French Vowels – How to Say them like A Native French Speaker
A, E, I, O, U, as we know, are the English vowels. But what about the ones in French?
Vowels are the liberating heroes language as they aren’t obstructed by any movement in the mouth. An action that limits your airflow to make a sound creates a consonant. In French, linguistics plays an essential role as knowing the way to position your lips and tongue can get you that perfect sound, after all, just rolling your r’s isn’t enough!
A Beginner’s Guide to Speaking Positions
- Rounded: your lips are in a circle when saying the vowels
- Unrounded: your lips are slack or not in a circle when saying the vowels
- Frontness: the distance of the tongue towards the front when saying the vowels
- Backness: the distance of the tongue towards the back when saying the vowels
- Dipthong: the sound made on the combination of two vowels but sounding like one
Think of forming these words like learning a dance choreography and let’s tap in.
* The following guide follows the IPA chart.
Speak the open sounds as if your tongue is positioned low and there is space within your mouth cavity. Therefore, these vowels are known as “low vowels”.
Let’s Open with Open-mid Vowels
What is this symbol that can pass off as emoticon? It’s the open-mid front unrounded vowel. The way around the sound is like saying ‘read’.
sel (salt), treize (thirteen)
Sound smart by calling this the open-mid front rounded vowel and nail the scene by pronouncing it like /ɛ/ but with rounded lips. Don’t confuse it with /ø/ as this one is when the tongue is positioned lower and the syllables usually end in a consonant.
seul (alone), professeur (professor)
* Fun fact: even though œufs (eggs), would seem like it comes under this category, it’s pronounced with /ø/.
This is your open-mid back rounded vowel with sounds revolving around words like ‘bought’. As the technical term indicates, the lips will be rounded, and tongue placed forward.
porc (pork), pomme (apple)
A unique sound, this is known as the open mid-central, slightly rounded vowel. It’s significant when writing but at times in pronunciation, it seems to just ‘drop-off’.
le (the), samedi (Saturday)
Open Your Mouth – ‘a’, ‘a’, ‘a’
Place your tongue almost near the palette and forward, closer to the teeth and say ‘lather’. Now use the same technique to say the examples below.
banque (bank), parents (parents)
The sounds in this category are made through the nose. The trick to knowing when to be nasal is to notice the end syllable. If it ends with ‘m’ or ‘n’ then the vowel is said through the nose. Your vocal chords vibrate with no obstruction from tongue, lips or throat.
- Remember to make sure that a mute ‘e’ is not present.
- The ‘tilde ~’ is used to indicate that the sound should be nasal.
Nasal Vowels Let Your Nose Talk
Try and say the following words in a nasalized manner.
/ã/– enfant (child)
/ɛ̃/– vin (wine)
/œ̃/– chacun (each)
/ɔ̃/- monde (world)
Think of close sounds as your tongue positioned at a height that eliminates the space within your mouth. That’s why these vowels are also known as “high vowels”.
Up and Close with Close-mid Vowels
The sound is just like saying ‘o’ as in ‘bow’. This is a close mid-back vowel. When the French words with the vowel ‘o’ are spoken out loud, they seem crisp contrary to English where due to dipthong theory, the ‘o’ is mixed.
fou (crazy), moi (me)
Known as close-mid frontal unrounded vowel in the linguistic world, it sounds like the ‘e’ in the ending when you say ‘slay’. Try keeping this crisp too and not make it sound like a dipthong.
proposer (to propose), au fond de (at the bottom of)
As a sibling of /e/ it not only takes up half the sound of it but also the name close-mid frontal but rounded vowel. Try saying the examples below in the same way as ‘slay’ but round your lips and let your tongue settle back a bit.
boeufs (oxen), deux (two)
Close the Deal with Close Vowels
The sound is made through your lips being in a tight circle and making an ‘oo’ sound. A trick is to purse your lips and say ‘E’.
jupe (skirt), autobus (bus)
Here the sound that you’ll be making is ‘ee’ like in ‘bee’. The technical term frontal close unrounded vowel.
six (six), finir (to finish)
Another frontal close but this time rounded vowel, this one is a tricky sound to master. It’s quite like /u/ but differs in the way your tongue moves forward. Try saying the examples below by rounding the lips and keeping the tongue slightly near but not too much.
yeux (eyes), yaourt (yogurt)
The easiest way to grasp quickly is by finding the sounds online and hearing them again and again. Try the speaking positions as specified and before you know it that local French bakery with the French hostess will be swept by your enunciation skills. Any Online French Tutor can help you out if you have any confusion. See you next chapter!