Last week, someone asked me why some people lose their accents while others don't. I thought it was an interesting question that brings more questions, like, "Why do we have accents in the first place?" and, "Is it possible to speak your target language like a true native?" In this article, I will analyse how to pronounce in French and what makes French sound "French," in the hope of shedding some light on these issues.


Languages are not just strings of words tied together in a particular order. If they were, speaking them like a native would be relatively easy.



Languages appear to be more like acapella songs. "Lyrics" are sung on the beat of an internal "music." We drag or skip letters, stress or drop syllables and we leave gaps (or not) between words in a predictable way. This "rhythm" is dictated by the rules of our mother tongue and may vary slightly according to local factors.


I've done an experiment to test my theory. I asked a French speaker (my sister) to say "Le français est très important pour moi" in a recording studio. The idea was that the sound wave produced would reveal the "signature" of the French language, with distinctive dips and peaks. For comparison, I asked Isabelle and Dave to say in English, "English is really important for me." Here are the results of my experiment:





Do you see how the French sound wave is a chopped up in small parcels like Morse code? In comparison, Dave's sound wave is more "full", with almost no "absolute" breaks. I reckon a British person would produce a sound wave even more "stretched". But don't you find it funny that both English versions are different? Isabelle was surprised! She's still a learner but she had not realised she was saying English words with a French staccato. The opposite is true too: saying French words the "English way" is not good enough. It would be like singing "La Marseillaise" (the French national anthem) on the beat of "God Save the Queen" (the British national anthem). To say it would sound jarring is an understatement. You can hear for yourself in my mash-up of said two anthems. It's truly awful!


The only way to speak like a true native is to understand the rules of pronunciation of the French language. I intend to cover all the basics for a good "international" French pronunciation (subtleties between French from France and Québécois won't be mentioned here). I will share all my pronunciation tips. Some of it will overlap with other articles, so I apologize for the repetition, but keep in mind that repetition is your friend!


I think this article should be of particular use to self-learners who want to know how to pronounce in French or if your teacher favours "soft" teaching techniques (i.e. letting mistakes slips by without saying anything in order to make you comfortable - hoping that you will understand by yourself the difference between how the teacher says things and how you say them).


First of all, let's get acquainted (or re-acquainted, indulge me) with the new alphabet. It's essential to spot the differences between the French and the English letters as they are the building blocks of the language. How can you build a good, sturdy house if you don't know the properties of the different building materials?


To make it as straightforward as possible, I've made some conversion tables with approximate phonetic transcription of the French letters. This should help you to get it right. I know some letters are trickier than others to pronounce in French, at least at the start. Some letters are quite challenging to explain too (especially G, J, Q and U), because the English alphabet doesn't seem to have corresponding sounds. But since we are all equipped with the same "instrument" and the same potential, if I can say them effortlessly, so can you. Keep practicing and ask a native to recite them for you.




This is how each letter is pronounced in French:


English letter








French pronunciation






(or err)



(minus d)


English letter








French pronunciation




(minus d)






English letter








French pronunciation







u (minus ee)


English letter






French pronunciation


doobluh vay


ee grek



So if I spelled my name out loud in French ("Caroline"), I would say "say-ah-air-o-el-ee-enn-uh". If you haven't tried yet, try spelling your name and address out loud now. Developing this skill is particularly important if you need to fill in a form or book something on the phone.


The Double Life of Certain Letters


C, G and S all have a double life. They can be "hard" or "soft". Y has a triple identity. Here are the rules to avoid pitfalls.



is hard (K sound) when followed by A, O or U

ex : carte, corde, culture

is soft (SSS sound) when followed by E, I or Y

ex : censure, cil, cygne



is hard (G sound) when followed by A, O or U

ex : gaz, golf, guitare

is soft (J minus D sound) when followed by E, I or Y

ex : gens, gin, gym



is hard (Z sound) when between 2 vowels

ex : visage [vee-zaj]

is soft (S sound) at the beginning of words or when paired

ex : sale, masse



sounds like "ee" if it's not next to another vowel

ex : mystère [mee-stair]

sounds like "yuh" if it's at the beginning of a word

ex : yoga

is split into two "i", one for each syllable, if next to a vowel

ex : pays = pai-i [pay ee]




In French, you may come across accent aigu, accent grave, accent circonflexe, tréma and cédille. Some have a sound and some are there for grammar purposes only.



Letters with this potential accent

What it does:

Accent aigu


AY sound

Accent grave

à, è, ù

No special sound for à and ù (it's used to differentiate homophones)

è is a bit like E in the word "jet" or "merry".

Accent circonflexe

â, ê, î, ô, û

Should be deeper, longer rounder letter, but seems to affect only "â" and maybe "ê", but not to the same level.


ï, ë, ü

Splits syllables. For example, "noël" is said [no-el]



Soft SSS sound all the time. For example, "garçon" is [gar-son]


Combined Letters


When letters combine, they can create entirely new sounds. Many combinations make the same sound tough!



AI / EZ / ER at the end of a word

ER in the middle of a word












Exceptions (with pronunciation)

ais = è, mer [merr], cher [sherr]


escalier [ess-ca-lee-yay]











EN / AN / EM




L (normal)

kuh (not kw!)

on (short)

an (short)

in (short)

Exceptions (with pronunciation)

mille [mil], million [mee-lee-on], ville [veel], village [vee-laj]




Femme [fam]












sion (not shion!)

juh (soft)

guh (hard)

ee uh (don't blend it)

uh ee (don't blend it)










Warning: Don't overdo the sound "ou." It should sound like the English "oo." If you can't hear a difference between "u" and "ou", you're doing it wrong. One common mistake is to pronounce in French "beaucoup" like this: [bo ku]. It makes it sounds like you said "beau cul" (meaning "nice ass"). So, be careful! Say [bo koo] to rhyme with a cooing pigeon [coo!] The trick to make the English "oo" sound French is to NOT elongate it.


Common Mistakes


The second step when learning a language is to build up a new vocabulary, but keep in mind to say those words like a French speaker would. Tell-tale mistakes are:


  • Saying the letter: H. Words like "hôtel" ( it is just "otel" ).


  • Saying consonants at the end of a word. We don't pronounce in French most D, T and S when they are the last letter of a word.


For example, I hear the word "intéressant" pronounced "in-tay-ray-ssant". It should be "in-tay-ress-ssan". No T!


Another common mistake is to read "riz" (rice) as [reez] when it should simply be [ree].

Also, if you pronounce the T at the end of a noun or an adjective, it will sound like you are saying the feminine version of that word. For example, if you say [klee-ant], I will understand "cliente" (female customer). The masculine version is [klee-an].


  • Making all E (é and è included) sound like AY. The correct rules are as follow:



1) A plain E at the end of the word is to be skipped (replace it by a hyphen in your head)

2) É at the end of a word is to be pronounced.

For example, "porte" is said [port-] and "porté" is [por-tay].

3) If a three-syllable word has a plain E in the middle, replace it with a hyphen in your head. Squash the E and read the word as if it were two syllables. For example, "acheter" would become "ach-ter" and would be pronounced [ash-tay].


  • Saying a long N when it's the last letter of a word or saying a short one when it's followed by an E. Getting it wrong in both cases is actually quite common, but it still drives me up the wall. The letter N should be super-short if at the end of a word (a millisecond), but it needs to be dragged about four times more than you think is decent if it's    followed by an "E."


Three words that are murdered all the time are: "semaine" (it's not pronounced "say-main" but "suh-mennnnnnnn"), "personne" (say [pair-sonnnnnnnn]), "téléphone" (it should be [tay-lay-fonnnn]) and "bonne" [bonnnnnnnnnn].


Here is a list of some other words that should come with little warning bells:


  • "Pour". Saying "pour" (for) to indicate duration of time is a typical mistake made by native English speakers. In French, we say "pendant" or "durant" when a situation has a starting point and a finishing point. For example, "J'ai appris le français pendant 3 ans" (I started learning French at some point in the past and I stopped three years later).        


  • "Pendant" or "durant". Saying "pendant" or "durant" (for) when meaning "since" is another common mistake. "Depuis" is used when a situation is still going on. You should say "J'apprend le français depuis 3 ans" (I've been learning French for 3 years).


  • "Toujours" (always), "jamais" (never), "souvent" (often) should not be wedged between the subject and the verb in French. Put them after the verb. Ex: "J'étudie souvent le soir"     (I often study during the evenings).


  • With words like "beaucoup"(many/alot), "un peu" (a little), "assez" (enough of something) and "pas" (no/any) you should always use "de" (or d') and no articles. Do not use "des," even if it's plural. And please, please pronounce "de" as [duh], not [day]. Ex : "J'ai lu beaucoup de livres" (I've read many books).



Other problematic words are known as "false friends". For more on that subject, click here.         


Learning the Rhythm


The third step to true fluency is learning how to pace words and the space (or lack) between words. Should you stress the first, middle or last syllable? Personally, I find that the last syllable is the shortest in French, but all other syllables have roughly the same length. If we compare the pronunciation of the word "television" for example: I've been told to say it (in English) a bit like "TELLL-a-vee-gee-oNNN." From my point of view, English speakers sing their endings. It drags and drags. French speakers don't like that. We are more "economical" with our endings (I mean plain old lazy). "Télévision" in French, it would be "tay-lay-vee-zeeon." No capitals, because there is no emphasis anywhere. The only special thing is the tiny ‘n’ at the end.



As for how we string words together, there is a thing called "liaison." It's a sort of bridge between the end of one word and the beginning of the next word. But French speakers don't do it all the time. Here are the rules laid out for you:


- Liaisons are made when a word finishes with a consonant and the next word starts with a vowel.

- Liaisons must be made between article and nouns. For example: "un," "les" and "des."

- Liaisons must also be made between a subject and a verb. For example: "nous", "vous", "ils" and "elle."

- Liaisons must be made between possessive adjectives and nouns. For example: "mon," "ton," "son" and "leurs."

- Liaison with "comment" (how) and "sous" (under) are strongly advised.

- Other liaisons are optional. They vary according to taste and geography.

- Liaison with "et" (and) are forbidden.


Now, let's see how it works. It's quite simple really.


A) Double the last consonant and carry it across to the next word. This way, you can leave a gap between two words, but still link them.

For example: un example = un Nexampl-

B) If the last consonant is an S, don't pronounce it. Carry the letter Z across instead.

For example: nous avons = noo Zavon-


Common mistakes:


  • Leaving no gaps at all, so a sentence like "Nous avons des oiseaux" sounds like [noozavondayzwazo].


  • Saying a subject (like "ils") and dragging the last consonant (so it becomes [eelzzz]) while thinking of the verb that should come next.


My last piece of advice is to pay attention to how natives speak. Take notes. You will discover some cute short cuts and weird links that are trendy in your area (or in the place you intend to visit). This will help you to blend in hugely.


That’s it for now! I've covered all the ground I was hoping to. I hope you liked it and found it useful. Keep practicing and good luck with it all!


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