French Pronunciation Fundamentals Part 3 : “U” / “OU”

Can you hear the difference between:

  • Sous (= under) and Su (= known) ?
  • Tu es sûr ? (= Are you sure?) and Tu es sourd ? (= Are you deaf?)

This is one of the most difficult thing when learning French: making the difference between the sounds “u” and “ou.”

Today, let’s practice together!

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1. French pronunciation fundamentals: “Ou” / “U” overview

Ou” (/u/) sounds like a longer “oo” sound from “foot.”
U” (/y/) doesn’t really exist in English, however.

When you pronounce “ou,” your lips are rounded, your mouth is almost completely closed, and your tongue is in the back.

When you pronounce “u,” it’s the same, except your tongue in much more in front. It should press against your teeth.

Try repeating both. Listen to the video lesson to check if it sounds the same.

French words with only these sounds:

  • Ou (= or) [“ou” sound]
  • (= where) [“ou” sound]
  • Eu (= had / got) [“u” sound] → J’ai eu = I had, I got

Yes, eu looks like it should sound like the “e” / “eu” sound, as in the French filler word “Euh.” But no, it’s just a weird exception. Sorry!

French words have a range of different spellings for both sounds. As in:

Aigu (= sharp [masculine]) has the rare “u” sound after a “g.” In the feminine we add an “e” ; but Aigue would sound like “Egg.” So to keep that “u” sound, we add an accent (un tréma) and it makes: aigüe (= sharp [feminine]).

Note that the letter “u” can also be silent in French, after a “q” or a “g”.
The letter “q” is always followed by a silent “u,” except at the end of a word:
Qui (= who), quand (= when), quoi (= what)… but un coq (= a rooster).
The letter “g” is usually “soft” (as in “giraffe”) before an “e” or an “i” – but a silent “u” makes it “hard” (as in “gift”):
Le gui (= mistletoe) / La guêpe (= the wasp): with a hard “g” and a silent “u”.
La girafe (= the giraffe) / Géraldine: with a soft “g”, no “u”

2. French pronunciation fundamentals: When “U” / “Ou” leads to embarrassing mistakes

U” is not only hard to pronounce – it’s hard to hear ! The confusion might lead you to embarrassing misunderstandings. Many words take different meanings with “ou” or “u.” Such as:

Can you pronounce, and hear the difference?
Tu as tout ? = Do you have everything?
Nous sommes nus ! = We’re naked!
Vous avez vu ? = Have you seen?

3. French pronunciation fundamental: Practice “u / ou” with full sentences.

You’re doing great with short words by now. So let’s mix it up a bit:

J’ai vu et goûté une confiture faite par amour de la mûre.
= I’ve seen and tasted some jam that was made for love of the blackberry.

Take your time, and try to pronounce the sentence above. Where do we hear a “u” ? Where are the “ou” ?

You can also notice the é / è / e sounds. And the nasal vowels in there as well!

If you’re feeling hesitant, you can practice again for as long as you want. You can even come back to this lesson later, or tomorrow!

If you’re feeling OK, let’s step the difficulty up a notch. Ready?

Tu as voulu ranger la cave : tout est enfoui dessous, tu es déçu, tu t’es enfui.
= You wanted to clean up the basement: everything was buried under stuff, you’re disappointed, you ran away.

Follow the same steps as above. You can use the video lesson to check your pronunciation. Notice that in enfui” (= ran away), the “u” sound is really short. So it’s harder to get it right! Yet you still need it, because the meaning changes between “enfui” and “enfoui(= buried under stuff).

4. French pronunciation fundamentals: Extra challenge with “u” / “ou”

Fantastic !
If you’re taking this lesson for the first time, take some time to practice on your own. Watch the video lesson above. Or try your hand at other lessons on French Pronunciation Practice:

If you’re ready to take the extra challenge, though…

OK, try saying this in French:

La roue sur la rue roule ; la rue sous la roue reste.
= The wheel on the street is rolling; the street under the wheel is staying.

(It’s un virelangue, a tongue twister. They’re hard to pronounce for a French person!)

That challenge will really push your limits of French pronunciation. Remember to keep a hard French R, and push your tongue to make the “u”.
Can you repeat it?

Watch the end of the video lesson to check your pronunciation.

Keep practicing, and good luck!

→ If you enjoyed this lesson (and/or learned something new) – why not share this lesson with a francophile friend? You can talk about it afterwards! You’ll learn much more if you have social support from your friends 🙂

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Join the conversation!

  • Merci Géraldine, j’apprécie toujours vos cours. Je suis d’accord pour dire que les jeunes aux États-Unis disent souvent “eeeeeyuuuuu”.

  • There seems to be a certain confusion regarding
    the English word foot. It’s worth keeping in mind
    that the English expression “my foot”, as in ~
    “Oh yeah, my foot” denotes that one doesn’t really
    believe what one has just heard. Similarly, I think
    that the French expression “mon oeil” serves the
    same purpose for the good people of France.
    Yes, we need to be alert at all moments to what
    we’re saying, and how we’re saying it.
    A great lesson Géraldine, and much useful
    information, as ever ~ merci.

  • Merci beaucoup! But In your video, you say that ou is like the sound in «foot» in English and u doesn’t really exist in English. But «foot» is an exception to the way oo is most often pronounced in English. Foot is /fʊt/ in IPA, not /fut/. Boot and shoot are better English examples of the vowel you mean, in IPA they are /but/ and /ʃut/.
    Though the sound of the French u is not used in normal English words, there is a noise we make sometimes, an interjection, to express nose-wrinkling disgust at something that smells bad or is grotesque to think of, which is spelled “ew” or “eww” or even “ewww” (in written dialog, otherwise only spoken, a very informal expression). Most English-speakers will make that sound very similar to the French u as in tu or sûr.
    Many European learners of English say foot as /fut/, especially those who have the word football/futbol/futbole/futball/Fußball in their home language, as in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Hungarian, or German, for example — because in their own language the first vowel (oo or u in foot/fut) is pronounced like French “ou” and they may not realize it isn’t that in English.
    In English, “foot” rhymes with “put” and has the same vowel sound as “pull” and “could” — /fʊt/, /pʊt/, /pʊl/, and /kʊd/.

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