Vowels in French are notoriously difficult for English speakers because they differ greatly from those in other languages. This guide will teach you everything you need to know about French vowels for beginners.
The first thing we’ll do is discuss the differences between French and English vowels and the basics of the French vowel system.
Why is it important to learn French phonetics?
Learning French phonetics is important for several reasons. As French has some different sounds from other languages, learning French phonetics can help you pronounce the sounds that are completely new to you.
Secondly, French has many similar-sounding words that may have different meanings, which oftentimes leads to misinterpretation. Differentiating between similar sounds can help you improve your overall understanding of the language.
What is IPA?
French pronunciation takes time, but luckily we found a handy system that can help your French pronunciation easier: the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).
The IPA stands for a standardized system of phonetic notation, invented in the late 19th century and is still used today.
There are symbols for each sound found in human language, including vowels, consonants, and diacritical marks. Every language has its own IPA system of sounds and symbols. By learning the French IPA system, you can better understand the nuances of French pronunciation.
This can be especially helpful for distinguishing between similar-sounding words and improving your overall French language skills.
Before we start exploring the French vowel system, here is an example of an IPA transcription for the word: “français” that uses Phonemes: /fʁɑ̃.sɛ/
The “fr” sound is represented by /f/
the “a” sound is represented by /ɑ̃/ (nasal vowel),
the “n” sound is represented by /n/,
the “ç” sound is represented by /s/,
and the “ais” sound is represented by /ɛ/.
First of all, IPA transcription is always placed between slashes (/ /) to indicate that it’s an IPA transcription.
You’ll also recognize nasale sounds easily because each nasale sound is using a tilde (~) over the vowel.
Je suis: /ʒə sɥi/
Due to French’s many different regional accents, certain words may be pronounced differently depending on the speaker’s background.
While French pronunciation can take time to master, IPA is a helpful tool to guide you, especially when it comes to French vowels.
In the following chapters, you’ll learn all about different kinds of French Vowels.
English versus French Vowels
Vowels are produced with an open vocal tract, allowing air to flow freely and creating distinct vowel sounds.
English, has 12 vowel sounds, although the exact number can vary depending on dialect and accent. It’s important to note that the number of vowel sounds can differ from the number of vowel letters. The same applies to English and French.
There is a difference between vowel sounds and vowel letters.
English has five main vowel letters: A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y and W, which can represent a variety of vowel sounds.
For example, the letter “A” can represent the vowel sounds
/æ/ as in “cat”,
/ɑː/ as in “car”,
/eɪ/ as in “cake”, or
/ə/ as in “about”
French has a total of 13 vowel sounds, while the five main vowel sounds in French are – /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, and /u/.
In addition to these, there are also:
- nasal vowels
Nasal vowels are produced by allowing air to escape through the nose while the mouth is closed or nearly closed.
Diphthongs are two vowel sounds pronounced together in a single syllable, such as /wa/ in the word “toi.”
Proper pronunciation of these vowel sounds is crucial, as a mistake in vowel pronunciation can change the meaning of a word entirely.
As you read on, you’ll learn about nasal vowels and diphthongs in French.
Nasal Vowels in French
Nasal vowels are the ones that make the French language so unique and difficult to produce. While with standard oral vowels, air flows through the mouth, nasal vowels are produced by allowing air to flow through both the mouth and nose simultaneously. That’s how the distinct nasal resonance is created in non-nasal vowels.
French has four nasal vowels: /ã/, /õ/, /ɛ/̃ and /œ̃/, all of which can be remembered with the phrase:
Un bon vin blanc [œ̃bõvɛ̃blã].
A good white wine.
As you noticed, there are 4 different nasal vowels in French, and they are all pronounced differently.
Here is a list of French nasal vowels with examples and their corresponding IPA transcriptions:
- /ɛ̃/ – as in “vin” (wine)
- /œ̃/ – as in “un” (one)
- /ɔ̃/ – as in “bon” (good)
- /ɑ̃/ – as in “pan” (bread)
How to recognize Nasal Vowels?
In French, there are no specific signs indicating whether a vowel should be spoken normally or nasally. Things would be much simpler if we would have added some kind of accent to the vowels to indicate a nasal sound. But, a French learner can only dream about it.
Instead, the French system of writing nasal sounds is to write
vowel + N or M, as in (an, on, im, un).
For French students, the tricky part is figuring out when vowels + N/M will lock into a nasal pronunciation… or not.
To summarize, nasal vowels in French are represented by the letters “an,” “en,” “in,” “on,” and “un.”
Here you see a list of words with nasal sounds, followed by the pronunciation using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).
- “an”: grand /ɡʁɑ̃/, blanc /blɑ̃/, dans /dɑ̃/
- “en”: dent /dɑ̃/, temps /tɑ̃/, entendre /ɑ̃.tɑ̃dʁ/
- “in”: vin /vɛ̃/, bain /bɛ̃/, lapin /lapɛ̃/
- “on”: bon /bɔ̃/, son /sɔ̃/, pompon /pɔ̃.pɔ̃/
- “un”: brun /bʁœ̃/, parfum /paʁ.fœ̃/, lundi /lœ̃.di/
How to Pronounce French Nasal Vowels?
Voicing French nasal vowels can be a bit tricky, so here are some tips:
- Start by pronouncing the vowel sound normally, as if it were not nasalized.
- While keeping your mouth in the same position, lower your soft palate (the fleshy part at the back of the roof of your mouth).
- Breathe out through your nose and mouth.
Here are some specific tips on how to pronounce each nasal vowel:
/ɛ̃/ – To pronounce this vowel, start with the sound of the “e” in “pet” (without rounding your lips), then add nasalization by lowering your soft palate and allowing air to flow out through your nose.
/œ̃/ – To pronounce this vowel, start with the sound of the “eu” in “jeune” (without rounding your lips), then add nasalization as described above.
/ɔ̃/ – To pronounce this vowel, start with the sound of the “o” in “au” (as in “beau”), then add nasalization as described above.
/ɑ̃/ – To pronounce this vowel, start with the sound of the “a” in “ah”, then add nasalization as described above.
Remember to keep your lips relaxed and not rounded for these vowels, and to allow air to flow out through both your mouth and nose to produce the nasal quality of the sound.
Two vowel sounds are combined within the same syllable to form a diphthong. There are several diphthongs in the French language, which are formed by combining vowels with glides or semivowels.
To create a diphthong combine:
“a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” “u,” + “y.”
Among the most common French diphthongs is “oi,” which is similar to the English “wa” sound, as in the word “coin” (which means “corner”).
Another common French diphthong is “ei,” pronounced like the English “ay” sound, as in the word “seize” (meaning “sixteen”).
Let’s take a look at a few French diphthongs:
“ai” (pronounced like the English “ay” sound, as in “baiser” meaning “to kiss”),
“au” (pronounced like the English “oh” sound, as in “chaud” meaning “hot”),
“eu” (pronounced like the English “uh” sound, as in “heure” meaning “hour”),
“ou” (pronounced like the English “oo” sound, as in “jour” meaning “day”).
Let’s take a look at all French Diphthongs in one place.
- ai (pronounced like the English “ay” sound, as in “baiser” meaning “to kiss”)
- au (pronounced like the English “oh” sound, as in “chaud” meaning “hot”)
- ei (pronounced like the English “ay” sound, as in “seize” meaning “sixteen”)
- eu (pronounced like the English “uh” sound, as in “heure” meaning “hour”)
- oi (pronounced like the English “wa” sound, as in “coin” meaning “corner”)
- ou (pronounced like the English “oo” sound, as in “jour” meaning “day”)
- ui (pronounced like the English “wee” sound, as in “huit” meaning “eight”)
It is worth noting that some French diphthongs can also be pronounced as two separate vowel sounds depending on the dialect and accent.
Additionally, the proper pronunciation of French diphthongs is crucial for effective communication and understanding in the language, as mispronunciation or confusion between diphthongs and other vowel sounds can alter the meaning of a word or phrase entirely.
Master the French Pronunciation
In conclusion, learning to pronounce French vowels is one of the most challenging parts of French pronunciation. Luckily, there is a system that can help you find the correct pronunciation for each French word.
By learning the French IPA system, you can better understand the nuances of French pronunciation and improve your French language skills.
Remember that French has a total of 13 vowel sounds, including nasal vowels and diphthongs, and mastering their proper pronunciation is crucial in avoiding misunderstandings.
With the help of the IPA system and practice, you can improve your French pronunciation skills.