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French Vowels - The Key To Sounding Like A French Native
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French Vowels – The Key To Sounding Like A French Native

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Want to sound like a French native? The key is mastering vowel sounds. We’ve put together a comprehensive list of every French vowel just for this purpose!

Before we begin going through the different French vowels, do have a read through our glossary of pronunciation terms!

French Vowels: Pronunciation Glossary

  • Rounded: Refers to the round shape you can make with your mouth
  • Unrounded: Refers to the neutral and unshaped position of your lips
  • Frontness: How close your tongue is to the front of your mouth
  • Backness: How close your tongue is to the back of your mouth
  • Dipthongs: When two vowels are combined to sound like one

Note: This guide follows the IPA chart.

Low Vowels

These French vowels are pronounced with your tongue placed lower down, which allows there to be more space in your mouth cavity. They are also known as open vowels.

 

Low-mid Vowels

/ɛ/

This is the low-mid front unrounded vowel (also called open-mid front unrounded vowel). Despite its funny shape, it plays an important role in phonetics. The best way to describe how it sounds is how the vowel in “head” is pronounced. We’ve added two examples below of French words that include this vowel.

Example:
sel (salt), treize (thirteen)

/œ/

This one is the low-mid front rounded vowel (also called open-mid rounded vowel). Pronouncing it exactly like /ɛ/ but with a rounded mouth is best. It’s not to be confused with the vowel /ø/ , as this one is said with the tongue positioned slightly higher and generally used when the syllable doesn’t end in a consonant.

Example:
seul (alone), professeur (professor)

Fun fact: Even though œufs (eggs) seems like it could use this vowel, it’s actually pronounced with /ø/ instead.

/ɔ/

This is your low-mid back rounded vowel (also called open-mid back rounded vowel). It sounds mostly like the vowel in “bought”, however /ɔ/ is pronounced with a rounded mouth and the tongue placed more towards the front.

Example:
porc (pork), pomme (apple)

/ə/

A rather unique sound, this one is known as the mid-central but slightly rounded vowel. It’s not always easily heard as it has a tendency to be omitted in some words, but you can keep an ear out for it by listening for something that sounds close to /œ/

Example:
le (the), samedi (Saturday)

Open Wide!

/a/

This one is pretty straightforward; it sounds alike the vowel in “lather”.

Example:
rat (rat), parents (parents)

Watch the video below to listen to the pronunciation of every French vowel

 

Nasal French Vowels

The vowels in this category are produced by pushing air out of both your mouth and nose. The trick to knowing when to do so is to take note of the word’s end syllable. If it ends with ‘m’ or ‘n’ , then the vowel is produced nasally and vice versa. This makes your vocal cords vibrate with no obstruction from the tongue, lips or throat.

Try and pronounce the following words by producing the correct nasal vowel.

/ã/enfant (child)
/ɛ̃/vin (wine)
/œ̃/chacun (each)
/ɔ̃/monde (world)

-> Make sure to watch out for any mute ‘e‘ that follows on from the ‘m‘ or the ‘n‘, because in that case the vowel is not produced nasally.

-> You can spot nasal vowels by the presence of a tilde (~) in their phonetic form.

High Vowels

Think of high vowels (also called close vowels) as having your tongue positioned in such a way that it closes off the space within your mouth.

High-mid vowels

/o/

Similar sounding to the vowel in “go“, this is the high mid-back vowel (also called a close mid-back vowel). In English we tend to add a diphthong to this particular vowel, whereas in French this doesn’t happen and therefore the sound is pronounced a lot more clearly.

Example:
gros (fat), mot (word)

/e/

Known as the high-mid frontal unrounded vowel (also called the close-mid frontal unrounded vowel), this one doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English but it sounds very close to the vowel in “rid” or “bid”.

Example:
proposer (to propose), mais (but)

/ø/

This one is the same as  /e/ but produced with a rounded mouth instead: meet the high-mid frontal rounded vowel (also known as the close-mid frontal rounded vowel). It’s the same sound as the vowel in “rid” or “bid”, but pronounced with a rounded mouth and a more relaxed tongue.

Example:
voeu (a wish), deux (two)

 

Ready to try pronouncing a few more?

 

High Vowels

/u/

Similar to the vowel in “root”, in French it’s pronounced with a tighter and rounder shaped mouth.

Example:
jupe (skirt), autobus (bus)

/i/

Known as the frontal high unrounded vowel (also called frontal closed unrounded vowel), this one sounds like the vowel in “bee“.

Example:
six (six), finir (to finish)

/y/

Another frontal high vowel but this time it’s rounded and notoriously tricky to master. It’s quite like /u/ but differs in the way that the tongue is positioned much more forward. It may not be the easiest vowel, but with a lot of practice in both speaking and listening you’ll definitely get there!

Example:
rue (road), bulle (bubble)

And there you have it – the complete lowdown on French vowels.

See you next lesson – and in the meantime, don’t forget to practice!  If you do need any help, don’t hesitate to get into contact with one of our online French Tutors.

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