This section gives an overview of French pronunciation. To describe the pronunciation of French, as indeed other languages, it's common to assume that the language has a number of basic "sound building blocks" to make up its words. For example, we could talk about the "English d sound" or the "French k sound"1. Then, we can break the problem of learning pronunciation down into three sub-problems:
In English, the letter p represents a "sound" whereby the lips are brought together to stop the air momentarily. The letter k, and often c, represents a sound whereby the tongue stops the sound against the roof of the mouth. In both p and k sounds in English, when the stop is released, allowing the air to flow out through the mouth again, there is a strong "puff of air" or aspiration in some cases2. You might not have noticed this, but if you hold your hand close to your mouth and say a pair of words such as pain, Spain, you'll probably feel a strong puff of air against your hand when you say the first of these words, but not the second. That's because the "p sound" in pain is aspirated, whereas in Spain it isn't (or at least, not as much).
In French, the p and k sounds are generally unaspirated (or at least, not strongly aspirated). In other words, the French p is like the p sound in English Spain, and not like the one in pain. Similarly, the French k sound is like the k in English skate, not like the one in Kate (which is aspirated).
In French, the k sound can be represented in spelling in various ways:
In French, the t sound is usually pronounced by touching the alveolar ridge (the protuberance behind the teeth) with the front part of the tongue. However, unlike in most varieties of English, French speakers usually pronounce t with the tongue far enough forward so that it also touches the back of the upper teeth.
On the end of a word, t isn't usually pronounced in French except in certain words, and under certain circumstances.
The French t is also unaspirated (or at least, not strongly aspirated3). In other words, it is more similar to the English t in stack than the t in tack (again, if you're a native speaker of English, say these words with your hand in front of your mouth and feel the difference).
The vowel generally written with the single letter i is sligtly similar to the English vowel ee, but:
In some cases, especially at the end of a word, the vowel is written ie. Occasionally, it is written y.
pic "peak", "pickaxe"
type "type", "guy"
rit ("(he/she) laughs") - Notice that the final -t isn't pronounced
Listen to these words
On the next pages, we look at:
French a vowel
French e vowels
French "voiced stops" (b, d, g vowels)
French fricatives (f, v, s, z...)
French o vowels
French u and ou vowels
French eu vowels
French nasalised vowels
French l, m, n
French r sound
1. This traditional approach of breaking pronunciation down into distinct "sounds" isn't necessarily
very good as a scientific theory of how speech works. But from the practical point of view
of learning to pronounce a language, it can get us a long way.
2. Technically, one definition of aspiration is that the air moves too rapidly to allow the vocal cords to vibrate regularly (cf Ladefoged & Maddieson, The Sounds of the World's Languages, p. 48: "Having a greater rate of airflow than occurs in modal voice for a period before or after a stricture").
3. Even in French, the amount of aspiration does actually vary, in particular depending on the following vowel. So French t tends to be aspirated more strongly before a "high" vowel (i or u as in tu).