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How to pronounce the French u sound - FrenchMaestro
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How to pronounce the French o open sound

How to pronounce the French u sound

Bonjour ! and welcome to today's lesson focused on the French u sound. , which official IPA notation is /y/. This one raises an interesting dilemma : it's one of the easiest syllable for a French native (4 years old kids master it during their first year in school), and yet one of the most difficult for many foreigners students, as it does not necessarily exist in their mother tongue.

My students from Ireland struggle a lot to get it right, as there is no strict equivalent in English and they often mix up with their various "u" sounds (like in "duck", "fruit", "mule", "rule"...) . In the Spanish world, the confusion comes also from their common sound /u/ (like in "uno", "usted", "mucho"...). And for Japanese, well, this sounds /y/ just does not exist at all ! 

As always, before digging into the lesson for the sound U, we'd like to give you a few recommendations :

  1. ​don't give up because you don't understand everything in the video : at that stage, you are here to learn and perfect your pronunciation
  2. be active during this video : repeat each word or syllable during the blank spaces we left for you on purpose
  3. take a blank sheet of paper and write down any word you don't know to start building your own list
  4. if you can't pronounce a difficult French word with /y/, just leave us a comment : we will record it for you

If you watch all our videos on the French sounds and apply the method above, in no time you will be improving your French. And now, let's focus on the French u  /y/ sound video : 

Phonetics of the French u sound /y/

Since there is often a confusion between those 2 sounds /y/ and /u/, it's worth explaining them at that stage.  

  • /y/ : this  :
    • end of word : mot, bateau, crapaud
    • before [z] : rose, arroser, pause
    • ô circumflex : hôtel, hôtesse
  • /u/ : :  
    • preceding 2 consonants : pomme, homme, botte
    • before a "R" or a "L" : or, dormir, parole
    • latin words : serum, album
    • foreign words : chewing-gumfootball, volleyball

The rules are not that complicated, but there are a few exceptions and it might take time for you to know with confidence which sound to pick. Anyway, remember that practice makes perfect :-)

Sample French u words

We selected a few words from our 999 Essential French Words list to help you pronounce the /y/ sound. Don't forget : practice makes perfect, so repeat loudly after you hear the voice saying the words in French. 

  • fort : adjective : strong
  • une porte : noun, feminine : door
  • sortir: verb : to go out, to exit
  • tortue : noun, feminine : turtle
  • encore : adverb : again

Same /y/ sound... different spelling

French is usually difficult to learn precisely because the letters or combination of letters are not always pronounced the same way, and reciprocally, a same sound can be written in different manners. There are more than a dozen different manners to write the same French u sound : 

  • o : homme, gomme, pomme
  • o : culotte, compote, pilote
  • eo : Georges, rougeole
  • ho : horde
  • au : dinosaure, Laure
  • um : album, serum
  • aw : tomahawk

Essential “Mots-Outils” with /y/ sound

In elementary French schools, there is a list of about 150 critical French words that kids must know before they turn 8 years old, in the class level called "CP/CE1". I always make sure to teach them to my adults students, because by knowing them by heart, you will cut your learning curve and it will help you concentrate on other difficulties. By working on the pronunciation of the French sounds, you will learn get to know them very quickly ! Here is a short extract of this list with the /y/ sound : 

  • alors : then, so, well
  • comme : like, just as, just like, as well as
  • dehors : outside, out
  • encore : more, again, now, else, still, another
  • lorsque : when, as soon as, while

French Verbs with /y/ sound 

There are tens of verbs containing the u sound in their radical. Our intention there is not to be exhaustive, but to provide a selection of French verbs with this syllable in various positions (initial, middle, final). Here is a short list taken from our 222 Most Valuable French Verbs list.  :  

    1st group : divorcer, égorger, prospérer

    2nd group : ​forcir, obscurcir

    ​3rd group : clore, mordre

French idioms with /y/ sound

Again, a new expression with an animal : a pig this time ! Literally, it would mean "to have a pig's personality". We usually use it about someone who is difficult to deal with, quite stubborn, moody, difficult to live with. 

  • avoir un chat dans la gorge : to have a frog in your throat

French for Kids

This week, a gentle dinosaur came up in our drawing book. Pay attention to the 2 different O sounds here : the first "o" is actually the closed O sound (/o/) while the "au" is the open O sound (/Ɔ/). Note that in some regions the first "o" could also be pronounced as an open O... that's right, French is full of exceptions & subtleties :-)

  • un dinosaure: a dinosaur
French For Kids : dinosaur in French is dinosaure

French For Kids : dinosaur in French is dinosaure

French culture starring... the /y/ sound !

Who said pronunciation has to be boring ?! So why not discover a bit of French culture while practicing your pronunciation of the U sound ? We have selected for you those famous symbols of France - a purely subjective choice, based on our personal preferences ;-)

  • Georges Brassens : bla bla bla in anglish, 2-3 lines maximum.
  • Victor Hugo : bla bla bla in anglish, 2-3 lines maximum.
  • Roquefort : bla bla bla in anglish, 2-3 lines maximum.
  • Orléans : bla bla bla in anglish, 2-3 lines maximum.
  • Christian Dior : bla bla bla in anglish, 2-3 lines maximum.
  • Thorgal : bla bla bla in anglish, 2-3 lines maximum.
  • 36 Quai des Orfèvres : bla bla bla in anglish, 2-3 lines maximum.

A difficult French u word ?

If you still struggle to pronounce correctly the /y/ sound in French, we're here to help. Leave us a comment below with the word you can't pronounce, and we will record it for you. We'll only ask you to avoid any slang / crude terms, as this page is accessible by general audiences - including kids.  

Requested French words with [U] sound  :

  •  none so far... be the first ( "Soyez le premier !") and leave us a comment below !

A bientôt !

That concludes today's lesson, I hope you have practiced well and feel more confident how to pronounce the French U. If not already done, read the specific lesson explaining the differences between U and OU sounds in French.

And now before leaving :

A detailed #frenchlesson from @FrenchMaestro to pronounce correctly the /y/ sound in #french. 

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About the Author yannick

Born in Paris where he has spent more than 30 years, Yannick is a French native speaker now based in Ireland. His interest in learning foreign languages comes from his Italian grand-father, his Spanish wife and his Japanese sister-in-law. Teaching French has been a passion since his early twenties when he spent countless hours exchanging with international students.

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