A simple guide to French pronunciation with IPA

Pronouncing French is one of the major barriers to learning French for English speakers. Many text and phrase books use strange English transliterations that try to mimic how French sounds though writing in English. So we get something like ZHUH PAHRL for je parle (I speak).

This kind of simple transliteration from French to the Latin letters used in English is problematic on several levels. Firstly, the pronunciation of letters in English is very inconsistent. For example, the letter ‘c’ can sound like a ‘k’ (cat) or an ‘s’ (cease) depending on the word. Also there are quite a few French phonemes (sounds used when talking) that do not exist at all in English. For example the ‘an’ (ɑ̃ in IPA) in croissant, and ‘eu’ (œ in IPA) in neuf (nine) – neither of these sounds are used in English.

International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a written system of phonetic notation that was devised as a way to represent every spoken sound of every language in the world. And it is very useful for students of foreign languages, including French.

While using a less technical transliteration scheme (such the ZHUH PAHRL we saw above) as it appears less daunting, all these seeming simpler schemes are either wholly unsuited to the French language, and/or they required as much ‘learning’ as the IPA. It very much worth the student’s effort to learn the subset of 39 IPA symbols required to perfectly describe the pronunciation of all French words.

One extra symbol that you will encounter is the liaison undertie . In French a silent final consonant may be pronounced, in some syntactic contexts, when the following word begins with a vowel or non-aspirated ‘h’. Many words with silent final consonants have utterly lost them, i.e. neither the ‘n’ in million nor the ‘t’ in art are ever pronounced regardless of whether the follow word begins in a vowel. A liaison should not be made just because a word ends in a silent consonant and the next one starts with a vowel. In the IPA transliteration scheme the undertie appears between words where liaison is happening.

The table below sets out the 39 IAP symbols required to precisely pronounce French.


IPAPronunciation guide
bthe “b” in boy, baby and rob
kthe “c/k” in can, speaker and stick
ʃthe “sh” in she, station and push
dthe “d” in do, ladder and bed
fthe “f” in food, offer and safe
gthe “g” in get, bigger and dog
ʒthe “s” in measure, television and beige
hthe “h” in happy, ahead
ɲthe “gn” sound in lasagne or espana.
 lthe “l” in lie and ply
mthe “m” in make, summer and time
nthe “n” in no, dinner and thin
ŋthe “ng” in singer, think and long
pThe “p” in put, apple and cup
rthe “r” in run, far and store; tends to be raspy and rolling.
sthe “s” in sit, city, passing and face
tthe “t” in top, better and cat
vthe “v” in very, seven and love
xthe “ch” in Scottish loch and the German ach or ich
zthe “z” in zoo and buzz


IPAPronunciation guide
athe “a” in aren’t – pronounced at the front of the mouth.
ɑsay “pas” with your lips rounded – it is that “a” sound.
ethe “er” in her
ɛthe “e” in ever, head and get
əthe “uh” sound in suspense
œa bit like the “ur” in “urn; the German “ö” in schön
øa “ue” with pursed lips; “ur” in urgent
ithe “e” in eat, see and need
othe “o” in ostrich
ɔthe “or” sound in all, or, talk and saw
u“oo/ou” in ooze, food, soup, sue; front of the mouth with pursed lips
y“ye” in yes, onion

Nasal vowels and semi vowels

IPAPronunciation guide
ɑ̃a nasal “on”; the “an” in croissant
ɛ̃a nasal “a”
õa nasal “o”
œ̃a short nasal “u” in under
j“zh” or “jer”
ɥ“we” with pursed lips and tongue at rear
wthe “w” in wear and away

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