Having a real good feel for the vowel sounds will really give your French studies a boost. Often in my French Intensive Course in Montpellier I tend to get stuck on the pronunciation of a word whilst I want to thinking about the structure of the sentence or the vocabulary. So I set aside some time to work on this and this is what I have found for some of the most common vowel sounds. I hope it helps you with your intensive French course for adults.
U – Tu, Perdu
The problem English speakers often have with this is that it is very easy to replace it with the ‘oo’ sound made sometimes like in the word ‘food’ for example. The actual sound the French use is a little different and is quite distinct from anything commonly used in English. This is the sound you will hear when the words ‘rue’, ‘vu’ and ‘tu’ are used and the last of those you hear every day during a French language stay so you’ll have plenty of examples to work with. The closest, but still pretty far away, reference point I can think of in English is the word ‘coo’ as in ‘the dove cooed’. The kick from the ‘c’ at the start of the word gives a little burst of air which if exaggerated provides a good starting point. A tip I have heard before is to position your lips into a circular ‘O’ shape and from the back of your throat attempt to say the word ‘tea’ whilst keeping your lips in that position. If you want a way to get a British person to master something……relate it to tea!
A – Ta, Ma
The sound for the French A is a little easier as it’s not too dissimilar to the English version. A couple of examples of where it is used are ‘chat’ and ‘là’. When I say it in French way it takes on a bit more of a clipped character and can stop and start more quickly that the English ‘ahhhh’ which has a softer ending. I find it helpful to imagine the sound when you are telling a child they can’t do something whilst wagging your finger:
‘ah ah ah, you can’t do that!’
From here it’s like you are trying to get over the sound a bit as though you have put a very, very subtle ‘r’ in the ‘ah’.
When Learning French in France You’ll Meet A Lot of Es
É – Pressé, Parler
This one is nice and easy because it’s so close to the sound ‘ey’. Not exactly the same but very close. It’s certainly a lot easier than saying the French pronunciation for ‘e’ which is more of deep ‘uh’ sound.
E – Grenouille
This is the sound you would use if you were spelling something and needed to say the letter itself. It’s sort of like the ‘errr’ sound you might make in disgust but again in a slightly clipped form. I sometimes make the same sound if someone says something a bit corny or cheesy. It’s quite a deep sound so try to feel it in your diaphragm.
È – Chèvre, Mère, Merci
This one is a little harder. It sounds a bit like a French person saying ‘air’ as it sounds to me like it has a slight rising inflection at the end. Great to master as ‘merci’ is one of the words you will be saying the most but this comes with an extra challenge and that is combining it with the throaty ‘r’ sound. You will certainly get enough practice though.
I – Tigre, Pyjama
One of the easiest, I can’t really tell the difference between this and the ‘eeee’ sound in English.
O – Dauphin, Beau, Tôt
Very slight difference from the English version but definitely a noticeable one. When you say the two letters side by side it sounds like the French version sort of hops over the top of the English and I believe you can feel it coming from top of your mouth.
So there are a few of my thoughts on the vowel sounds you will be using very frequently during you time learning French in France. The are some others that mainly come from combinations of the sounds that I will discuss in another article but these are the most common and they will pop up on your French immersion course a lot. You will be using muscles in your mouth and vocal chords that you haven’t before so it will take some time to get them agile. If you are taking the DELF or DALF French exam it’s really important to nail these and for any intensive French course having a good command over them will really loosen you up and give you flexibility and fluidity. Happy learning!