Basic French Pronunciation Guide

by Julie Blakley  

Why Learn French?

French is certainly not an easy language to master. In fact, many native French speakers have trouble mastering their own language. It’s complicated, nuanced and really hard to spell correctly. But it’s also a beautiful language, and you will never feel more accomplished than after you master your first conversation in French.

I have been studying and speaking French nearly my entire life (thanks to my French-speaking mother and French grandmother), and I still frequently make mistakes. I majored in French in college, spent a year studying the language at the Sorbonne and lived in Paris and I will occasionally speak French with my family at home; still, I have been forced to accept the fact that I will simply never speak French like a native.

So, you may be thinking: What’s the point of trying to learn at all?

Many people asked me in college, “Why would you learn French? Spanish is so much more useful.” And, in some ways they were right. Spanish is spoken by a huge number of people in this world, and within the United States you are much more likely to run into a native Spanish speaker than a French one. That being said, French is still a useful language to know.

First, French served as the official language of diplomacy for years. While in recent years the language everyone seems to have in common is English, French is still used at the United Nations and you will still hear it being used at the Olympic games, and is the official language of 26 countries including Canada, much of Western and Northern Africa, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Monaco, French Surinam, Laos, Cambodia and several Caribbean islands including Haiti. Plus, with significant numbers of people speaking French as a second language (about 260 million people worldwide), you are sure to use your French at some point in your world travels outside of France.

OK; you are probably still wondering, “Why should I learn French?”

How about because some of Western civilization’s greatest poetry and literature was originally written in the language? Not enough? How about because if you want to travel to France, you are going to have to learn at least a few critical phrases? Though things have been changing in recent years and more French are willing to speak English, you will still be treated a lot better if you approach the French in their native language. Plus, you can totally impress your friends and love interests when you return with a “mastery” of the language.

French Pronunciation

The most difficult part about trying to learn French on your own or from a phrase book is that what you see is definitely not what you get. French is not like Spanish or Italian, where you pronounce all the letters you see written. To the chagrin of many Americans, French has more silent letters and nuanced pronounciations than you ever thought possible. In fact, adjectives and nouns are even pronounced differently depending on whether they are masculine or feminine.

So, how do you go about trying to pronounce French correctly? First, come to terms with the fact that you will most likely have a heavy accent. Even after all the years I have studied and spoken French, I still don’t sound like a French person. This is fine. Contrary to popular belief, many French people think an American accent is actually cute (if you don’t totally massacre the language, that is).

What are the general rules of thumb? Basically, whenever you see a word ending in a consonant, it is fair to say you will not be pronouncing those letters. While they still affect the pronunciation in a nuanced way, you have to train yourself to stop pronouncing letters before you get to the end of the word. The main exception to this rule is when the consonant is followed by an “e.” In this case, you will pronounce the consonant. There are of course a million other exceptions to this rule, but it holds true in MOST cases. Here are some examples:

Saint-Tropez = Sain Tropay
Une salade verte = ewn salahd vairt
Comment ça va? = comawn sa va?

How to Get on the Good Side of the French: Learn the Basics Before You Go

The French have a rather unfair reputation for being snotty, impolite and not very friendly towards Americans. Most Americans are shocked to receive a curt or rude response from a French person after they have spoken in English. The French, in turn, are offended that Americans come to France and expect everyone to speak English. I mean, the French certainly don’t come to the U.S. and expect everyone to speak French; why would we do that in France?

Forget the fact that most French (at least the younger generations) do speak English; it is the assumption they don’t like. The French are by no means like the Scandinavians when it comes to speaking English almost like a native speaker, but the number of English speakers in France has increased dramatically in the past 10-20 years. With English a requirement in schools and the younger generation more and more fascinated with American culture, you will actually find a fair number of English speakers in France today who are more than willing to practice their English with you. That does not mean you should approach people in English. Trust me, you’ll get a lot further if you learn a few basics.

A Few Phrases to Master:

Hello (before about 3pm or so): Bonjour (bawn-jure) (the “j” is pronounced like “s” in “pleasure”)
- in the late afternoon and evening: Bonsoir (bawn-swarr)
- when leaving at the end of the night: Bonne nuit (bawn-nwee)

I would like…: Je voudrais… (jeuh v00-dray)

Please: S’il vous plaît (see voo play) (the “l” is so subtle, it’s not worth explaining it here)

Thank you: Merci (mair-see)

Do you speak English?: Parlez-vous anglais? (voo par-lay ahn-glay)

How Much?: Combien (cawm-byen)

How much does it cost?: Ça coûte combien? (sa coot cawm-byen)

Where is the restroom?: Où est la toilette? (ooway la twah-let)

I don’t understand: Je ne comprends pas (jeuh neuh cawm-prawn pah)

Excuse me?: Pardon? (par-dawhn)

I’m sorry: Je suis désolé (jeuh swee deh-so-lay)

I’m very sorry, but my French is horrible: Je suis tres désolé, mais mon français est horrible (jeuh swee tray deh-so-lay, may mawn frahn-say ay or-eeb-luh)

The Best Way to Learn French

I would highly recommend taking a French class at your local community college or buying some sort of language learning program where you can HEAR French spoken, since mastering (or even just getting the gist of) pronunciation is really hard to do simply by reading it.

Once you are in France, speak French as much as you can. Immerse yourself. The absolute best way to learn a language is by practicing.

Language Books I Recommend

Rick Steves French (Phrasebook and Dictionary)

The Hungry Traveler: France

SmartFrench Audio CDs, Beginner Level

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