How to Pronounce Individual Vowels in French
French vowels are all pure and short. (French doesn’t have diphthongs, which are modulations of sounds, kind of like a wave, as in the English words face and mule.) In fact, French has no long sounds at all like you hear in the English words beach and freeze. Each of the vowels in French has one or more sounds.
How to pronounce the vowel a in French
The French a has the sound ah, as in father, with the jaws slightly tenser but the mouth very open (your jaw should go lower than when you say the a in father). It never sounds like the diphthongued (modulated) a of the word face. French words that feature this sound include machine (mah-sheen) (machine), madame (mah-dahm) (Mrs.), and façade (fah-sahd) (facade).
How to pronounce the vowel e in French
The letter e has several sounds in French. To pronounce it by itself, bring your lips almost together and slightly forward, with the tip of your tongue inside your lower front teeth, like for the e of the (not thee). It’s used in two main ways in French:
e is mostly silent when it ends a singular or plural word, like la table or les tables (the table; the tables), and all the -er verb endings of the present tense, like je parle (I speak), tu manges (you eat), il joue (he plays), and elles écoutent (they listen). You stop your voice just before the e when you say these words. So for instance, the word table is pronounced tah-bl in French.
e is pronounced as uh, like the, in two situations:
At the end of eight short French words: de (of), le (the), je (I), me (me), se (oneself), que (that), ce (this), and ne (not).
In the middle of words. Examples of words that feature this sound include: venir (vuh-neer) (to come), jeter (zhuh-tey) (to throw away), and leçon (luh-soh) (lesson).
e is pronounced as eh, like in the word get, when it precedes a double consonant. Examples of words that feature this sound include: belle (behl) (beautiful), cette (seht) (this), and chaussette (shoh-seht) (sock).
How to pronounce the vowel i in French
The French i has the sound ee, like in ski or sea but very brief and with the lips stretched way out to the side. It never sounds like the diphthongued i in cries. Examples of French words that include this sound are petit (puh-tee) (small) and assis (ah-see) (seated).
To make the i sound, place the tip of your tongue inside your lower front teeth and stretch your lips sideways, as in a giant fake smile!
How to pronounce the vowel o in French
The French o has two sounds:
The vowel o is pronounced as ohh (like in glove), with the lips somewhat rounded, like the first o in in October (which is short) but without any diphthong. Here are some examples of words that feature this sound: octobre (ohhk-tohh-br) (October), comme (kohhm) (like), and bonne (bohhn) (good).
O can also sound like the o in Halloween. Just don’t linger on it like you would in hello. The shape of your lips is more rounded than for the other o sound; it’s pronounced oh (as in go). Here are some examples of words that feature this sound: mot (moh) (word), gros (groh) (fat), moto (moh-toh) (motorcycle), and chose (shohz) (thing).
How to pronounce the vowel u in French
The sound of the u is pretty unique to French; the closest sound you can get in English is ew, but without the diphthong. But maybe kissing a mutant can help? If you pronounce the English word mutant without the diphthong, you get close to the French u. You can hear this sound in French words like fume (fewm) (smoke) and musique (mew-zeek) (music).
If kissing a mutant is not your thing, you can pronounce u by putting the tip of your tongue just inside your lower front teeth, and pucker up, as in kissing from a distance! If you are having trouble, try to say the French letter i (which sounds like ee) but with the lips rounded.
Try to say the following pairs several times in a row, to practice the position of the tongue (the difference being the lips from stretched to the sides to puckered): si-su; ti-tu; pi-pu.