Disclosure: I get commissions for purchases made through links in this page. This helps keep this site running
If you will be traveling in France, some other parts of Europe or parts of North Africa, you'll need to converse in French. This guide explains how you can instantly improve your pronunciation of French words by addressing the top 4 most common mistakes made by native English speakers. Don’t worry - these are easy to fix.
These 4 tips will suffice to cover the vast majority of French pronunciation sounds and so much of the common mistakes. Once you master these 4 easy rules, you'll be less likely to be taken for an English speaker and it'll look like you've put so much more effort into your learning. This just makes for a smoother experience for your travels; people are going to be more appreciative.
1. Don't pronounce silent letters at the end of words
The French language is full of silent letters, especially at the end of a word. As a guide, a good rule of thumb is that most of the time, you won’t need to pronounce the last letter of a French word.
In English, the letters at the end of a word are almost always pronounced (except for "e"). This makes it extra-tempting to do the same in French. Resist! There are of course exceptions to this rule: the most common is in the case where next word starts with a vowel, or if the word ends with c, f or l (although there are exceptions to that too!) Below are some examples of French words which do and don’t need the last letter pronounced.
- Examples of French words where the last letter is silent: faux, port, sirop, rivet
- Examples where the last letter is pronounced: mal, boeuf, lac
An example of both… "bon appetit" is a great example. The "n" in "bon" IS pronounced (because it is followed by a word beginning with a vowel). The last "t" in "appetit" should NOT be pronounced.
2. Keep an even emphasis on all syllables of each word
In French pronunciation, syllable emphasis is very slight and syllables tend to be treated very evenly within a word compared to English. It is a very common mistake for native English speakers to stress a syllable strongly in French. In particular, many English speakers will pronounce French words with an extra emphasis on the last syllable of that word. Please don't do it! - it sounds cringy to a French speaker!
Imagine if you heard someone speaking English with all kinds of weird placement of their emphasis. It would immediately label the speaker as a foreigner. While appearing as a foreigner isn't necessarily a disaster, you'll want to look like you've taken the effort to learn their language. And it's so easy to do when you keep the emphasis evenly spread!
I often hear native English speakers pronouncing the French word "maison" with a heavy emphasis on the last syllable (e.g. "mais-ON"). This sounds awful in French, please don't do it. I know it can be tempting because in English we have words like "hydrology" with strong emphasis on a particular syllable (e.g. "hy-DROL-ogy"). This is simply not the case in French.
The good news is that incorrect emphasis won’t distort the pronunciation as much as the other common mistakes featured here, but it will label you without doubt as a foreigner.
Just treat your syllables more evenly than you would in English and you’ll instantly improve.
3. Avoid unnecessary use of the "ay" sound
This is one of the most common mistakes of all. Frequently and unnecessarily ending words with the "ay" sound is usually a dead giveaway that that someone is not a native French speaker. There are a few exceptions of French words which really do end in the "ay" sound, but they are a lot rarer than you think. Most of the time you will not need to use that sound.
To clarify, we’re talking about the same sound you would hear at the end of "Monday", "Tuesday", etc. A native English speaker frequently uses this sound when they really should be using the é sound. The é sound is the same way the "e" is pronounced in "exit" in English. Become very familiar with that é sound and practice it often. It's one of the most common French pronunciation sounds - if you're not using it, you're doing something wrong. There is almost literally no way you could speak 2 conversational French sentences without needing to use that sound.
To pronounce French words correctly, the best guideline is that you should use the é sound if a French word ends in -é, -er, -ez, -ait or -ais. Wondering when to use "ay" ? It is much less frequent; it applies to words which end in -eil/-eille, -aie, -aye.
- Examples of French words which end in the é sound: aller, lait, minaret, sais, appellez
- Examples of French words which end in the "ay" sound: bouteille, paye, réveille
4. Avoid unnecessary use of the "owe" sound
Another rookie mistake which comes up again and again is using the "owe" sound. If you're ending a French word with a sound like the English word "owe" then you're almost certainly doing something wrong. Yet this is something I hear all the time. There may be a few exceptions to this rule for certain French words but I can't think of any off the top of my head.
Usually, a native English speaker will use "owe" when he or she really means the "au" sound in French. When pronouncing it correctly, it should sound like the "o" in the English word "or" (without pronouncing the "r" sound).
You'll want to use this "au" sound when pronouncing French words ending in -au, -aux, -eau, -aut, -aud, -ot, -op
This is such a widespread problem that it may even feel weird for you to pronounce this sound correctly because you've probably head so many people mispronounce it. Nonetheless, you really need to re-learn this one and practice it until it becomes second nature.
- Examples of French words which end in the "au" sound: faux, bureau, sirop, bientôt
Based on this "au" sound, you may be thinking "why is French pronunciation so weird?" But let's turn that idea on its head. Instead, be grateful that so many different spellings all boil down to the same sound. Imagine if each of those different spellings of the "au" sound was pronounced differently! What difficulty! So really it winds up being a bit simpler than you might have first thought.
If you're finding French pronunciation difficult, these 4 tips will soon have you properly pronouncing your words and speaking French so much more smoothly. Native French speakers will understand you so much more easily. This is because together, these 4 tips cover so many of the common mistakes in French pronunciation.
If you're still struggling, you might like to look into a language learning program with a native French speaker with 1:1 lessons on a schedule and budget that works for you. I recommend italki for this.
First start with the pronunciation guide in this article though. Whether you’ll be traveling or simply have an interest in languages, your ability to correctly pronounce French words will help you guard against making any (ahem) faux pas.
If you're around people from different nationalities than your own, you might like to avoid embarrassing cultural mistakes by checking out my etiquette guide on conversing about matters of freedom with those from other countries.