How to pronounce French vowels, nasal vowels, and diphthongs

Don’t underestimate the importance of French vowels. After all, imagine a language without vowels — with our French alphabet, obviously.

It would be very difficult to speak, right? Not to mention probably not very nice for the ears.

So, get ready to learn everything about the vowels of French, including French vowel pronunciation.

What are vowels?

Young girl is learning French vowels and sounds with an alphabet poster with cartoon animals.

First off, what is a vowel? Well, simply put, a vowel is a speech sound we produce without audible friction or obstruction in the mouth.

This sounds like Greek to you? No worries, you just need to know the following:

Hard vowels

  • A, O, U. No, they’re not mean, it just means that when followed by these vowels or by a consonant, the consonants C, G, and S have a hard pronunciation.
  • Example: Noix de coco (nwaks də kɔko)

Soft vowels:

  • E, I, Y. When followed by these vowels, the consonants C, G, and S have a soft pronunciation.
  • Example: Citron (sitɾõ)

How to pronounce the French vowels

If you’re still confused, the table below should help you with French vowel sounds. Check this video for a tutorial on the French mouth position, and this one to pronounce French vowels properly.

VowelIPALip positionExamples
AaOpen the mouth and lips very wide. Drop your chin. It’s a long sound compared to the English A.Animal (more animals in French here)
Adjectif (more adjectives in French here)
OoPush up, round and close your lips like a kiss. Don’t move them.Round up your throat, and deepen your voice.Escargot
Dos (more body parts in French here)
UyStart with a French I sound, like “tea” in English. Don’t move anything inside your mouth. Push your lips out as a kiss, then curl them up a bit as if you were trying to touch your nose.Tu (more pronouns in French here)
Têtu (more personality traits in French here)
EəClose your mouth. Push in front your lips, like a fish or make an 8 shape.Je
IiSpread your lips as if you’re smiling. The mouth should be almost closed. Touch your palate with a flat tongue. Your voice should go up.Lundi (more days of the week in French here)
YiSpread your lips as if you’re smiling. The mouth should be almost closed. Touch your palate with a flat tongue. Your voice should go up.Il y a

French diphthongs

If you’ve been studying French for a while, you’ve probably come across some weird sounds and letters. Or rather, a mix of two letters, like in the word cœur (more romantic words in French here). These are diphthongs.

Some are a bit tricky for English learners, but with a bit of practice, you’ll get them right. My American fiancé is getting better at asking “de l’eau”!

Vowel diphthongsIPASounds like in EnglishExamples
euBetween "ew" in "dew" and "ur" like in "burp".Europe
Heureux (more feelings in French here)
oi, oîywa, oiTo make the sound for these letters, say an English w and a (as in apple), like in “walk”.Pois
aieLike "i" in "fight", or "ay" in "hay" (end of a word).Avait
ailajLike "i" in "fight".Ail
aiseLike "ea" in "bread" (end of a word).Balais
au, eauo, oLike "ow" in "flow".Cadeau
anɑ̃This one is tricky. Nasal; kind of like "ahng", but without the hard "g".An
Maman (more family members in French here).
ouiwiLike "wee" in "week".Oui
œœSimilar to "eu", slightly more open.Cœur
ereAt the end of a word, like "e" in "déja vu".Manger
ezeAt the end of a word, like "e" in "déja vu".Mangez
en, emɑ̃, eNasal; same as "an".Dent
inɛ̃Nasal; like "ang" in "fang", but without the hard "g".Fin
oinwɛ̃Nasal; like a mix between “want” and "tang", but without the hard "g".Groin
ouuLike "oo" in "good".Loup
onõNasal; like "ong" in "song", but without the hard "g".Chanson
Son (more possessive pronouns in French here)
uiɥiLike "wee" in "week", but with the tongue forward.Lui
unœ̃Nasal; like "ung" in "hung", but without the hard "g".Un
illillUsually like "y" in "years", with some exceptions (“ville” is “veel”, for example).Pastille
lllLike "l".Alléger

French nasal vowel sounds

No need to have a cold to pronounce nasal vowels in French! Nasal vowels are simply pronounced by passing air through the mouth and nose, as opposed to oral vowels, which only involve the mouth.

Here a few characteristics to recognize them:

  • They are produced with a vibration of the vocal cords
  • The throat, lips, and tongue are not obstructed
  • They are followed by M or N at the end of a word
  • They can be one syllable.

Tip: If you like efficiency, you can practice all four nasal vowels with one sentence: “Un bon vin blanc.” And speaking of drinks in French, check out this article!

Nasal a

  • Spelling: an, am, en, em
  • Examples: An, européen, ambidextre

Nasal i

  • Spelling: ain, aim, ein, eim, en, em, in, im, ym, yn
  • Examples: pain, malin, faim, intelligent

Nasal o

  • Spelling: on, om
  • Examples: son, nom

Nasal u

  • Spelling: un, um
  • Examples: un, humble

By now, you should be able to master French vowels. And if you’re struggling with nasal vowels, don’t feel bad. Literally, every single French learner can have issues with that! Even celebrities, as you can see in this video. Trop mignon !

Start by reviewing the French alphabet, and move on to our other French vocab and grammar articles.

One last tip: Practice in front of the mirror. It does help. I learned how to make a perfect Spanish “rrrr” like that. Nobody’s judging!

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