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Hi, this is Gabe from Towerofbabelfish.com. We’re going to look at French pronunciation, and we’ll break it up into two parts:
- One, learning how to hear and say the sounds accurately.
- Two, learning the connection between the way words are spelled and the way they sound.
This video addresses the first of these goals, which is itself best addressed in two parts. Here, we’ll talk about theory: where your tongue should be, what your lips are doing, etc. This will get you in the general ballpark.
To get more accurate, you’ll need to do some careful listening and mimicking of recordings. You’re looking for words that sound similar to your ear but are pronounced differently – roux and rue, nôtre and notre, etc.
You’ll find resources for this in the video description, and I’m in the process of making an Anki deck with native speaker recordings to help.
If you haven’t seen the first three videos on English pronunciation, go do that now [here, here, and here], especially the vowels video because French vowels are tricky, and you need to know what’s going on in your mouth in English before you try to add French to the mix.
So, let’s get started. French has 21 consonants and at least 15 vowels, compared with English’s 24 consonants and 13 vowels. Of these, you’ll need to learn 3 fairly new consonant sounds, 8 fairly new vowels, and then some little adjustments to your English sounds here and there.
We’ll start with the vowels since they’re a bit harder.
I’m going to be comparing everything to American English. If you have a different dialect, the principles are the same. Remember, the goal is to understand what’s going on in your mouth, and then move in the direction of the French sounds. The fine-tuning occurs later, when you work with recordings.
First, we’ll talk about the vowels that French and English share:
/i/ as in beat or lit are both more or less the same – they’re frontal, closed and unrounded.
/ɛ/ as in chaise or bet is also about the same. This vowel rides the front side of the trapezoid, and is much more open than /i/
/u/ as in boot is very close to the French. French is a little more backed, and I’d say a little more rounded, than some dialects of English, which might pronounce this name as Lou, and in French loue. You need make absolutely sure that your lips are in a tight circle, out in front: loue.
One thing about speaking French is that it uses the lips muscles quite a bit more than English does.
French has 8 rounded vowels, compared with English’s 3–4, and even with the unrounded vowels, there’s a bit of lip tension, as if they’re getting ready to say one of the rounded vowels. So if you feel your lips getting tired, you’re probably doing it about right.
You’ll recognize a few more of these vowel symbols in the French vowel chart.
We’ve seen /ɔ/ as a pot, /ɑ/ as in father, and /e/ as in the diphthong lane or the British bed, and we’ve seen the schwa /ə/, as in about and the tree.
As I mentioned at the end of the English vowels video, these tell you approximately what to expect in terms of rounding, backness, and height, but aren’t 100% precise. These 4 vowels sound slightly different in French, so we’ll use the English sounds we know and work towards the French sounds.
Feel free to pause the video occasionally and practice some of these sounds, or watch it a few times.
The English open o, /ɔ/ as in talk, is further back than the French /ɔ/ as in toque. To get a sense of front and back in this position, compare the English pot and pet for a moment, and notice how your tongue comes forward for /ɛ/.
For the French open o, you’ll let your tongue come just slightly forward from the English one – say, just 25% of that motion in the direction of /ɛ/ to get un toque. Comparing similar French and English words, we have odd, talk.
/ɑ/ as in father is a bit more open and a bit further back compared with the French /ɑ/.
We’ll do the exact same thing we just did with the open o, this time comparing father and fat. Fat is more closed and more frontal than father, and that’s exactly what we want to put into our French vowel. Notice how your tongue moves slightly up and slightly forward for /æ/.
Again, we take about 25% of that motion from /ɑ/ to /æ/. So, where with an American accent you would say “ta,” in French you would say “ta”: la-bas, llama – lama.
I’m not going to make a distinction between the two /ɑ/ vowels in French, because I haven’t met many French speakers who do. This distinction is disappearing in the French language, and you can see how much overlap there is already in the vowel chart.
If you want to put these two sounds into your French, you’ll use the same technique, and you’ll need to find some recordings of French speakers who really make a difference between words like patte and pâte, which I don’t do accurately enough to teach very well.
The closed e, /e/, is substantially more closed in French than it is in English. In English, we have it in the first half of the diphthong /eɪ/ in, let’s say, the letter “A” or the British bed.
We’ll get at it in two ways, one from /ɪ/, and one from the open e, /ɛ/. One of these will probably be easier for you, depending on whether you have a better sense of your tongue’s height or of its backness.
We’ll go from /e/ first and talk about backness. So let’s compare pit to put /ɪ//ʊ/ – it should give you a sense of coming forward on the /ɪ/ and back on the /ʊ/.
To get to /e/, you’ll need to go a bit further forward with the rounded part of your tongue. So you’re starting all the way back with /ʊ/, you’re going forward to /ɪ/, and then even further to /e/.
If we come from the open /ɛ/, we can compare the sounds of /ɛ/ and /i/, and we’ll go about halfway between them to get /e/. So omparing all 3 sounds, we have les lits, l’été, les grèves.
At this point, we can talk about the rounded vowels. As I mentioned earlier, French uses many more rounded vowels than English does, and three of these come from rounding the frontal vowels /i/, /e/, and /ɛ/.
In English, the only rounded vowels are back vowels like /u/, /ʊ/, and /ɔ/, and in diphthongs like /oʊ/, and so we need to learn how to make rounded frontal vowels.
When you go from the vowel /i/ to /u/, your tongue naturally tends to back as soon as your lips round. And so, for French you need to learn how to separate those two movements somewhat.
So we’ll start from the vowel “i”.
If I start with /y/ and round my lips, then I got /i/ – /y/. When I do this, when I think about rounding, my tongue naturally tends to back. And this is exactly what we want.
If you look at the chart, you can see that the three frontal rounded vowels are all further to the right than their unrounded siblings.
If I try to really force an /i/ tongue position with this vowel, then I get [makes sound], which isn’t quite right. As soon as I let my tongue pull back it wants to do naturally, then I’ll get /y/.
Comparing these two vowels, I have /u/ and /y/. And again comparing, I have /i/ /y/.
You can do the same thing with the other two rounded vowels.
For /ø/ as in feu, we can either go from our new vowel /e/ and go /e/ /ø/, or maybe easier, just go from the English /ɪ/ as in bit, and not move our tongues as much. In that case, you get /ɪ/ /ø/.
For /œ/ as in œuf or cœur, we’re gonna go from the open vowel /ɛ/ and round that. So we get /ɛ/ /œ/. Examples would be “F” – œuf, maire – meurre.
The schwa /ə/ in French, like the schwa in English, is an unclear, unaccented vowel. To my ear, the French schwa is almost identical to the closed rounded /ø/, as in feu. You’d get things like le feu /lə fø/. Some dialects will let it open up a bit, in the direction of coeur.
But no matter what, it’s rounded and frontal, and if I were you, I’d stick to keeping it closed.
So if you’ studied French, then you might notice something is missing from this vowel chart. Where are the vowels for words like un, cinq, onze, cent?
French has 3 or 4 nasal vowels, during which air is allowed to escape through the nose at the same time as the mouth.
If I pinch my nose while trying to say those four words, I’d get un, cinq, onze, cent, compared with – still holding my nose – coeur, brève, sauter, sache. These last four words aren’t affected by me closing my nose because no air is coming out of my nose anyway.
English does this a little bit, like how the vowel in the word and is different from add. But we always move onto an n or m consonant in these sort of words, and in French, you don’t in general.
Like any vowels, the nasal vowels in French have specific characteristics of roundness, backness, and height. And these vowels just have an extra nasal component.
To mark this in IPA, you take the vowel that has the 3 characteristics you want, and you add this little squiggly nasal diacritic. So for the first vowel, /ɑ̃/, as in cent, sans, you start with a tongue and mouth position of /ɑ/ as in ça, and you nasalize it: cent, sans.
The next nasal vowel is rounded and backed, and usually written as an open o /ɔ/ in dictionaries, although some linguists are arguing for closed /o/ since it’s actually become a bit more closed in recent years. I’ll go from closed /o/ as well.
Comparing these two words, we have beau, bon – /o/ /õ/ or /ɔ/ /ɔ̃/. It doesn’t really matter which symbol you use, as long as you get a good sense of the sound, and you know what’s meant when you see it in a dictionary.
The third nasal vowel is a nasalized open /ɛ/, and is found in words spelled with “in” and “im,” like vingt, cinq, and simple. Comparing these two words, we have sec, cinq – /ɛ/ /ɛ̃/.
The fourth nasal vowel doesn’t exist in all dialects of French. It shows up in words spelled with “un” or “um”, and is based on the rounded open /œ/ as in coeur. Many French speakers just use the nasalized open /œ̃/, and you’re free to do the same.
Personally, I like the distinction, and you can hear it in words like brin, brun, which many French speakers will still pronounce /bʁɛ̃/ /bʁɛ̃/. They’ll be the same.
Those are the French vowels, and that’s the main hard part.
French doesn’t really have diphthongs, though they do have three approximants, which are close to diphthongs, just the timing’s different. You can’t stay on an approximant; you’d have to move on to the vowel.
Two of them are familiar: /j/ and /w/, based on the familiar /i/ and /u/, respectively, which produce glides like oui /wi/ and roi /ʁwa/as well as veillé /veje/, brouillant /bʁujɑ̃/… things like this.
The third is fairly foreign sounding as it’s based on the rounded front vowel /y/. Again, it’s like an /i/ with lip rounding.
So if you want to think about it in consonant terms, it’s a labialized palatal approximant, meaning that it’s labialized – the lips are tightly rounded just like in the labialized velar approximant /w/, but it’s palatal in this case. S0 instead of the back coming up towards your soft palate, like in /w/, the middle of your tongue comes up towards the roof of your mouth: /ɥ/.
English speakers often have a hard time distinguishing the two labial approximants, and so words like huit /ɥi/and oui /wi/, lui /lɥi/and Louis /lwi/ are sometimes hard to tell apart.
If you practice repeating after recordings of difficult pairs like those, it will make a huge difference in both your accent and your listening comprehension.
If you look at the rest of the consonant chart, all but two should be pretty familiar from English. Those two would be the uvular /ʁ/ and the palatal nasal /ɲ/.
We’ll start with the palatal nasal. It’s made with the middle of the tongue touching the roof of your mouth – agneau /aɲo/ instead of anneau /ano/.
As for the uvular /ʁ/, it has a few variants. They’re all uvular, though the manner can change a bit from region to region and from person to person.
You have the uvular trill /ʀ/, the uvular fricative /ʁ/, the uvular approximant /ʁ̞/, and the unvoiced uvular fricative /χ/. Some of these sounds sound weird out of context, but if I stick them in a word like arrondissement, they make a lot more sense. They all sound actually relatively normal.
You’ll hear all of these sounds when you listen to French native speakers, as well as an occasional alveolar rolled /r/. If I were you, I’d go for the voiced uvular fricative. I think that’s the most common and sort of the most neutral.
At this point, we’re basically done. The unvoiced plosives /p/, /t/ and /k/ are all less aspirated than their English siblings, and the lateral alveolar /l/ is just alveolar – the back of the tongue isn’t raised, like our velarized alveolar /ɫ/.
To quickly review, we have [all the vowels]; we have four nasals, or three nasals. For consonants, we have the uvular /ʁ/, the palatal nasal /ɲ/, and the labialized palatal approximant /ɥ/.
Unvoiced plosives aren’t strongly aspirated, and the /l/ isn’t velarized.
In the next video, we’ll talk about the spelling rules – how you go from what you read to what you say.
To practice these sounds, check out some of the resources in the video description. You can find a ton of recordings at forvo.com, and you can have native speakers record your own text at Rhinospike.
I’ll be supplying an Anki deck soon and it’ll be linked below when it’s ready. Subscribe above and until next time!
Remember that you can now download the Fluent Forever app to speed up your pronunciation progress in the French language!
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