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The first step to take in your French learning journey is of course: the French alphabet and pronunciation. But why? First, knowing the basics of the French alphabet will help you have a strong foundation for your learning. And then, it’s very common that you do not pronounce words in French the exact same way you read them. For example, not all the letters will be pronounced (silent letters) while others, depending on where they are placed, will be pronounced in different ways.
In this article, let me show you the details of the French alphabet.
How many letters are there in the French alphabet?
There are 26 letters + variants in the French alphabet, for a total of 39 letters. Here they are, and how you should read them.
|E||uhh||é, è, ê, ë|
|R||er (little gargle)|
|U||uuh (lips pinched,
|ù, û, ü|
Regarding the accents, this is how we call them:
- Acute accent (é) : Accent aigu
- Grave accent (à, è, ù): Accent grave
- Cedilla (ç): Cédille
- Circumflex (â, ô, û): Accent circonflexe
- Trema (ï, ü): Tréma.
Basic French accents and how to type them
Unfortunately, not all of us have a French “AZERTY” keyboard. We call them AZERTY keyboards, as they are the first letters that are displayed on a French keyboard, whereas “English” keyboards are called “QWERTY” keyboards
But I have good news for you, you can type the accents if you have a numeric keypad! For Windows users, simply hold the ALT key and type in the numbers that match the accent. For Mac users, please see below the ALT code table.
|Accent||ALT code UPPERCASE||ALT code lowercase|
If you are using a Mac:
For Mac users
- Acute accent (é): Press the “option” key + letter “e” at the same time. Release. Press on the letter “e” key.
- Grave accent (à, è, ù): Press the “option” key + “ ‘ ” (top left of your keyboard) at the same time. Then press on the key of the desired letter (a, e, or u).
- Cedilla (ç): Press the “option” key + letter “c” at the same time.
- Circumflex (â, ô, û): Press the “option” key + letter “i” at the same time. Press on the key of the letter of your choice (i, e, u).
- Trema (ï, ü): Press the “option” key + letter “u” at the same time. Press on the key of the desired letter (a, e, i, o, u).
What about æ and œ? And how do we type them?
In French, in addition to all the letters seen above, we have what we call “ligatures” and there are 2 of them: œ, æ.
– œ is a blend of the letters “o” and “e”. It can be found in the word “cœur” (heart). We will pronounce “œ” the same way as we pronounce “eu” in “heure”.
– æ is a blend of the letters “a” and “e”. It can be found in the word “curriculum vitæ” (CV). We will pronounce “æ” like “eh”.
Here are the keyboard shortcuts for those ligatures:
ALT + 0156
ALT + 0140
|“Option” key + letter “q”|
ALT + 145
ALT + 146
|“Option” key + “ ‘ ” (apostrophe)|
Why are French pronunciation and spelling so different?
This is why I insisted on the pronunciation and spelling tips above. In French, we do not always pronounce letters the same way. What makes French pronunciation so particular, is that firstly, we have so many silent letters. And then, we might also have different spellings for the same sound! Let’s take a look …
Basic pronunciation and spelling rules for French beginners
Here are when you should not pronounce some letters in French:
|Silent letter||When is it silent?|
|b||after -m at the end of a word: plomb, aplomb.|
|c||after -n at the end of a word: banc, blanc.|
|d||at the end of a word: pied.|
|g||at the end of a word after -n: sang.|
|h||always silent : hôpital, hilare.|
|m||in a nasal vowel: parfum.|
|n||in nasal vowels: important, chanter.|
|p||at the end of a word: loup, trop.|
|r||after -e at the end of a word: parler, chanter.|
|s||at the end of a word: des, fleurs.|
|t||at the end of a word: jouet, tout.|
|x||at the end of a word: deux, hiboux.|
|z||at the end of a word: chez, mangez.|
Nasal vowels in French are pronounced using the nose. This means that you need to partly expel the air out of your nose as well while you pronounce them. The “n” should not be heard.
One tip to help you know if you pronounced it right: pinch your nose and pronounce the nasal vowel. If you are not able to pronounce it, then you did it right!
The case of the letter “H”
The letter “H” in French, unlike in English, is always silent. At the beginning of a word, we have 2 types of letter “H”:
– le H muet (silent H): this one is considered as a vowel. It requires an elision after “le” or “la”. For example: l’hôpital, l’heure.
– le H aspiré (plugged H): still silent but considered as a consonant. It will not require an elision after “le” or “la”. For example le haricot, le héros.
Liaisons and contractions
Common mistakes and difficulties
One of the most common difficulties that you might encounter regarding the French alphabet is how to pronounce the sounds “r”, “u” and the reading rhythm.
The French R
The French R (international phonetic alphabet character [ʁ]) can be a hassle for speakers who do not have that sound in their native language (such as Spanish, German and even Hebrew).
Unlike most people believe, the French R is not really happening in the throat, but mostly at the back of your tongue going up and down against your soft palate.
Once you think you’ve got it, repeat phrases like la ravissante robe rouge / une orange rangée dans le tiroir.
This sound doesn’t exist in English either. To help you out with this sound, try to pronounce the letter “E” or the sound “ee” in English (like in “deer”). The tip of your tongue should touch your teeth. Once you have that sound, continue saying it, but while pursing your lips together, up to the point you look like you’re whistling.
If you listen to a French person read, you might notice that some areas of the sentences are more accentuated than others. In English, stress occurs within the syllables of words themselves. For example:
– a PREsent: a gift
– he preSENTs the verb “to present”.
In French, it is important not to maintain the same tone throughout the sentences. Mark pauses before punctuation marks, raise your tone at the end if you ask a question, lower it if you are reading a statement…
To practice more, visit LingoDeer’s free online courses for the French alphabet pronunciation.
How can I practice French pronunciation and spelling?
There are many ways that you can practice French pronunciation or spelling. The most effective ways, for me:
– Reading: I cannot say this enough, but reading is the best way to practice your French spelling skills. The more you read, the more your mind will memorize how to spell a specific word, and even expressions. LingoDeer’s Fluent section provides everyday conversation for you to do shadow reading. You can speed down the audio for each word and phrase. And playback to check how you did it. Moreover, the content updated regularly!
– Listening: Listening to audio files, the radio, podcasts, is an effective way to practice your French pronunciation. By listening to French speakers, you will be able to pick up (and mimic) the most common practices when it comes to pronunciation, expressions, and even sometimes, verbal tics in French.
– Dictation exercises: This is one of the best exercises that you can do to practice both your pronunciation AND your spelling skills. There are tons of dictation exercises available on the internet, listen, and then write what you hear (or what you think you hear)!
Learning French can seem intimidating at first, especially if you are not familiar with the French alphabet or pronunciation. There is one final tip I can give you to improve your skills: have more exposure to French. Do things that you love in French. Read, sing, play games, we have tons of resources nowadays (thank you Internet!) and it would be too bad to miss out on them.
Bon courage et à bientôt!