French pronunciation: how to pronounce the 36 sounds of French

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Studying French pronunciation is a bit like learning music theory. When you learn an instrument, you’d commonly start with musical notation. But it’s not always necessary. Indeed, many of us have learnt a musical piece by heart (and we rehearsed it many times!) without having to go through music theory first. This is feasible, and that’s what most of us do when we’re eager to start playing an instrument.

Thus, I’d compare music theory to languages’ phonetic notation: you can start speaking a language without knowing its phonetic notation. Therefore, you just need to be consistent, and make sure you rehearse frequently enough. In fact, it’s actually one of the best ways, from my point of view, to start learning a new language: it’s fun, quick, and you don’t get confused with the spelling of words.

Because I’m a French native, I’ve never had to learn the phonetic notations of my own language: I’ve been immersed in French for decades and never felt the need to study them.
But, as an English instructor, I did have to go back and learn the phonetic notations of English sounds. I did it for my students, but also to make sure I would prononce words the exact way.

So, what shall you start with? To begin with, I’d suggest you get familiar with the 36 sounds of French. Then, you can look at their phonetic notations. To sum up, you’ll only need to focus on the pronunciation and notation of the following 20 consonant sounds and 16 vowel sounds.

The 36 sounds of French

20 consonant sounds

signFR wordnotationsoundimageEnglish equivalent
[ b ]abricot[ abʁiko ]
bear
[ d ]amande[ amɑ̃d ]
dog
[ f ]fraise[ fʁɛz ]
fly
[ g ]grenade[ gʁənad ]
dog
[ k ]carotte[ kaʁɔt ]
cat
[ l ]laitue[ lety ]
lion
[ m ]pomme[ pɔm ]
mouse
[ n ]banane[ banan ] 
lion
[ ɲ ]vigne[ viɲ ]
none
[ p ]pomme[ pɔm ]
pig
[ ʁ ]abricot[ abʁikot  ]
none
[ s ]cerise[ səʁiz ]
horse
[ ʃ ]chou[ ʃu ]
sheep
[ t ]carotte[ kaʁɔt ]
turkey
[ v ]vigne[ viɲ ]
dove
[ z  ]fraise[ fʁɛz ]
zebra
[ ʒ ]gingembre[ ʒɛ̃ʒɑ̃bʁ ]
infusion
[ j ]ail[ aj ]
yak
[ w ]oui[ wi ]
whale
[ ɥ ]huitre[ ɥitʁ ]
none
  • Note that the last 3 consonant sounds are named “semi-consonants” because they sound like vowels : [ j ], [ w ] and [ ɥ ].

16 vowel sounds

signFR wordnotationsoundimageEnglish equivalent
[ a ]abricot[ abʁiko ]
none
[ ɑ ]châtaigne[ ʃɑtɛɲ ]
none
[ ɛ ]fraise[ fʁɛz ]
none
[ e ]épinard[ epinaʁ ]
feather
[ ə ]pamplemousse[ pɑ̃pləmus ]
zebra
[ ø ]queue[ kø ]
none
[ œ ]beurre[ bœʁ ]
none
[ i ]abricot[ abʁiko ]
none
[ ɔ ]pomme[ pɔm ]
none
[ o ]abricot[ abʁikot ]
none
[ u ]chou[ ʃu ]
none
[ y ]laitue[ lety ]
none
[ ɛ̃ ]gingembre[ ʒɛ̃ʒɑ̃bʁ ]
none
[ ɑ̃ ]gingembre[ ʒɛ̃ʒɑ̃bʁ ]
 
none
[ ɔ̃ ]citron[ sitʁɔ̃ ]
none
[ œ̃ ]un[ œ̃ ]
none
  • As a matter of fact, French people tend to pronounce [ a ] and [ ɑ ] the exact same way. So, you can pronounce [ ɑ ] as if it were an [ a ]: the difference between the two is so slight that hardly anyone notices it anymore.
  • Same thing for [ ɛ̃ ] and [ œ̃ ]: you can pronounce [ ɛ̃ ] instead of [ œ̃ ] as they’re so close in sound.
  • Note that the last 4 vowel sounds are named “nasal sounds”: [ ɛ̃ ], [ ɑ̃ ], [ ɔ̃ ] and [ œ̃ ].

Downloadable files

You can download all these sound files here below, including a printable version of these two tables.

Top featured image: https://fr.freepik.com/pch-vector

Practice makes perfect …