Let’s be honest, French can be a very difficult language to master. To be fluent in French, you need to: memorize countless verb conjugations, remember thousands of vocabulary words, and understand complex grammar rules… the list goes on. To further complicate things, French has about 10 different vowel sounds, along with an additional four nasal vowels (depending on the dialect and/or idiolect). Many people learning French find it hard to pronounce all of these vowels correctly, seeing as some of these vowels do not exist in other languages.
One vowel sound that is often difficult for non-native speakers to pronounce is the French u. This sound can be found in a wide variety of words such as tu, cru, du, and many more. In this short article, I am going to outline four simple steps to pronounce the u sound like a native speaker. The four steps are:
- Dis-associate u From ou
- Say “Cheese!”
- Round Your Lips
- Practice u In Different Words
Step 1: Disassociate u From ou
Many people who are studying French believe that the u found in words like tu or du, is similar to the ou sound found in words such as tous or doux. This could not be further from the truth, and it’s the most common mistake made by beginners. It’s crucial that you disassociate these two sounds before you even start trying to pronounce the French u. Otherwise, you will end up pronouncing words incorrectly. This, in turn, will cause you to have an accent and even potentially be misunderstood when speaking French.
Step 2: Say “Cheese!”
With my students who struggle to pronounce the u sound, I’ll often have them pronounce the word “cheese” as a starting point. This is because the first step to being able to pronounce u is to be able to say the ee sound in the word “cheese”. Notice how when you say ee, the tip of your tongue is touching the inside of your bottom two teeth in your mouth. This is going to be an important part for step three, so keep that in mind. If you do not maintain that tongue position, you’ll find that it is virtually impossible to pronounce a French u.
Step 3: Round Your Lips
This is where things get a little bit trickier, so kindly pay attention. As you are saying the ee sound in “cheese”? Now round your lips. It’s almost as if you are saying “cheese” while trying to give someone a kiss. Focus on keeping your tongue in the exact same position as when you pronounced ee in the word “cheese”. If you don't, you will end up pronouncing the ou sound in French instead of u.
This can take a lot of practice to perfect, so don’t get discouraged if you’re not able to pronounce it perfectly the first time. Just keep working at it. For some people, it can sometimes take hours of practice before being able to say the sound properly.
Step 4: Practice u In Different French Words
Once you’re able to comfortably say u, it’s time to practice this in different words. Usually, it is best to start by practicing with the word tu. Initially, start by saying tee, then slowly round your lips as you did in step three so that you’re saying tu. Once you’ve done that a few times, shorten the length of time that you are saying tee, and increase the speed at which the tee turns into tu.
Repeat this process for any word with the u sound that you are struggling with. For instance, if you’re struggling with the word du, start off by saying dee and then round your lips to say du.
Once you’ve gotten the hang of pronouncing the French u, here is a progression of words to master the u sound in different words. The list starts with some simple words or phrases and finishes with some difficult ones:
- J’ai vu un ours
- Je veux que tu fasses tes devoirs
- As-tu vu le tutu de tulle de Lili d’Honolulu?
We’ve now gone through the four steps to pronounce the u sound in French. To summarize, in order to successfully pronounce u, you need to say ee (like in the English word “cheese”) and round your lips. Once you’re able to do this comfortably, test yourself by saying simple French words that have the u sound such as tu or du.
Be mindful to keep your tongue pressed against your bottom two front teeth as you are practicing. Otherwise, you will end up saying ou (as in the words tous or doux). Although it may seem hard at first, don't give up! With time and practice, being able to pronounce this vowel sound will become second nature to you.