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French pronunciation isn’t the easiest, even for advanced speakers. It requires making new facial expressions to get the perfect sound, awakening barely-used muscles in your vocal tract (French R, anyone?), and rounding your lips more than you thought necessary. It’s a lot of work for learners, but once you have it down, speaking the language of love is definitely enjoyable.
You more than likely learned the difference between a vowel and a consonant in elementary school. You’ve probably heard that a vowel is A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y, and everything else is a consonant. There’s some truth to this, but there’s actually a phonetic reason why those 6 are considered vowels. Say the word fat, and really stretch it out to exaggerate each sound. With the F, your lower lip is pressing against the upper teeth while you’re pushing out air. With the A, your mouth is open with the tongue flat, and with the T, the tongue quickly flaps against the ridge on the roof of your mouth behind your teeth before releasing a small burst of air.
Can you see the difference between a consonant and a vowel from these 3 sounds? The F and the T are both produced with some sort of obstruction (the lips and tongue) in the vocal tract. The A, on the other hand, has nothing to block the pure sound coming from your throat. That’s it, really. A consonant has an obstruction when pronounced while an vowel doesn’t. There’s also something in-between: look up semi-vowels.
In French and in English, there’s a distinction between vowels. The most common is an oral vowel, which are the ones we just discussed – the ones whose air can escape the mouth with no obstruction. The other type is called a nasal vowel, and it’s produced when air escapes the nose and the mouth. Don’t fret – the sounds are easy to make, and we use them all the time in English. Give it a shot – touch the side of your nose and say the word “tender.” You’ll feel vibrations when you get to the ‘en.’ Keep your finger there and say “house.” No vibration!
In English, we nasalize vowels in front of the letters N, M, and the NG consonant combination (punt, mom, fling), but you also pronounce the consonant(s) that follow (punT, moM, flinG). Easy enough? Great. You do the opposite in French: nasalize the vowels before N or M, but do not pronounce the following consonant(s) unless it starts another syllable.
So, now you know when to nasalize the vowels, we’re going to discuss the 4 different vowels used in French. Some natives will argue that there are only 3, but others will protest saying there are 4 distinct sounds. The simple phrase un bon vin blanc (a good white wine) shows there are 4 different sounds, but some speakers will pronounce the un and vin with the same nasalized vowel. Today, we’re going to look at all 4 vowels and their IPA symbols, how to pronounce them, which spelling environments they’re found in, and we’re going to end with a few articulation exercises. All examples are accompanied by a recording from a native speaker. Let’s start!
Un bon vin blanc:
IPA symbol: œ̃
How do I make this sound? Push your mouth forward and tighten the muscles in in your mouth and throat. When releasing the sound, hold your finger on the side of your nose to see if the sound is nasalized.
Possible spellings: un, um
IPA symbol: ɔ̃
How do I make this sound? Round those lips and push them forward! Check the nasalization with your finger against your nose.
Possible spellings: on, om
IPA symbol: ɛ̃
How do I make this sound? Smile! Just have to have the right positioning for this. Check the nasalization with your finger against your nose.
Possible spellings: ain, aim, ein, eim, en, em, in, im, un, um, ym, yn
IPA symbol: ɑ̃
How do I make this sound? This one is kinda like swallowing but with your muscles relaxed – it’s in the back and seems like it’s dropping. Check the nasalization with your finger against your nose.
Possible spellings: an, em, en, em
Got it down? Perfect. Let’s try some articulation exercises. Here are a few nonsensical sentences full of nasal sounds. Say them a few times and see how fast you can go! Thanks, Guillaume, for these sentences 🙂
Feeling brave? Try these: