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Understanding French Liaison: The Key to Fluent Speaking

french liason pronunciation

Do you want to sound like a native French speaker? Then you need to master the French art of liaison.

What is it? Simply put, it’s the way French words blend together. But, there’s more to it than meets the ear.

It’s the secret to sounding sophisticated and polished. Without it, you’ll be like a fish out of water.

Let’s dive into the world of French liaison.

What is la liaison?

Have you ever noticed that French sounds smooth and musical when spoken by native speakers?

One of the secrets to achieving this seamless flow in French pronunciation is through the use of “la liaison.”

La liaison is a pronunciation rule in French that involves linking the final consonant of one word to the beginning vowel of the next word, creating a smooth transition between them.

Think of la liaison as a bridge that connects two words together, allowing them to flow smoothly and naturally. Just like a bridge supports the weight of vehicles and pedestrians, la liaison supports the flow of spoken French.

But mastering French liaison can be tricky, especially for non-native speakers. It involves understanding the rules for linking consonants, dropping silent letters, and pronouncing words correctly in context.

Furthermore, la liaison is an important aspect of understanding spoken French, as it can change the meaning of a sentence or phrase.

For example, the phrase “un grand homme” (a great man) can sound like “un gran domme” without la liaison, which could change the meaning entirely.

Most French consonants retain their usual sound when used in a liaison, with the exception of:

  • S and X, which change to a Z sound, as in:

les enfants / le zɑ̃fɑ̃/ and deux heures /dø zœʁ/

children and two hours

  • D, which becomes a T sound, as in:

un grand ami / /œ̃ ɡʁɑ̃ tami/

a great friend

  •  nasal consonant “on” becomes an open O sound followed by an N

Pay attention that the word “bon” is pronounced similarly to the feminine form “bonne.”

un bon ami /œ̃ bɔn ami/

a good friend

In French there are 3 types of liaisons:

  • mandatory
  • forbidden
  • optional

Mandatory French liaison

So, when do you use mandatory liaison? Here are a few situations:

La liaison is a common phenomenon in spoken French, especially after determiners that end with consonants. In case you don’t remember, a determiner is a small word used before a noun, such as “the” in English, numbers, or possessives.

In French, determiners are some examples of determiners that end with consonants.

  • un” (a/one in the masculine),
  • des” (some)
  • les” (plural “the”)
  • ces” (these)
  • deux” (two)
  • trois” (three)

When a determiner is followed by a noun or an adjective that starts with a vowel, liaison is required. This means that you need to pronounce the final consonant of the determiner before the following vowel sound.

Here are some examples of the liaison after determiners:

“Un enfant”

a child

“Les arbres”

Les arbres” (the trees)

“Deux amis”

“Deux amis” (two friends)

“Ton excellent vin”

“Ton excellent vin” (your excellent wine)

“Ces autres voyages”

“Ces autres voyages” (these other travels)

Possessives like “mon” (my), “ton” (your), “son” (his/her in the singular), “mes” (my), “tes” (your), “ses” (his/her in the plural), “nos” (our), “vos” (plural “your”), and “leurs” (their in the plural) are also determiners.

This rule is quite straightforward and is mostly used with subject pronouns that end with a consonant, like (Nous, Vous, Ils, Elles, On).

Here are some examples followed by the IPA transcription in French.

On est là! /On ɛ t là!/

We’re over here!

Elles ont faim! /Elles ɔ̃t fɛ̃ !/

They’re hungry!

“Vous êtes sûrs?” /Vu zɛt syʁ ?/

Are you sure?

In addition, a pronoun before a verb that ends with a consonant such as “nous” (us), “vous” (you), and “les” (them) requires la liaison.

Here are some examples:

Tu nous entends./ty nu zɑ̃tɑ̃/

“You can hear us.”

Je les adore. /ʒə lez‿a.dɔʁ/

“I love them.”

Liaison appears also between an adjective and a noun regardless of whether the noun is singular or plural.

Examples:

J’ai de petites oreilles. /ʒe de pətit zɔʁɛj/

I have small ears.

Michel est un grand ami. /miʃɛl ɛt‿œ̃ gʁɑ̃t ami/

Michel is a great friend. (“d” sounds like “t” due to liaison)

Je regarde la télé sur un petit écran. /ʒə ʁəɡaʁd la tele syʁ œ̃ pəti ekʁɑ̃/

I’m watching TV on a small screen.

C’est un ancien élève. /sɛt‿œ̃n‿ɑ̃sjɛn elɛv/

He’s a former student.

  • After short prepositions, and “très

In French, mandatory liaisons also occur after short, one-syllable prepositions.

These prepositions include:

  • Dans /dɑ̃/ = In
  • En /ɑ̃/ = In
  • Sans /sɑ̃/ = Without
  • Chez /ʃe/ = At (the “z” sounds like “z” due to liaison)
  • Sous /su/ = Under

In addition, the adverb Très /tʁɛ/ (meaning “very”) also requires a liaison in certain situations.

C’est très amusant ! /sɛ tʁɛ.z‿a.my.zɑ̃/

It’s very amusing!

Je vis en Amérique. /ʒə vis ɑ̃n‿ame.ʁik/

I live in America.

Ils sont chez eux. /il sɔ̃ ʃe.zø/

They’re at home. or literally, “They’re at their own place.”

J’arrive dans une minute. /ʒa.ʁiv dɑ̃z‿yn my.nyt/

I’m arriving in a minute.

  • When there’s a singular noun followed by an adjective that begins with a vowel or silent “h

“un grand homme”/un gran tom/

a great man

  • When the pronoun “tout” means “all”

“tous les élèves” /tous les zélèves/

all the students

  • After certain verbs, including “ont” and “sont”

ils ont aimé”  /ils zont aimé/

they liked

Forbidden liaisons

It’s important to be aware of specific situations where liaisons are not allowed.

We’ll explore a couple of common situations where liaison is forbidden.

  • before a verb, when it’s not a pronoun

For instance, in the sentence “Les trains arrivent” (IPA: /le tʁɛ̃ za.ʁiv/), there is no liaison between “trains” and “arrivent”.

“Les trains arrivent” /le tʁɛ̃ za.ʁiv/

“The trains are arriving.”

  • after a verb in the singular

In the sentence “Tu vois un problème?” (IPA: /ty vwa œ̃ pʁɔ.blɛm/), there is no liaison between “vois” and “un”.

Tu vois un problème?  /ty vwa œ̃ pʁɔ.blɛm/

Do you see a problem?

  • with first names

There is no liaison between “chez” and “Arthur” in the following sentence.

On va chez Arthur.  /ɔ̃ va ʃe aʁtyʁ/

We’re going to Arthur’s place.

  • after conjonction “et”

For example, in the phrase “un chat et un chien” (IPA: /œ̃ ʃa e œ̃ ʃjɛ̃/), there is no liaison between “chat” and “et” because “chat” is a singular noun, and there is no liaison after “et”.

un chat et un chien”  /œ̃ ʃa e œ̃ ʃjɛ̃/)

a cat and a dog

un homme et une femme /œ̃ ɔm e yn fam/

a man and a woman

Optional liaisons

(after a plural verb, and more)

Let’s talk about the optional liaisons (= les liaisons facultatives).

In these cases, French people usually don’t make the liaison, but you can pronounce it to sound more formal.

  • After short adverbs and conjunctions

For instance:

  • Trop = too much
  • Plus = more / not anymore
  • Mais = But

Il est trop étrange, mais il est là. /il‿ɛ tʁop etʁɑ̃ʒ mɛ il‿ɛ la/

He’s too elegant, but he’s here.

Pronouncing both liaisons sounds very sophisticated.

  • After the verbs “Être” and “Avoir”

The liaison is a bit more common after the conjugated verbs “être” and “avoir” (even in the singular conjugations), especially with a past participle. But it’s still a bit formal.

Nous avons fini le travail. /nu.z‿a.vɔ̃ fi.ni lə tʁa.vaj/

We finished the work.

Elle est une grande actrice.  /ɛl ɛt yn ɡʁɑ̃d‿aktʁis/

She is a great actress.

Ils ont aimé ce film. /il.z‿ɔ̃ t‿ɛ.me sə film/

They saw an interesting movie.

→ Optional liaison between “nous” and “avons,” between “est” and “une” and between “ils” and “ont.”

Enchaînement vs Liaisons

In French phonetics, enchaînement and liaison are two distinct phenomena related to the pronunciation of words in connected speech. Enchaînement, which means “chaining” in English, refers to the smooth transition of sound from the final consonant of one word to the following vowel of the next word, without a pause in between.

This occurs when a word ending in a consonant is followed by a word beginning with a vowel.

In contrast, liaison, which means “link” in English, is the connection between two words where a normally silent consonant at the end of one word is pronounced to link it to the following word that begins with a vowel or silent h.

While both enchaînement and liaison serve to maintain the flow and clarity of spoken French, they operate in different contexts and have distinct phonetic features.

Examples of enchaînement and liaison:

Enchaînement:

Les amis de Sophie habitent à Paris. /le.z‿a.mi də sɔ.fi.a.bi.tɑ̃.ta.pa.ʁi/

The friends of Sophie live in Paris.

Elle est une grande artiste. /ɛl‿ɛt‿yn.grɑ̃d‿aʁ.tist/

She is a great artist.

Liaison:

Les enfants ont vu un chat. /le.z‿ɑ̃.fɑ̃.t‿ɔ̃.vy œ̃.ʃa/

The children saw a cat.

Nous avons acheté des pommes. /nu.z‿a.võ.na.ʃe.de.pɔm/

We bought some apples.

Tips for Improving French Liaison Pronunciation

So why is mastering French liaison important for achieving fluent French pronunciation?

For one, it helps to avoid the choppy, stilted speech that can be a dead giveaway for a non-native speaker. To improve your French liaison pronunciation, grasp the melody of the French language.

Even though it all sounds like one long, long, long sentence in French, it’s made of many little words. Start with mandatory liaison and build your way to forbidden and then optional French liaison.

With practice, you’ll be able to use la liaison to connect words smoothly and naturally and achieve a more fluent and natural sound in spoken French.

Want to keep improving your spoken French? Learn more about French Pronunciation.

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