t noticed what this means, i’ll be very specific about it. there are no dark vowels in french. it’s all bright. and i don’t mean neutral or mid-mouth. i mean you can speak the whole language without opening your lips more than a few millimeters and it will sound perfectly normal. the wider you make the vowel sound, the less french (and more italian or portuguese in many cases) it sounds. to be clear, there are some dialects where dark, wide vowels appear. these are not standard french and i strongly caution you to speak the standard language, much as i do for any language. it’s the same reason why you would be an incomprehensible moron to learn dialectic english — it’s useless outside the dialect region and it’s no easier, often harder, to learn. so if your vowels sound resonant and full and dark you’re doing it wrong. they should sound sharp and bright in every case.

or sharp, bright and made with your nose. yes, you heard that right. with. your. nose. french has six open-bright vowel sounds — ah, eh, eeh, oh, ooh, uh — and six nasal-bright vowel sounds — ahng, ehng, eehng, ohng, oohng, uhng. it’s always a little difficult to describe in text how these are pronounced but the best way i’ve found is to tell you to use your fingers. speak “ah” as loudly as you can and as brightly as possible. that is the open-bright version. “ahng” can be formed by doing exactly the same thing (loud is important because the resonance you want from the nose only happens naturally from the vibration at high volume — you can learn to do it quietly, of course, but this is about demonstration) but pinch your nose as tightly closed as you can. you’ll get a pretty good approximation of ahng. there’s no “g” sound at all — or even an “n”. when you see “ng” in pronunciation guides, it’s not two sounds together. it’s a nasal vowel. sometimes this is written ã but that is harder to follow for most people so i avoid it.

one script, two approaches

once you have mastered the bright vowels, all twelve, and figured out the half that are made by buzzing through the nose, the rest of french pronunciation is actually pretty simple to get. there’s one major hurdle, though, if you already speak another language that uses the latin alphabet (like english or german). there are two competing ways of using the latin alphabet to communicate sounds. one was popularized in the south, the other in the north. they are not interchangeable, though they’re a little related. when the latin alphabet spread north to the germanic territories, the vastly-different language groups there adopted the writing system as a replacement for their deprecated runes but only had the vaguest of ideas about the sounds the letters made. so they assigned similar sounds to the same letters and pandemonium ensued — and continues to flourish.

you can think of the two potential readings of latin script as the french method and the german method. this isn’t where they began (classical latin and old germanic/norse would be more historically-accurate) but it’s where they ended up. and this differentiation is more extreme than the original so i suggest it’s better to use the modern language names because it shows just how far apart the two readings have gotten. on the german side you get german, of course, english, dutch, northern languages (swedish, danish, norwegian but not finnish, which uses a mashup of both systems and might be the only language that does it, though this isn’t the only “only” finnish has with its myriad cases — which are useless — and its complex poetry — which is beautiful — and its lyric musicality — which is unmatched in western languages), polish and any of the slavic/eastern languages that use latin script (sometimes this changes year to year or government to government — some use cyrillic and latin interchangeably but not always officially). on the french side are french (mais oui!), spanish, italian, portuguese (sort of), latin (it’s dead but certainly not buried) and latinizations of mesoamerican languages and north-american aboriginal languages and language-like speech systems (in most cases, though some use the german system — it depends whether they were linguistically (and militarily) conquered by the spanish and french or the english and dutch). the important part is that the same letters (especially vowels) don’t necessarily mean the same things when switching systems.

so when you see a word in french you can’t think of those letters having the same meanings they have in english. this is a path where many problems lie. you have to learn the alphabet again as if it’s a different script to avoid it. so much like an english speaker must learn the details of hangul to read korean or hiragana to speak japanese, learning the french alphabet (which has totally different names for some of the letters, if you’re curious, though giving letters names is arcane and useless in an extreme way, i must mention) is vital.

getting your mind in the guttural

the most unusual sound for most learners coming to french is r. it doesn’t sound like r in “round” or “red” in english. the sound doesn’t exist in english — don’t feel too bad, though, as it doesn’t exist in chinese, japanese, korean or hindi, either. it’s realistically a vibration in the back of the throat that’s closer to the sound of a large cat purring than an actual consonant. i tend to call this the “honorary thirteenth vowel sound” because it’s not like making the glottal sound typical of consonants.

how to make it is actually fairly simple to do but difficult to express. there are two ways i’ve found work for students, though which will work for you (if either) is hard to predict. the first is to think of “r” as “hr” said really quickly. try to say h and r at the same time without making a vowel come after it and you’ll probably get pretty close to what we call a “flipped r” or “french r”. the idea is that you lightly touch the tip of your tongue against the top of your mouth about a centimeter behind your front teeth as you make the sound “r”. the other way it is sometimes successful to explain this sound’s creation is to try to say “r” while saying “d”. the french r sound is actually much closer to a soft english d (like the starting sound in “dude” or “daddy” rather than the end of “hard” or “wound”). say “r” through the mouth shape and position of “d” and you’ll be pretty close. it takes practice and a lot of “is this right?” “no but you’re getting closer” with a native speaker to get there but if you have serious trouble making the sound you can get fairly close by saying something about halfway between “r” and “l” and that will be much more comprehensible to a french native listener than an english hard r. that’s not the same sound at all and they will hear it as either d or t, making the meaning completely shift and comprehension very difficult.

this is the word that never ends?

french words have myriad silent letters. in some cases, they make up a large portion of the word. the third-person past of have (they had) is “avaient” and pronounced “ave”. and this is not an extreme example. this is just an everyday word pronounced in a standard manner. there are certainly some rules about when a letter is silent but here’s the most basic one — in more than 90% of french words, the last letter is not pronounced. in almost all cases, if the last letter is “s”, the letter before it is not pronounced, either. these are generally grammatical letters and communicate meaning rather than pronunciation. this is one of the key differences between the german and french approaches to writing latin script. in the german method, only sounds that are actually pronounced are written. in the french method, many grammatical and meaning keys are added as letters or letter groups and these remain silent — english has taken many french words and instead of converting them to its usual german approach to spelling has kept the original (or close to the original) spelling, making english the most disastrous of all latin-written languages for its messy spelling. french is very different but at least it’s predictable.

generally speaking, silent letters come at the ends of words. an ending e (unless it has an accent telling you to pronounce it) is probably silent. s, t and d are similar. an ending r is silent unless it’s following an i (in most cases). this will become easier with time but it’s a good way to start thinking about it.

the other thing you need to remember about the french system of writing latin is that word divisions and syllable divisions don’t match. french isn’t a word-divided language. it’s a complete-utterance language. unlike english, where words are discrete units and knowing how to pronounce a word means you can say it that way every time, in french words are impacted by those next to them. this isn’t unique to french — it happens in korean, arabic and many other languages, though those are the two famous for it — and it’s called “elision” or “gliding”. it’s the topic of a whole other article and quite complex in some ways but here’s the basic version.

je vois tes yeux.
je vois tes larmes.
(i see your eyes. i see your tears.)

the first sentence is pronounced “zhuh-vwa-te-zhyuh” while the second is “zhuh-vwa-te-larm”. note “yeux” doesn’t have an s/z sound at the beginning. where has it come from? the end of “tes”. the “s” is silent, of course, as it is the last letter (and an s, which makes it even less likely to be pronounced) but it has been borrowed by the next word. i generally separate syllables using a hyphen, by the way. it makes it easier to tell where one begins and another ends. word divisions are unimportant in french pronunciation so i ignore them in pronunciation guides. this is elision. the words “tes” and “yeux” can be said to elide (or merge) with each other to make a single word — “your eyes” and each time you see this combination it’s the same pronunciation. why is that important? it means you don’t have to figure it out every time for commonly-combined words even as a beginner. for example…

il est beau!
(it’s beautiful!)

this is a very common sentence but the important part is the first two words, “il est”. this is the standard construction for “it is” (also “he is” but we’re getting into gendered grammar and that’s a much more complex subject than pronunciation). every time you have a sentence that begins “il est”, you can remember it’s pronounced “i-le” — the two words combine to form a single group with two syllables where the syllable division isn’t where the words break. and now you know how to pronounce it — it will always sound this way. “il n’est pas” (it’s not) doesn’t elide and becomes “il-ne-pa” with word divisions where you expect them, between the words.

another common phrase in french is…

ça y est.
(that’s it.)

it’s a generic confirmation statement and it’s an excellent example of elision. it’s pronounced “sayi-e” — three words but only two syllables. which brings us to the next point. word and syllable compression is common in french. you don’t need to worry about it when speaking — pronounce everything as it’s written and you’ll get there perfectly fine.

je veux que tu y va mais que tu retournes.
(i want you to go but come back.)

this is, in standard formal pronunciation “zhuh-vuh-kuh-tyu-i-va-me-kuh-tyu-ruh-turn”. fairly simple. and a rather typical french sentence. but it is likely to sound far more like “zhvuh-ktyuhi-va-mektyu-rturn”. (what i’ve written as a single syllable “mektyu” is technically two but they’re compressed so tightly it’s hard to find a division.) that’s less than half the total syllables from the original and this compression is frequent — almost constant — for native speakers. if you ask them (us) to slow down and stop compressing words together, we will absolutely do it. and not just teachers. any french speaker is proud of their language and will be honored you’re taking the time and expending the effort to learn to speak it well. we won’t be insulted you need it to all be spoken as it should be. but don’t be surprised if you jump into french cultural situations and hear sentences that don’t quite sound like what you’re expecting — they’ll be missing many of their syllables and that’s often half or more being compressed out of existence. french has an extremely lengthy grammatical structure. the solution for centuries hasn’t been to fix the messy grammar but to compress the pronunciation to avoid it taking forever to say things. for a beginner, though, or even an intermediate-advanced learner, this can easily make the difference between perfect compression and total confusion. if you’re confused, it’s likely because words have been modified in speech and you’d understand it if it was written. just ask.

all’s well that ends well

french syllables often end with what i call “ghost consonants”. this doesn’t exist in english (or any modern asian language) so it’s possibly a confusing concept. the most obvious example is the verb “be” — être. it’s a single syllable pronounced “ehtr”. this will take some practice if you’re coming from a language where consonants are pronounced either before or after vowels. the “t” is no problem because it closes the “eh” sound like in the english words “met” or “set”. but the “r”? not only is it the most difficult sound in french to pronounce, now it’s not attached to a vowel. so it’s not pronounced “ri” or “ruh” — it’s just the shape of the consonant.

the key is just not to think of it as a separate letter. think of “tr” as a single consonant sound that just happens to be a mashup. you’re ending the “eh” vowel not with “t” but “tr”. think of it in that way and it will be much simpler. you’re not trying to add an extra sound — if you add an extra sound it will probably change the word completely and add a new syllable. you’re just adding the closing shape of the mouth of the final consonant to the previous consonant’s pronunciation.

vowels with stretched lips

i have mostly assumed it’s ok and ignored it so far but one of the most difficult things for many french learners is the difference between the vowel sounds in “vous” (formal/plural you) and “vu” (saw, not the tool but the past of see). the first is “vu” (as a pronunciation) while the second is “vyu”. if you come from a language where this division is common (korean, for example), this is easy once you figure out how it’s spelled in french — these two words can be thought of as 부 and 뷰 (i know, “v” doesn’t exist in korean but you get the idea and we’re talking about the vowel sounds). in pinyin, if you’re a chinese speaker, this difference would be notated as “vu” and “vü” — the actual difference in pronunciation is more extreme than how it would be separated in standard mandarin but it’s a good proxy for where the two begin to branch away from each other. if you are coming from a language (japanese, for example) where this division doesn’t exist, it becomes a little more complex because there’s no obvious way to write it. it’s easier to think in terms of mouth function. for the first, you’re already there. it’s just the standard オ sound. for the other, however prepare to say the same sound but push your lips forward about a centimeter (even two if you have very flexible lips) and say it sound. it will sound almost like you’re trying to speak while kissing something. if it sounds like the noise you make when unexpectedly tasting something extremely sour, you’re on the right track.

from basic guides to spoken french

there’s no simple answer to how to go from written to spoken french. it’s not impossible but it takes practice and doing it without a teacher is unwise. there are so many pronunciation rules to learn, it’s far easier just to do it by experience — that’s why i haven’t given a hundred rules to memorize here, just a few basic guidelines that should help you in every sentence.

of course, there are pronunciation guides available and there are pronunciation keys in every french dictionary. that’s great. but if you don’t want to spend an hour figuring out how to read a page (and that’s without actually figuring out any of the meaning), it’s best to do it by mirroring. you’ll waste vastly less time that way.

i have recorded many examples of french pronunciation with text and other french teachers have done the same. audiobooks are readily-available from audible and other sources so you can purchase the actual book and follow the pronunciation in the audio edition if you want to do mirroring without actually having to pay a teacher. this is only half the battle, though. it’s hard to tell if you’re making the same sound — especially with things like “r” and “yu”, where the sound might be completely new to you. it’s great practice, though, and it’s a wise thing to do between actual lessons.

whether you are studying with me or another french teacher, though, it’s probably a good idea to either speak to them for correction on a regular basis, especially in the beginning stages, or record yourself and send it for comment, something i encourage my students to do every day, even if it’s a day we don’t have class, so i can give them feedback without them having to wait a week (or even a few days) where they might be practicing an error and making it so much more difficult to fix.

anyway, french pronunciation isn’t rocket-science. it’s actually pretty simple. once you get your head around the idea the letters don’t mean the same things they do in english and all the vowels are bright. happy speaking. and bonne chance! (“bahng shahngs” — good luck)

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.