Some say that French spelling and pronunciation is ridiculously difficult and random. While it is difficult, it is not as random as it looks. It does take some time to get used to its sounds and spellings, but they are quite a few rules that are helpful to know. I will share some tips, tricks, and rules that I have used to help my students with pronunciation.
Learn the letters that are not pronounced at the end of a word
This one is often overlooked but will make a huge difference as the extra sound often changes the meaning or the grammatical function of the word!
Use the phonetic alphabet, at least until you get more comfortable with French sounds (also applies to any other
language you want to learn). You can use the complete international phonetic alphabet (IPA) – here is a link: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktionary:IPA_pronunciation_key
For our purpose, here are the sounds used in French:
C S as in place (+ i /e) Cerise
K as in cat (+ a/o/u) Colle
J (+e/i) as in Garage Garage
R Similar to Spanish ‘J’ Robe
Ai / ê / è As in pain Frais / fête / fièvre
Au /eau As in taupe Mauvais / beau
Eu Sounds like a long French “e” Feu
Oi Sounds like “wa” (what) Trois
tion Sounds like “sion” Attention
Un / in / ain Jardin / pain
The last three sounds are called nasal vowels and do not exist in English. Here is a link to listen to and practice them: http://www.languageguide.org/french/grammar/pronunciation/nasal.html
A few practice tips:
Listen, listen, listen! Listening is one of the most important key to work on your pronunciation. Listen to music, watch TV, … (It is also a fun way to practice as you get to learn some of the culture as well).
Observe: when you are talking with native French speakers, observe the placement of their tongue, the shape of their lips, their throat to identify the physical clues of pronunciation. (You might want to let them know beforehand!)
Record and listen to yourself: it is very hard to be aware of how we pronounce things. It is an uncomfortable exercise for most people but it will help you identify which sounds you have problems with
Practice: as always, practice makes perfect! The more you practice, the more the sounds will become natural
To practice listening and spelling, dictations are great exercises!
Focus on communication: don’t let the fear of mispronunciation deter you from speaking! Good pronunciation comes with a lot of practice and a lot of mistakes. And it is ok! At first focus on sounds that might change the meaning of words.