French Pronunciation Practice Lesson 2 (with a REAL French speaker)

Why does “fille” and “ville” have a different sound in French?

If you want to improve your ability to speak French faster, you need to focus on learning spoken French, which is different from written French. This includes your pronunciation and mastering some of the trickiest sounds in spoken French!


1 – The sound “ye” [j]
2 – Four spellings of [j]
3 – More practice with the [j] sound!

1 - The sound “ye” [j]

Which sound is common to all three of these French words?

  • Un avion = a plane.
  • Un voyage = a trip.
  • Une fille = a girl.

La fille voyage en avion. = The girl travels by plane.

It’s the sound “ye” [j]. It is called the voiced palatal approximant, or yod. It is a very common consonant sound in spoken languages. Its symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet is [j]. It is also called “palatal glide” or “yod.” In English, this sound often appears as the initial sound in words like “yes” or “yellow,” represented by the letter ‘y’. Additionally, it often occurs as a part of diphthongs, such as in the word “boy.”

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It’s a strange sound: it’s not really a vowel, but it’s not a consonant either. Don’t worry, today we can practice it together!

Unlike other French sounds like “u”, “un,” or “R”, the sound “ye” is common in English words. We even borrowed some of these words:

  • Le yacht,
  • Le yoga,
  • Le cow-boy.

Le truc en plus:
The most famous cowboy in French-speaking culture comes from a Belgian series of “bandes dessinées” (comic books): Lucky Luke. You’ll find many adaptations in live action movies or animated cartoons, such as: La Ballade des Dalton.

This same sound also has different French spellings. We’ll review how the sound “ye” appears in written French. Then we’ll practice the pronunciation together, so you can become more confident in your spoken French. This way you also train your ear to French sounds, and it will help you understand your favorite French movie or TV show!

By the way, that’s also the idea behind my programs like the 30-Day French Challenges, mixing French culture, written presentations, and colloquial dialogues to help you improve your confidence – in a small daily dose of French, for thirty days. The next one is starting soon!
Click here to check out my next 30-Day French Challenge

2 - Four spellings of [j]

1. [j] = i.
Our first spelling is simply the letter “i” before a vowel or a nasal vowel:

  • un avion = a plane,
  • un chien = a dog.
  • Une action = an action.

The “t” sounds like an “s” in that case, and all the words in -tion fit in there, with a [j] sound: une affirmation, une construction, une nation…

2. [j] = y
The second spelling is the simple letter “y”.

In borrowed words, it’s easy:

  • le boycott = boycott
  • le yoga = yoga

There’s a little trick for more purely French words. The letter “y” before a vowel still adds a “ye” sound, but there’s something else. Let’s see if you can notice the common link between these four examples:

  • Le voyage = a trip, a travel,
  • Payer = to pay,
  • Le croyant = the believer,
  • Le crayon = the pencil.

The “y” is actually a double “i” because in French, the letter “i” after a vowel often changes its sound.

  • “Ai” = “eh”
  • “Oi” = “wah”

In our four examples, the letter “y” changes the vowel before and makes the “ye” sound as in “avion” or “chien”: “voyage” is “voi” and “iage”, payer is “pai” and “ier”, etc.

  • Le voyage = “le voi + iage”
  • Payer = “pai + ier”
  • Le croyant = “croi + iant”
  • Le crayon = “crai + ion”

If you had only an “i”, it would sound like “voiage” [vo + iage] or “craion” [cra + ion] and that’s not what we want here.

Your turn now: How would you pronounce this sentence?
Il va essayer. = He’s going to try.
It’s /essai + ier/

Let’s see the next examples:

  • Voir = to see.
    Vous voyez = You see. /voi + iez/
    Elle voit = She sees. /voi/
  • Payer = to pay.
    This one can be confusing since it has two correct pronunciations and writings:
    1) Elle paie = She pays. /pai/
    2) Elle paye = She pays. /pai + ie/

3. [j] = il

At the end of some French words, you can find “i-l” after a vowel. This can be confusing for students. After all, it looks like it should sound like “île”, but no! It’s actually a “ye” sound.

ail as in:
au travail = at work,
l’ail = garlic

– eil as in:
au soleil = under the sun,
le soleil = the sun.

euil, as in:
un écureuil = a squirrel.
un fauteuil = an elegant chair
(different spelling, but same sound, in: un œil = an eye.)

Click here to learn more:
How to pronounce the “euil” sound in French

4. [j] = ill
This group of letters is quite weird, but it crops up in many French words.

On the one hand, it’s a way to write the “ye” sound:
La veille (= “la vè[j]” ) = the day before,
Ils travaillent dur. = They’re working hard.

After a consonant, “i l l” sounds like “ille.”
La fille = the girl,
Le billard = snooker, pool.

But there are famous exceptions, of course! Sometimes, it can sound like “IL.”
la ville = the city,
mille = a thousand,
un milliard = a billion,
Denis Villeneuve (the director of Dune)

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Most times, the double “l” simply sounds like an “l” sound.

  • la folle = the crazy one,
  • Damien Chazelle, the director of La La Land.
  • Belle = beautiful, pretty.

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I understand how confusing it is, but there is an answer. Like a large portion of French language weirdness, it comes from Latin.

  • La fille comes from filia. And “Ilia” became “ille” ([ye]).
  • La ville comes from villa [“l”] without an “i.” The sound became “ile”.

It’s actually two different paths, even though they ended up with the same spelling.

The good news is that most words with “i l l” have a “ye” sound.
There are only a few exceptions! Mille and ville are the main ones.

The other exceptions are:

  1. Composite words:
    Des milliers = thousands,
    Un million = a million,
    Un milliard = a billion,
    Le village = a village,
    La villa = a villa.

2. Names:
Gilles (male)
Lille (Northern French city)
Mille Gilles vivent dans la ville de Lille. = A thousand Gilles live in the city of Lille.

The extra mile: “i tréma”

The French ï (= “i tréma”) is also a “double i”. But it’s specifically separate from the rest of the word. For comparison:
Aie = “to have” in subjunctive tense → sounds like “eh” (“a + i” sound like this in French)
Aïe = “ouch” → sounds like “ail” = “ah” + [j] sound

Payer = “to pay” → sounds like “peh” + “yeah” (“a + i” sound like “eh”)
Païen = pagan → sounds like “pah” + [j] sound + “in” nasal sound

In both words, the ï separate “a” and “i”, so it doesn’t make “ai” sound like “eh.”

3 - More practice with the [j] sound!

Let’s have some fun with a short story about [j]. In the end, it’s kind of a poetry I think… Well, first, repeat after me:
Le soleil = the sun.
Now, you can read this next sentence on your own: how would you pronounce this?
Le soleil brille. = The sun shines.
And now, try again with the full sentence:
Le soleil brille sur la ville. = The sun shines over the city.
Don’t forget the difference between “brille” with a [j] sound and “la ville” with only a “l” sound!

Now here’s the next sentence:
La fille habile s’habille. = The skillful girl is getting dressed.
How do you pronounce it?
Habile”, skillful, only has one “l”, it rhymes with “ville”!

Next up:
Elle se maquille au crayon. = She’s doing her makeup with a pencil.
Can you try and read it out loud?

  • Le maquillage = makeup, with a “ye” sound for “i l l”.
  • Se maquiller = to do your makeup.
  • Se réconcilier, se pardonner = se rabibocher (informal, old fashioned, lovely) = to make up, to forgive.

Let’s repeat this whole first part together! Follow along:
Le soleil brille sur la ville. La fille habile s’habille. Elle se maquille au crayon.

Now let’s go back to the sun:
Un rayon de soleil éclaire son collier. = A ray of sunshine lights up her necklace.
How do you pronounce this? Slowly:
un rayon de soleil with two “ye” sounds, one for “rayon” and one for “soleil”.
un collier where we have “l l i,” but it’s not “i l l”. So the two “l”s get to keep their sound! And the “ye” sound is actually for “ier” of coll-ier.

On the other hand:
Un million de rayons éclairent son cahier. = A million rays light up her notebook.
How would you say this? It’s:
million comes from mille = a thousand, so it’s an exception where “i l l” sounds like “ile.”

We’re halfway done! Let’s try out other sounds:

Elle touille son bol de nouilles. = She’s stirring her bowl of noodles.
That’s because
Elle aime les nouilles. = She likes noodles.
Better yet:
Elle aime les nouilles au miel. = She loves noodles with honey.
Le miel = honey, with a “l” sound.

However, we say:
Elle aime les nouilles au miel et à l’ail. = She loves noodles with honey and garlic.
L’ail = garlic sounds just like Aïe, the French word for “ouch”, or “I’m hurting!”

And, finally:
La fille a sommeil mais elle part travailler. = The girl is sleepy but she goes to work.

Repeat after me: La fille a sommeil mais elle part travailler. With a “ye” at the end of “le sommeil”, sleep, and in the middle of travailler = to work
La fille a sommeil mais elle part travailler.

Your turn now: let’s read the whole story aloud together! If you want to try if first by yourself, that would be fantastic! So I leave you two seconds to pause the video and try to read this yourself.

Le soleil brille sur la ville. La fille habile s’habille. Elle se maquille au crayon. Un rayon de soleil éclaire son collier. Un million de rayons éclairent son cahier.
Elle touille son bol de nouilles. Elle aime les nouilles au miel et à l’ail. La fille a sommeil mais elle part travailler.

The sun shines over the city. The skillful girl gets dressed. She does her makeup with a pencil. A ray of sunshine lights up her necklace. A million rays light up her notebook.
She stirs her bowl of noodles. She likes noodles with honey and garlic. The girl is sleepy but she goes to work.

Now, you can try to pronounce this text aloud with me, but be ready, each reading will get faster.

Did you struggle? Was it too fast for articulation?

You can try again but rewatch the video, or with the full written transcript of this lesson…

Or you can keep exploring French Pronunciation practice with me with a lesson where we review the fundamentals of real everyday spoken French pronunciation!

Click here to get your next lesson:

À tout de suite.
I’ll see you right now in the next video!


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