Improve your French accent and your French pronunciation, by focusing on the vowel sounds!
They can be difficult, but today let’s cover some of the most common mistakes about pronouncing French vowel sounds – and how you can fix them.
1) French vowel sounds: y = i+i
Y = called “i grec” (Greek “i”) in French
a) “Y” between consonants
Between consonants, it sounds like a French “i” would:
- Un synonyme (= a synonym) → Both “y” sound like ‘i’ [“ee”]
- Un mystère (= a mystery) → “y” sounds like [“ee”]
- Un syndicat (= a labor union) → “yn” before a consonant sounds like “in” before a consonant (or at the end of a word) = nasal [ɛ̃] sound
Click here to learn more: French Pronunciation Fundamentals : Nasal sounds
b) “Y” between vowels
Between two vowels, you should think of “y” as deux “i” (= two “i”).
- Un crayon (= a pen) → Sounds like crai + ion (= “krey” + “y[ɔ̃]”, the “on” nasal sound)
- Un moyen (= a mean, a way) → Sounds like moi + ien (= mwah + i[ɛ̃], the “in” nasal sound)
We use “y” because we need two “i” in these words:
- One to change the pronunciation of the vowel before (“ai” instead of “a”, “oi” instead of “o”)
- One to add a quick “i” sound before the next vowel (“ien”, “ion”). That quick sound is actually: [j]
c) “Y” = [j] sound = “ill”
The [j] sound is the sound of the English “y” in “yes” or “you.”
In French, before or after a consonant, it’s often a simple “i” :
- Un palmier (= a palm tree) [“pahlm” + “yeah”]
Between vowels though, the [j] sound can be written in different ways.
- y → When we want to change the sounds of the vowel coming before
- ill → When we want to keep the sound of the vowel before
For example, the verbs:
- Rayer = to scratch [= rai + ié, “ray + yeah”]
- Railler = to mock [= ra + ié, “rah + yeah”]
And that’s a catch that could lead you to make mistakes:
- y can change the sound of the vowel before it, just like a “i”
- ill between two vowels do NOT sound like “ee” or “L” at all!
Other words with “ill” :
- Le maillot (= a jersey), le maillot de bain (= bathing suit) [“mah + yo”]
- Bailler = to yawn [“bah + yeah”]
- Bâillonner = to gag [“bah + io + ney”]
— The extra mile 1: “h”
We sometimes add a “h” as a silent consonant between vowels, to make the “i” work as a [j] sound.
- Hier (= yesterday) [“yerr”],
- Un cahier (= a notebook) [“kah + yeah”]
— The extra mile 2: “Cailler”
Cailler = To curdle [“kah + yeah”]
It sounds just like “un cahier” (= a notebook, above.)
Le lait caillé = rotten milk
More commonly, it’s used in an everyday French expression:
Se cailler les fesses / Se les cailler = freezing (your butt off)
Je me les caille. = I’m freezing!
— The extra mile 3: Mayonnaise
There are of course some exceptions to the rules I’ve mentioned in the video lesson. That’s how the French language rolls…
La mayonnaise (“la mayo”) → Sounds like “Mayonnaise” ! And “la mayo” in short, sounds like “le maillot” from above !
But it should sound like “mai + io” [“may + yo”], so why not?
Well, it’s because “mayonnaise” is a deformation of “bayonnaise”, “from the city of Bayonne [“bah + ionn”] in Basque country, South-Western France.”
It only pushes up the question though. Why does “Bayonnais” sound like “Bâillonner” (= to gag) and not like [“Bay + yoney”] ?
And here’s the origin of our exception: Bayonne is actually a “French-ification” of the original Basque name Baiona [“Bah + ionah”]. This spelling looks weird in French, so it got “corrected” and changed with the centuries – but time and use only changed the “i” into “y”, and could not add a full “ill” in the middle, for it to make sense.
2) French vowel sounds: “u” & “ou”
On its own, the French “u” sounds like [y] (= the weird French “u” sound!)
For a non-French speaker, it often sounds a lot like “ou” [“oo”].
When learning French, you might have trouble hearing the difference. But it’s important!
It’s the difference between:
- L’amour (= love, “ou”) / La mûre (= berry, “u”)
- La roue (= wheel, “ou”) / La rue (= street, “u”)
- Le cou (= neck, “ou”) / Le cul ! (= butt, “u”)
To pronounce the French “u” sound, start with the English “ee” sound. Then push your lips forward, and you’ll make “u”. Try it with me with the video lesson!
You’ll only get it if you can hear it first, though. That’s the first thing to practice, before the pronunciation: hearing the difference.
Once you can reliably hear that difference, pronunciation will be much easier!
Click here to learn more: French Sounds: “Ou” vs “U” – Hear the difference
3) French vowel sounds: Nasal sounds!
Just like “u” and “ou”, the key to pronouncing the French nasal sounds correctly is: start by hearing the difference between them.
- an [ɑ̃]
- in [ɛ̃]
- on [ɔ̃]
Once you hear them clearly, you’ll realize that:
a) There’s no extra “n” sound
The nasal sounds don’t use the “n” sound at all.
There’s no trace of “nn” when hearing words like:
- Le pain (= bread, where “ain” = “in” nasal sound)
- Française (= French, with “an” nasal sound)
b) It has to be nasal
Don’t cheat by substituting them with non-nasal sound either!
It’s not “fraçaise” or “fray-çaise”, the “an” really is nasal.
c) “an” [ɑ̃] ≠ on [ɔ̃]
The difference between “an” [ɑ̃] and “on” [ɔ̃] can be hard to hear, but it’s important. People learning French very often mix them up, but that’s where you need to be careful when hearing them and pronouncing them.
Practice listening to the difference in the video lesson!
Click here to learn more: French Pronunciation Fundamentals: Nasal sounds
4) French vowel sounds: “é” & “è”
More French sounds with subtle differences!
É (= “e” with “l’accent aigu,” acute accent) → Sound “/e/”, like verbs ending in -er or words in -ez (mostly verbs with “vous.”)
È (= “e” with “l’accent grave,” grave accent) → Sound “/ɛ/” (open “e”, as in the English “bet”), like “ai” in French words or verbs ending in -ait.
Differences in “é” / “è” sounds:
- Le thé = tea / La taie = the pillowcase
- Le café = coffee / C’est fait ! = It’s done!
- Le boulanger = the baker (man) / La boulangère (baker woman)
- Le marché = the market / Il marchait = He was walking
- Allez ! = Come on! / Tu allais. = You were going.
The è sound also appears in other cases, for instance:
- A “e” before a double consonant: une courgette (= zucchini / courgette)
- A “e” with l’accent circonflexe (ê) : la fête (= the party.)
- A “e” before a consonant at the end of a word: le sel (= salt), un secret (= a secret, silent “t”)
These two sounds are very close to each other: è is simply more open than é.
But when the “é” / “è” sounds come from anything other than these two explicitly accented letters, French people often use one for the other!
So when I say that “C’est fait !” has two “è” sounds, it’s a bit misleading. That’s only how I pronounce it.
But it depends on the person, their own accent (Parisian / Southern / Northern etc.), the context in the sentence and random factors.
But again, when there’s a special sign on the letter, the pronunciation is always the same: “é” is always pronounced “é”, and “è / ê” are always pronounced “è.”
5) French vowel sounds: eu [ø] & e [œ]
That’s our final trap for the French “e” letter !
In French, “eu” is pronounced [ø] – a closed English “uh” sound.
- Jeu = Game
- Feu = Fire
- Heureux = Happy (silent x)
- Peureux = Fearful (silent x)
With two main exceptions (see below.)
Meanwhile, “e” by itself is often pronounced [œ] – like the English “uh” again, but a bit more open. It’s the case when it’s in the middle of a word, often between consonants. Or at the end of a two-letter word.
- Je = I
- Le = The
- Demain = Tomorrow
Once again, the real difficulty is hearing the difference. Practice with the video lesson to hear the difference between “e” ([œ]) and “eu” ([ø]) in French!
But the second difficulty is that:
- “e” (as in “Je”) can be pronounced like “eu” without any issue.
- “eu” (as in “Jeu”) can NOT sound like “uh” – it would sound like a strange accent!
It depends on every person, and their own habits and accents!
So for instance:
- Je relis le premier livre de ma liste. (= I’m rereading the first book on my list.) → “e” can be pronounced [œ] or [ø] interchangeably each time.
- Je joue à un jeu. (= I’m playing a game.) → “Je” can be pronounced [œ] or [ø], but “jeu” is always [ø].
Now, I mentioned two exceptions to “eu” = [ø]. These are:
– “eu” by itself. It’s the past participle of the very irregular verb “avoir,” to have. It’s pronounced: “u” like the French “u” sound!
→ J’ai eu. = I had. (= Soft “g” sound + è sound + French u sound)
– Words ending in -eur(e). Then “eu” sounds like “uh” [œ] exclusively. As in:
- Une heure = An hour, a time.
- Un acteur = An actor.
- Le coiffeur = The hairdresser.
- La peur = Fear
- Le bonheur = Happiness
And remember: for starters, just focus on hearing the differences of pronunciation. That’s what will really prevent your mistakes, once you get enough practice.
And we’re done, congrats for your efforts in learning French or reconnecting to the language!
Click here to learn more about informal French:
- French Pronunciation Fundamentals: Nasal sounds
- Top 5 Very Embarrassing & Common Mistakes in French
- French Sounds: “Ou” vs “U” – Hear the difference
- French Pronunciation: French Vowel Sounds & Accents
À tout de suite.
I’ll see you in the next video!
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