How would you pronounce these words?
- Le pain (= bread)
- Demain (= tomorrow)
- Sainte (= saint, in the feminine)
These words have a “ain” nasal sound in them, which makes their pronunciation difficult for people learning French.
Let’s talk about the mistakes students often make with “ain” – and how to fix them to improve your pronunciation.
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1) Mistakes with French “Ain” : it’s one sound
“Ain” is three letters but only one sound. In a way, each of the three letters in “ain” are silent!
There’s no diphtongue, it’s not “ah + inn” or something else, it’s the nasal sound [ɛ̃].
How to pronounce it:
- As a nasal sound, the air should pass up to your nose.
- The back of your tongue goes to the back of your mouth.
- The tip of your tongue is pushed forward.
It’s hard to describe, so practice with the video lesson until you make it work.
We use “ain” in le pain (= bread.)
Or simply in: l’Ain.
It’s a French department in the Alps, next to Switzerland. Not far from Grenoble where I live!
In l’Ain, the main city is Bourg-en-Bresse, famous for le poulet de Bresse (= the Bresse chicken.) L’Ain is also the home region of the protagonist from Ridicule, an amazing French movie from 1996 set in pre-Revolutionary Versailles where nobles battle each other with their witticisms.
Of course, there are some (very rare) exceptions, like Caïn (pronounced like: “Kah” + “[ɛ̃]” sound), Abel’s brother in the Bible. Or cocaïne, (koh-kah-een) cocain. But notice le tréma, these two points on the “i” vowel. It means that the “i” is pronounced separately, so it cuts the “ain” in two. You also have anglicisms like la blockchain that’s pronounced as in English (but with a thick French accent most of the time.)
But these are very rare though. Most other exceptions will fall into the cases I cover below.
2) Mistakes with French “Ain” : there’s no “ey” sound
In French, “ai” often sounds like “ey” (or “è”, [ ɛ ].) Well, not in “ain” – except in cases that I’ll cover later.
Practice with these additional words with ain :
- Américain = American
- Mexicain = Mexican
- Un bain = a bath
3) Mistakes with French “Ain” : it’s not “en” or “on”
Students often have trouble making the difference between the French nasal sounds. Pronouncing “en,” “on,” and “ain” separately is hard!
Can you hear the difference, in the video lesson? Repeat them after me.
It’s important too!
Le train (= train, “ain”) ≠ Le tronc (= tree trunk, “on”)
La main (= hand, “ain”) ≠ L’amant (= the lover, “an”) or Le Mans (“an”)
Many French words have several of these nasal sounds in a row. So you should practice saying them with comfort. For instance:
- Maintenant (= now) (ain + en)
- Convainquant (= convincing.) (on + ain + en)
- Contraindre (= to compel, to force) (on + ain + 3 French R !)
The city of Le Mans, in Western France, in famous for its endurance sports car race, Les 24 heures du Mans. And also for its specialty, les rillettes.
4) Mistakes with French “Ain” : with a vowel, it becomes “enn”
This is the main exception to our points 1 and 2!
In the middle of a word, the letters “ain” can come before:
- A consonant → Then it sounds like “ain” nasal sound (like maintenant, convainquant etc.)
- A vowel → Then it sounds like “enn”
- La haine (= hatred) → Sounds like “lah enn”
- La laine (= wool) → Sounds like “lah lenn”
- La semaine (= the week)
When a word goes from masculine to feminine in French, we often add a “e” at the end. So words that end in “ain” in the masculin will end in “aine” (pronounced “enn”) in the feminine!
- Une Américaine
- Une Mexicaine
This often happens to French nasal sounds. For instance, it’s the exact same thing with:
Un Parisien (“ain” sound) → Une Parisienne (“enn” sound)
Un Italien (“ain” sound) → Une Italienne (“enn” sound)
5) Mistakes with French “Ain” : so many different spellings!
There are a lot of different ways to spell the “ain” sound in French!
Such as :
- “in” → La fin, the end
- “un” → Brun (brown), un (one)
- Sometimes: “ein” → peindre (to paint), “aim” → La faim (hunger)
- “Ien” → Un chien (a dog), rien (nothing), mien (mine), tiens (hold), viens (come)…
That final “ien” is actually the sound “ain” with a small “ee” before it (the sound like the “y” in the English “you.”) You’ll find it in roughly all the French version of English words that end in -ian. Such as:
- Un Parisien → A Parisian
- Un chrétien → A Christian
- Un musicien → A musician
Some people or books will say that there’s a difference between “un” and “in,” but in everyday spoken French, they really sound the same. At least I can’t hear the difference.
As a final test, try to pronounce:
- Ainsi (= thus)
- Ukrainien (= Ukrainian)
- Sainte (= Saint, in the feminine)
- Une rainure (= a notch)
Say them out loud, where you are now. Then watch the video above to hear the answer at the end of the lesson.
Click here to get your next free lesson on French pronunciation:
French Sounds: How to pronounce “ou” vs “u”
À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!
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