French Pronunciation Lesson: Use This To Be Better Understood

Many students want to improve their French fluency to be better understood.
When you put time and effort into learning a language, you want to make sure people can understand you. Using liaisons is one of my best tips for achieving it in spoken French. Ready to learn more?

C’est parti !

1) “La liaison” in a nutshell

La liaison is a rule of French pronunciation, when a (usually) silent consonant actually gets pronounced before a vowel. It happens in certain circumstances.

Let’s explain with an example, in three sentences:

a) No liaison: Camille a faim. = Camille is hungry. → No silent letter before a vowel, each word is separate.
b) No liaison : On mange. = We’re eating. → Silent letter in “On” comes before a consonant (“m” in “mange”), so each word is separate; “on” sounds like a nasal vowel.
c) Liaison : On a faim. = We’re hungry. → “On” (silent letter “n”) comes before a vowel (“a”) so a liaison appears! We now hear an extra “n” sounds after “on”: that’s “la liaison.”

Le truc en plus: “Une liaison” means “an (extramarital) affair”. The word also brings to mind the famous epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses (Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, 1782.) This book got turned into several movies such as Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1959, Vadim, with Jeanne Moreau), Dangerous Liaisons (1988, Frears, with Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Keanu Reeves and more), or even… Cruel Intentions (1999, Kumble, set in modern time and starring Sarah Michelle Gellar.)

La liaison: why ?
La liaison prevents gliding vowels (diphthongs), when you have too many vowel sounds in a row. When French people speak fast (they always do), these vowel sounds would get mushed together (making it unpleasant and harder to understand) – or we would need to add extra pauses, unnatural-sounding cuts between words that would sound disjointed and make fast French speech impossible. La liaison is a compromise that developed over time to fix these issues – helping speech flow better.

La liaison: most common letters that get pronounced

  • “-n” + vowel : the silent “n”, as in “On a faim.” The “liaison” adds an “n” sound to the nasal vowel.
  • “-s” + vowel : the silent “s”, as in “Mes enfants.” In a liaison, the letter “s” now sounds like “z”

Three kinds of liaisons:

  • obligatoire = mandatory, as in Mes enfants = my kids. Missing this liaison is a mistake in French, and it sounds weird and disjointed. Everybody makes these liaisons, even in everyday spoken French.
  • facultative = optional, as in Je suis arrivé. = I’ve arrived / I’m here. Pronouncing an optional liaison sounds more elegant and more formal.
  • interdite = forbidden, as in un cours intéressant = an interesting lesson. The “s” stays silent, even before a vowel.

Using the mandatory liaisons will help you be better understood. They’re part of the rules of pronunciation! Without them, you’ll sound incoherent. If you pronounce things like “On / a / faim” without liaison, French people will struggle to understand exactly what’s going on with you.

In the next section, you’ll find some rules to determine which is which.

2) Three kinds of liaison and more pronunciation

La liaison involves a silent letter placed just before a vowel.

Mandatory liaison in four main cases:

  1. Between a determiner:
    Un avion, a plane.
    Mes enfants, my kids.
  2. Between a pronoun and a verb:
    On est là. = We’re here.
    Vous avez l’heure ? = Do you have the time?
  3. Between an adjective and its noun:
    Des grands enfants, big children.
    Un petit ami, “a small friend”, is an informal way to talk about a boyfriend.
  4. After a preposition:
    Sous = under, chez = at, en = in
    Chez eux, en Amérique. In their home, in America.
  5. Special cases:
    Les États-Unis. = The United States.
    C’est un film très intéressant. = This movie is very interesting.
    C’est trop important ! = It’s very important.

Optional liaison (sounds formal and elegant)

  • After a verb in the plural
    Nous regardons un film. = We’re watching a movie.
  • After the verb “Être”
    Je suis arrivé. = I arrived, I’m here.
    C’est un oiseau! = It’s a bird!
  • Noun in plural + adjective in plural
    des soldats anglais = English soldiers.

Forbidden liaison (sounds weird and clunky!)

  • With a first name
    Chez Arthur. = at Arthur’s place.
  • Before a verb (when not a pronoun)
    Les avions atterrissent. = The planes are landing.
  • Noun in singular + adjective in singular
    Un soldat anglais = an English solder.

Built-in expressions and composed words

The French language is full of exceptions. So, here is your list of “exceptions” for all the expressions and composed words where French people automatically use the liaison out of habit.

  • Les États-Unis = the United States
  • Peut-être = maybe
  • Avant-hier = the day before yesterday
  • C’est-à-dire = that is to say
  • De temps en temps = from time to time
  • Plus ou moins = more or less
  • Tout à coup = All of a sudden
  • Tout à l’heure = Later…
  • Comment allez-vous ? = How are you?
  • Quand est-ce que… ? = When is it that…?

Click here to learn more:
How to Use ‘La Liaison’ Properly (Rules + Examples)

3) Common Mistakes & Extra Pronunciation

Even French people often make mistakes with liaisons. For French learners and native speakers, the most common mistakes are actually:

  • Forgetting a mandatory liaison → This will make your sentence sound a bit more disjointed than it should.
  • Adding a forbidden liaison → This sounds strange, but it should work out if you use what you hear. Don’t try to “liaison” everything.
  • Pronouncing the wrong consonant in the liaison → This one is fun. All French people slip up from time to time.

A silent “s” becomes a “z” sound. Les ours, bears. If you use a “s” sound instead, however, it would sound like “les sources”, sources.

The difference between “z” and “s” is easy, though. For French learners, the mistakes come from the more uncommon silent letters. Because some of them are straightforward, like:

  • “-r” → “r” sound
    Ils veulent manger un morceau. = They want to grab a bite to eat. (optional)
  • “-t” → “t” sound
    Ils veulent un bon dîner. = They want a good dinner. (optional)

But others are weirder! Mainly:

  • “-x” → “z” sound
    Deux amis. = Two friends. (first difficulty)
  • “-d” → “t” sound
    Quand on arrive en ville. = When we come into town.
  • “-f” → “-v” sound
    Neuf ans. = Nine years.

And now that you have all that, you must also pick the correct silent letter! Otherwise, you could say:

Ils veulent manger (“t”) un morceau. → Wrong letter for the liaison!

And more commonly, we say dix euros [“z”], but vingt euros [“t”]
And every so often, you’d hear French friends saying instead “vingt [“z”] euros”. This common mistake of doing a “liaison” with the wrong silent letter is technically called un pataquès. Which is not a common word, but it sounds funny.
Quel pataquès. = What a mess.

4) Practice

1/4 Here’s a French sentence:
Ces éléphants ont un grand appétit. = These elephants have a massive appetite.
Can you hear the liaisons? How many liaisons are there? Where and what do they sound like? It’s Ces éléphants ont un grand appétit.
3 liaisons: “ces” “= these” is a determiner before a noun, “ont + un” = verb “être” (and plural verb anyway), grand appétit = adjective before noun (+ “d” sounds like “t”).

2/4 Here’s another written sentence:
Elle vit dans un autre pays. = She lives in another country.
Where would you pronounce “la liaison”? How would you pronounce the whole sentence? It’s Elle vit dans un autre pays. With a liaison after the preposition “dans” = in (z sound), and after the determiner “un”, (n sound)!

3/4 Here’s another longer sentence:
Quand Antoine et Martin nous ont invités, ils nous ont préparé un incroyable dîner. = When Antoine and Martin invited us, they prepared an incredible dinner for us.
Can you spot where I’m making three mistakes in liaison? What are these places where my French pronunciation is incorrect? Here I go:
Quand tAntoine et Martin nous ont zinvités, ils nous ont préparé tun incroyable dîner. Did you hear it?
The solution: Quand (“t” !) Antoine et Martin nous ont (“z” !) invités, ils nous ont préparé (“t” !) un incroyable dîner. We shouldn’t do the liaison with a first name (quand Antoine), there are no sound “s” between “ont” and “invités” and no sound “t” between “préparé” and “un”.
The actual sentence should sound like: Quand Antoine et Martin nous ont invités, ils nous ont préparé un incroyable dîner. The correct liaisons are nous ont (“Z”) because there is the sound “s” at the end of the pronoun “nous” and the auxiliary verb starts with a vowel; ont invités (“T”) because the sound “t” is the final sound in the auxiliary verb and the past participle starts with a nasal vowel; nous ont (“Z”) because there is the sound “s” at the end of the pronoun “nous” and the auxiliary verb starts with a vowel.

4/4 Create your sentence in French, using different kinds of liaison! Then, write down what these liaisons would sound like or if they would be silent. Be creative, be free. You can pick whatever you want! It’s an opportunity to apply what we’ve learned today. Write down your answers in the comments at the end of the blog post!

Or you can keep taking more real French pronunciation practice with me!

Click here to get your next lesson:

À tout de suite.
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Join the conversation!

  • I suspect that listening to French being spoken
    (by French people) is an important key to learning
    the ropes here ~ you can copy what you’ve heard
    them say. I find that quite often the correct way
    to string together what you’re saying comes
    fairly naturally anyway ~ it won’t flow if you don’t
    do it, especially if you start to speak more quickly.

    I can think of things like it in English that do
    something similar when spoken at speed :

    “What are you going to do” comes out as :

    wotchyagonnado !!

    Oh dear ! We must tune our ears in to the
    rhythm of the language, but then if we love
    the subject the process is fascinating.

    Practice practice

    Merci merci ..

  • Is there any difference when spoken between “petit ami” with the liaison and “”petite amie”. ? If not, could be confusing!

    • They sound the same, however, the word that comes before will give you the information you’re searching for, John. If one says « une » or «  sa » first, it will be understood that you are talking about a woman. For instance, if you hear « Sa petite amie ne parle pas anglais » you will know that his/her GIRLFRIEND doesn’t speak English. In the same vein, if you hear « J’ai entendu que Dominique a un petit ami » it means that Dominique has a BOYFRIEND. Hope this helps.

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