The Sounds Of French: Learn French Pronunciation

When I first got started this year with Italian, I started by looking for the alphabet and its sounds, and I used YouTube to hear them correctly pronounced by a native Italian speaker. But several of my readers are learning French, and I never really got things started for them. So today I'd like to just explore the sounds of French.

So how does it sound?

When I search for French alphabet pronunciations on YouTube, the first thing I notice is they all seem to match the English alphabet. But I know that there are additional accents and decorated vowels and consonants, and we need those.

After watching the video and listening to the pronunciation, a few things become clear:

  • Most of the decorations on those vowels (í, ï, î, á, û, ë) seem to have absolutely no effect on pronunciation.
  • The flip side to that is, that those vowels do have different sounds depending on what other letters are next to them.
  • There are also several dipthongs which make additional vowel sounds
  • And finally, there seem to be several vowel sounds which are very similar, and could be hard for a new learner to distinguish.

There also seem to be several borrowed words, including those borrowed from English, which keep their spelling but take on a pseudo-French pronunciation — and if this was evident just in a short video about vowels, that's a sign that such words are likely quite common in French!

Thoughts

Unlike the more detailed analysis of I did for Italian, this is a more general look at the sounds of French, partly because analysis of the rules is hard to do when the rules appear to be so arbitrary!

It all adds up to the an experience that promises to be as confusing and difficult as learning English: inconsistent rules about spelling, pronunciation, and even arbitrary accent marks on vowels. If you're looking for an easy, phonetic language, French is not going to be it!

However, I can say from what French experience I have, that it's not terribly difficult. Every language is different, and languages tend to reflect states of mind. (Or maybe vice-versa!) So with French, you just need to focus less on things being simple and logical, because they're not. Instead, focus more on the sense of beauty and form, and the style of French.


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Author: Yearlyglot
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  • Can you clarify what you mean by "Most of the decorations on those vowels (í, ï, î, á, û, ë) seem to have absolutely no effect on pronunciation"? The vowels e, é, è, ê and ë (okay, maybe not ë) are all pronounced differently.
    The torture test for seeing if someone has their vowels right is to say "bière en fût" (beer on tap). Très difficile pour les anglophones.

  • Many thanks for this good info. I have twittered it and will definitely tell the rest of my friends know. They will definitely find it as interesting as myself.

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