French Reading Rules For Beginners: Secrets of Pronunciation

Learning the French reading rules is the key to mastering French pronunciation. Reading French is difficult because the language is not phonetic; the words are not pronounced exactly as they’re read. This page will outline and explain exactly how to sound out French words.

French reading and pronunciation rules

Note: it helps to know the phonetic symbols for French pronunciation for this page. These rules are covered in Exercises in French Phonics. In addition to this page we also suggest considering the course Secrets of French Pronunciation from Frenchtoday.com.

Also note that learning how to read the French accents is vital for learning how to read French. This page on our site covers the French accent marks in great detail. Another important element to French pronunciation is understanding the liaison, the linking of words. This page on our site covers the French liaison in detail.

Reading rules for consonants

Words ending in two consonants

If a word ends in two consonants, completely ignore the last consonant and end on the second-to-last consonant. For example, the word concert (concert) is pronounced [kɔ̃sɛʀ]. Skip the final -t.

If a word ends in a two consonants and a nasal sound (see explanation of nasal sounds below), the same rule applies. Skip the last consonant. For example, restaurant (restaurant). No -t.

Examples:

  • Robert
  • Albert
  • Rochefort (city in France)
  • roquefort (kind of cheese)
  • transport transportation
  • vêtement cohting
  • élégant elegant

Words ending in two consonants + -e

If a word ends in two consonants plus -e, the final -e forces the final consonant to get pronounced. For example, for the masculine adjective couvert(covered), the final -t gets ignored (see rule above). In the feminine form, “couverte”, the final -e gets sounded out: [koo-vert].

Words ending in vowel + consonant

If a word ends in vowel plus consonant, completely ignore the last consonant. For example, the word “petit” (masculine form of he adjective short, little) is pronounced “puh-tee” or [pəti].

Examples:

  • Louis
  • François
  • Denis
  • Nicolas
  • Thomas
  • bruit noise
  • abrit shelter
  • cuit cooked

Words ending in vowel + consonant + -e

If a word ends in vowel plus consonant plus the letter -e, that -e forces that last consonant to get pronounced.

For example for “petite” (feminine form of the adjective short or little, the pronunciation is “put-teet”. The final -t gets pronounced. This page on Forvo.com shows how to pronounce petit vs. petite.

Examples:

  • Louise
  • Françoise
  • Denise
  • cuite cooked (feminine adjective
  • cerise cherry
  • fraise strawberry

CaReFuL rule

The CaReFuL rule states that if a word ends in the letters -c, -r, -f or -l, these letters must be pronounced.

Examples:

  • Daniel
  • Marc
  • Éric
  • Frédéric
  • neuf nine
  • cerf dear
  • parc park
  • choc shock

The CaReFuL does have some exceptions, however. Don’t pronounce the -c on the ends of the following words:

  • blanc (masculine form of the adjective for white)
  • banc bench
  • tabac tobacco, tobacco shop

Note that the CaReFuL rule does not apply to the infinitives of -er verbs. These end in the “ay” sound as play.

Examples:

  • parler to speak
  • travailler to work
  • voyager to travel
  • jouer to play

Ch sounds like sh

If a French word contains a “ch”, sound it out like an “sh” in English. For example, the word choix (choice) sounds like “shwah”.

Examples:

  • changer to change
  • chez at the home of
  • choisir to chose
  • chemin way, path, road

Qu sound like -k

When you see a “qu” in a word, sound it out like a “k” in English not a “qu” like in the English word “quantity”. Thus, “que” (that, what) in French sounds like “kuh”.

Examples:

  • question question
  • quoi what
  • quand when
  • quantité quantity

Single -s vs. double -ss

In French, a single -s is pronounced like a -z. For example:

  • Isabelle
  • désert desert
  • ciseaux scissors
  • lisent they read
  • poison poison

A double -ss sounds like -s as in “Sam”. For example:

  • dessert dessert
  • chaussette shoe
  • message message
  • poisson fish

Soft -c vs. hard -c

When the letter -c is followed by either -e or -i as “ce” or “ci”, the -c sounds like an -s as in “Sam”.

  • Céline
  • cerise cherry
  • certain certain, sure
  • cinéma cinema, movies
  • ciel sky
  • cible target
  • ciseaux scissors

When a -c is followed by any other letter, it a hard -c or -k sound.

  • crêpe crepe
  • crabe crab
  • coïncidence coincidence
  • classe class
  • client client

Soft -g and hard -g

Very similar to soft and hard -c above, a similar rule applies to the letter -g. When followed by the leters -e or -g, the -g is soft.

  • Géralde
  • Georges
  • géant giant
  • gérer to manage
  • gens people
  • gîte guest house
  • génial great, cool
  • girafe giraffe

When followed by another letter, -g has a hard sound.

  • grand big
  • gros big, fat
  • glacier glacier
  • guide guide
  • gorge throat

Rule for -gn

In French, the -gn corresponds to an “ñ” in Spanish and has a “ny” sound like in the English word “canyon”. The phonetic symbol [ɲ] is used to show the -gn sound in dictionaries.

Examples:

  • gagner to win, earn money
  • signer to sign
  • cygne swan

Rules for double -ll

French reading rules for LLs.

A double -ll in French can be pronounced like an -l or a slight -y sound, depending on the word.

Pronounce the -ll For the words mille (thousand), ville (city) and tranquille (calm) and all other words derived from or related to these words.

  • million million
  • milliard billion
  • village town
  • tranquillité calmness

For all other words with an -ll and not related to mille, vill and tranquille, the -ll sounds like a slight -y sound.

  • fille girl
  • famille family
  • Bastille bastille
  • cheville ankle
  • cédille cedilla accent
  • vanille vanilla

What to do with -eille and -aille

Words ending in -eille sound like [ay] and words ending in -aille sounds like “I” or “eye”.

  • Marseille
  • bouetille bottle
  • travaille (he/she works)
  • bataille battle
  • volaille poultry

Words starting with -h

If a word starts with the letter -h, completely ignore it. Don’t pronounce the -h at all.

Examples:

  • hôtel hotel
  • hôpital hospital
  • homme man
  • histoire history
  • habiter to live
  • humide humid

Don’t pronounce -th in English!

If a word has a -th, just pronounce -t and completely ignore the -h.

Examples:

  • Matthieu
  • Thomas
  • mathématiques mathematics
  • sympathique nice
  • théorie theeory
  • thé tea
  • athlete athlète

– euil sound

The -euil sound is very difficult to pronounce. This page on Forvo gives several samples of the word fauteuil (armchair). Words ending in -euille end in a light -y sound.

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Examples:

  • écureuil squirrel
  • accueil front desk, reception
  • feuille leaf
  • portefeuille wallet

-ouille sound

Words ending in -ouille are also very difficult to pronounce. The sound is “ou-ee”. This page on Forvo gives a sample of grenouille (frog).

Examples:

  • nouille pasta
  • andouille fool

-t becoming an -s

In a lot of words, a -t sounds like an -s. This occurs when the -t in the English equivalent word sounds like an -s or -sh.

For example:

  • nation [nasjɔ̃] -> nation
  • diplomatie [diplomasi] -> diplomancy
  • democratie [demɔkʀasi] -> democracy

If the English equivalent word does not have an -s or -sh sound, the -t maintained in French.

For example:

  • partie -> party
  • modestie -> modesty

Reading rules for vowels

Mastering the vowel sounds really is the key to being about to read and pronounce French correctly. After this section we’ll touch on the nasal sounds, which can get quite tricky.

Ou sound

Whenever you see an -ou in a French word, read it like “oo” as in the English word “food”. The phonetic symbol for the -ou in French is [u]. The wordvous (you formal and plural) has this sound.

Examples:

  • fou crazy
  • loup wolf
  • joue plays
  • coup hit, strike
  • beaucoup a lot

Single -u or “pointed” -u.

The single -u is one of the most difficult sounds to make in French. It sounds like a sharp or pointed -u coming out from puckered lips. This page on Forvo has examples of how to pronounce tu (you singular and informal).

Examples:

  • bu drank
  • lu read
  • su knew
  • pu was able
  • vu saw
  • vendu sold
  • défendu defended

Single -i

In French, a single -i simply sounds like “ee” as in the English word “feet”.

Examples:

  • petit small, little
  • île island
  • lit bed
  • vite quickly, fast
  • livre books
  • formidable wonderful, great

-ai sound

There are two ways to pronounce the -ai in French. For words ending in -ai, it sounds like “ay” as in the English word “play”. The corresponding phonetic symbol is [e].

Examples:

  • Je donnerai I will give
  • Je ferai will make, do
  • Je sais I know
  • Je paie I pay

When an -ai is followed by a consonant, it sounds like the -e in the English word “get”. The corresponding phonetic symbol is [ɛ].

Examples:

  • fraise strawberry
  • française French (adjective in feminine form)
  • j’aime I like
  • faible weak
  • baiser to kiss

-o sound

In French there are two -o sounds: an open -o and a close -o. The open -o has the phonetic symbol [ɔ]. The French wordvote (vote) has the open -o or [ɔ] sound.

The following are examples of the open -o in French. It’s tempting to pronounce the -o as if it were the English -o.

  • orange orange
  • opinion opinion
  • opportunité opportunity
  • octobre october
  • ovale oval
  • noble noble
  • romance romance

The closed -o in French sounds like “oh” as in “oh my gosh” and has the corresponding phonetic symbol [o]. The closed -o is used for -o with circumflex accent (ô), when – is the final sound of a word and -o plus s + vowel.

Examples of the closed -o:

  • dos back
  • mot word
  • sirop syrup
  • hôtel hotel
  • côté side
  • nôtre ours
  • rose pink
  • chose thing

-au sound

In French the letters -au are also pronounced like an open -o, or “oh” as in “oh my gosh”.

Examples:

  • Guillaume
  • Laurent
  • aussi also
  • aujourd’hui today
  • Australie Australia
  • Autriche Austria

-œ sound

French has a unique letter called l’e dans l’o or “the -e in the -o”. It’s essentially an -o and an -e combined in to a single letter. This sample of the word for heart (cœur) on Forvo show’s how to pronounce the -œ sound.

Examples:

  • sœur sister
  • bœuf beef
  • œuf eff
  • œuvre work
  • œil eye
  • mœurs habits
French nasal sounds

French nasal sounds

Sometimes letter combinations can be nasal and at other times the exact same letters in the exact same spellings are not nasal.

It is important to learn when a nasal sound is required and when it is not. This has to do with the way a word is broken down into syllables.

In French, if a word has vowel + consonant + vowel, the consonant always goes with the second vowel. For example, for the word “ami” (friend), the syllable breakdown is: “a-mi”.

The second key rule for French the syllabic breakdown for two syllables is that a syllable break is done between two consonants. For example, for “inviter” (inviter), syllable break is done between the -n and the -v. Hence, “in-viter”.

Thus, for the word “initiation”, there is no nasal sound on the -in. This is because the -i and the -n are not in the same syllable (i-nitiation).

For the word “inviter”, the -in is pronounced as a nasal sound because -in is the same syllable: “in-viter”.

-in, im, -aim, -ain, -eim, -ein, yn, yn

The following spelling patterns are a nasal sound: -in, im, -aim, -ain, -eim, -ein, yn, yn. They correspond to the phonetic symbol [ɛ̃]. Inviter has this sound.

Examples:

  • intéressant interesting
  • faim hunger
  • main hand
  • simple simple
  • impossible impossible
  • juin June
  • linge laundry

Note than the nasal “in” or [ɛ̃] sound is used for -en in words ending in -ien. Thusbien (well) is [b + ee + ɛ̃] and not [b + ee + ɑ̃].

Also note that nasalization is cancelled when the -n or -m is doubled.

Examles:

  • immense immense, huge
  • innocence innocence

-am, -an, -em-, -en

The following spelling combinations are nasal: -am, -an, -em-, -en. The phonetic symbol for this sound is [ɑ̃]. Here’s an audio sample of temps (time or weather).

Examples:

  • an year
  • enfant child
  • pendant during
  • France France
  • chanter to sing
  • penser to think
  • chance luck
  • cent hundred
  • quantité quantity

Note that if the -n or -m is doubled, there is no nasalization.

  • année year
  • anniversaire birthday

-on, -om

The spelling combinations -on and -om are a nasal -o and correspond to the phonetic symbol [ɔ̃]. For example,non (no).

Examples:

  • bonjour hello
  • nom name
  • son his/her, sound
  • mouton sheep
  • fond back, bottom

Note that if the -n or m is doubled, there is no nasalization.

  • monnaie currency, change
  • hônnete honest

-un, -um sound

The letter combinations -un and -um have a nasal sound corresponding to the phonetic symbol [œ̃]. This sound is very similar to the nasal -in [ɛ̃] (see above) and very difficult to differentiate. Listen to the “un” in the this sample from Forvo: lundi (Monday).

Examples:

  • un a or an (indefinite article)
  • aucun any, none
  • parfum perfum
  • quelqu’un somebody

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