Pronouncing words in French
What is a phoneme?
A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound. For example, in the word ‘dog’, there are three units of sound: D-O-G.
In French, there are some phonemes that are different to English ones. Here are ten of the most useful French phonemes:
1. j and g (followed by i or e)
In French, the letter j sounds like the letter s in the English word television.
Je joue au foot le jeudi - I play football on Thursdays.
When a g is followed by e or i, it has the same sound.
La girafe est gigantesque mais gentille - The giraffe is huge but nice/friendly.
(Emphasis on the letters in italics.)
In French, the letters ch make the sound sh.
- chou - cabbage
- chaussures - shoes
- cloche - bell
Sometimes, the letters il in French can make the sound ‘eey’ in English, for example in the following words:
- famille - family
- billet - note, ticket
- fille - girl
- vanille - vanilla
The letters gn sound like n followed by y. For example:
- signe - sign
- campagne - countryside
- montagne - mountain
When a French word starts with qu, it is almost always pronounced k, rather than 'kw' (as it often is in English).
Il est quatre heures et quart - It’s quarter past four.
There are a few exceptions to this rule, as in the words aquarium and aquatique.
In French, when there is an r at the start (and often in the middle) of a word, the r sound comes from the back of your throat. At the very end of a word, it is usually silent.
Robert aime manger les raisins et regarder les films romantiques - Robert likes eating grapes and watching romantic films.
7. Nasal vowels
When a vowel is followed by m or n in French, they become ‘nasal’ and the m or n isn’t pronounced. ‘Nasal’ means that they are pronounced using the nose and sound a little bit like they would if you had a cold!
Le garçon est dans un champ avec son chien - The boy is in a field with his dog.
The phoneme o can be made up of a number of different letter combinations in French, such as ‘eau’, ‘au’ ‘aux’ and simply using o.
- eau - water
- gâteau - cake
- gauche - left
- journaux- newspapers
- mot - word
Many words with the letters eu are pronounced similarly to the ‘er’ in teacher in English.
- beurre - butter
- sœur - sister
- heure - hour
There is a small, but important, difference between the oo sound in the French words tu (you) and tout (everything). The oo sound in tout is longer and more rounded than the shorter oo sound in tu. Here are some examples of both sounds:
- tu - you
- tout - everything
- rue - street
- roue - wheel
- bu - drunk (past participle of ‘boire’ - to drink)
- boue - mud