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:

Consonants

‎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.‎

'j' sounds

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.)‎

'g' sounds

‎2. ch

In French, the letters ch make the sound sh.‎

  • chou - cabbage
  • chaussures - shoes
  • cloche - bell
'ch' sounds

‎3. il‎

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
'il' sounds

‎4. gn‎

The letters gn sound like n followed by y. For example:‎

  • signe - sign
  • campagne - countryside
  • montagne - mountain
'gn' sounds

‎5. qu‎

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.‎

'qu' sounds

‎6. r‎

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.‎

'r' sounds

Vowels

‎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.‎

'nasal' sounds

‎8. o

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 ‎
'o' sounds

‎9. eu‎

Many words with the letters eu are pronounced similarly to the ‘er’ in teacher in English.‎

  • beurre - butter
  • sœur - sister
  • heure - hour
'eu' sounds

‎10. oo

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
'oo' sounds

Where next?

Discover more from around Bitesize.

Understanding silent letters in French
Introducing yourself in French
More from KS3 French