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Spelling and Letter Combinations: Understanding Spoken French

Part of the French All-in-One For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Interpreting French speech can be hard for English speakers — and not only because the sounds are unfamiliar. French has a lot of letter combinations that produce the same sounds. When you hear nah-syohN, realizing that the word is likely spelled nation rather than nassion allows you to quickly understand the meaning of the word.

Remember these patterns as you try to figure out which words you’re hearing, and try another spelling if what you’re hearing doesn’t make sense:

  • é, ée, és, ées: When you add a mute e, an s, or an es after é, the sound doesn’t change. In the following examples, the past participle of the verb arriver is always pronounced the same: Il est arrivé (eel ey tah-ree-vey) (He arrived); Elle est arrivée (ehl ey tah-ree-vey) (She arrived); Ils sont arrivés (eel soN tah-ree-vey) (They arrived); Elles sont arrivées (ehl soN tah-ree-vey) (They [feminine] arrived).

  • é, er, ez: These same-sounding letters are often found in verb forms: Il a parlé (eel ah pahr-ley) (He spoke/has spoken); Il va parler (ehl ah pahr-ley) (He’s going to speak); Vous parlez (vooh pahr-ley) (you [formal singular or any plural] speak/are speaking).

  • ô, ot, eau: In the following words, the vowel sound is the same: tôt (toh) (early), lot (loh) (prize, batch), eau (oh) (water).

  • Beware that the vowel o followed by a double consonant plus mute e becomes a softer sound (as in the following feminine adjectives) than when it stands alone or is followed by a mute consonant: sotte (suhht) (silly), grosse (gruhhs) (big, fat), bonne (buhhn) (good).

  • en, em, an, am: These letters are pronounced the same when found in isolation (like en) or before a consonant. Before a b or a p, expect to find an m instead of an n: en France (ahN frahNs) (in France); remplir (rahN-pleer) (to fill); ambassade (ahN-bah-sahd) (embassy).

  • on, om: These letter combinations are pronounced the same before a consonant. Note that before a b or p, m appears instead of n: on tombe (ohN tohNb) (one falls); ronfler (rohN-fley) (to snore).

  • tion, (s)sion: These combinations found in feminine nouns are pronounced the same in French: ration (rah-syohN) (ration), tension (tahN-syohN) (tension), sécession (sey-sey-syohN) (secession).

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