French Pronunciation Fundamentals Part 2 : nasal sounds

An,” “Un,” “On”… Nasal vowels in French are hard to read,hard to spell, hard to understand, and especially – hard to pronounce right.

Let’s practice together how to pronounce French nasal sounds!

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1. Pronouncing French nasal sounds: Overview

There are roughly three nasal vowels in French:

  • An” (/ã/) → Les enfants (= children)
    Also spelled: “en
  • On” (/õ/) → Mon bon chaton (= my good kitten)
    Also spelled: “un”, “ein”, “ain”… or “en” after a “i” (Parisien = Parisian)
  • In (/ɛ̃/) → Un matin (= one morning)
    Also spelled: “un”, “ein”, “ain”… or “en” after a “i” (Parisien = Parisian)

→ Some people hear (and pronounce) “un” and “in” as slightly different. In modern Parisian French though, it’s pretty similar. In any case, you can lump “un” and “in” together for now.

→ All nasal sounds can be spelled with an “m” instead of a “n”, before a “p” or “b.” As in:
le temps (= time, “en” sound),
un compagnon (= a companion, a fellow, “on” sound)
simple (= simple, “in” sound)
With only a few exceptions, such as: un bonbon = a sweet

→ In a word, the nasal vowel doesn’t appear if the “n” comes before another vowel (or another “n”). Compare:
le cancan (= French cancan) with two nasal sounds “an
un canard (= a duck), pronounced “ka” + “narr” (silent “d”).

une canne (= a walking stick), pronounced “kann”
Otherwise, in a nasal vowel, there’s no “n” consonant sound in there at all.

It’s OK if you struggle with the pronunciation.
The key to pronouncing a nasal sound is to make the air pass through part of your nose as you’re saying it.

2. Pronouncing French nasal sounds: “An” / “En”

Pronouncing An in French:
– Put your tongue slightly in the back, so the air goes through the nose and the mouth.
– Round your lips and open your mouth, lips are slightly rounded.
– And… just say it. “An”.

It’s not too difficult, it’s like the “an” in “dance” (with a British accent), except there’s no “n” sound after.

Try to say:
Maman attend souvent les enfants. = Mom is often waiting for the kids.
Maman entend souvent les enfants. = Mom can often hear the kids.

Congrats! As you can see, a small difference in pronunciation (“a” / “en”) can change your meaning.
Watch the video to listen to (and watch me pronounce) a correct pronunciation.

3. Pronouncing French nasal sounds: “In” / “Un”

Pronouncing “In” in French:
– The back of your tongue is still at the back of your mouth, blocking the air to make it pass up to your nose.
– Put the tip of your tongue forward (contrary to “An”), and smile.
– And say it: “In.”

Try and repeat after me in the video, as we build up to the sentence:

Le matin, Martin fait du pain pour ses voisins. = In the morning, Martin bakes some bread for his neighbours.

The extra mile:
In French, the suffix -ien looks like it should be said with a “en” sound, but it’s actually a “in” ! Location adjectives often end in “in” sound: Un Parisien. = A Parisian. Un Américain. = An American. Un Européen. = an European.

4. Pronouncing French nasal sounds: “On”

– “On” is just like “an”, but with the round lips you’d make for “oh”.
– Alternatively, it’s just like saying “oh”, but with your tongue at the back of your mouth instead.
– Try each of these methods to say it: “On

Practice with me in the video until you can say the full example:
Le nom de ce chaton est Bonbon. = This kitten’s name is “Sweets.”

5. Pronouncing French nasal sounds: Full practice!

Now you’re ready to try your hand with these mixed examples:

Allons à Coutances voir le jardin d’Yvon !
= Let’s go to Coutances to see Yvon’s garden!

Nous mangeons des marrons chez le marin marrant.
= We’re eating chestnuts at the funny sailor’s house.

Notice that mixing up your nasal sounds can change your meaning:
Marron” (= chestnut, or brown), “Marin” (= sailor), “Marrant” (= funny)

Un grand lapin blanc bondit dans les champs.
= A big, white rabbit is jumping in the fields.

  • “On” sounds: bondit
  • “En” sounds: grand, blanc, champs
  • “In” sounds: un lapin
  • Silent letters: grand, blanc, bondit, dans, champs

Jean mange des bonbons dans le train en direction de Lyon.
= Jean is eating sweets on the train going to Lyon.

  • “On” sounds: bonbons, direction, Lyon
  • “En” sounds: Jean, mange, dans
  • “In” sounds: train

Fantastic ! 🎉🎉🎉
I’m so proud of you. Now you’re ready for our next lesson:
Part 3 of 4 of this series on French Pronunciation Fundamentals.
We’ll talk about U and Ou, and how to hear the difference!

For now, you can go back and revisit what you’ve just practiced, or you can move one to another lesson on French pronunciation, such as:

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