How do you pronounce "ou" and "u" in French? A1.1/A1 lesson

Lesson in English. Level A1.1, or A1.

Lesson reference number: PRON-A1-OUU

I have noticed that some students have difficulties pronouncing the sound corresponding to the letter "u" in French, and sometimes tend to confuse it with the sound corresponding to the group of letters "ou"

That is to say they tend to pronounce the "u" more or less like a "ou".

Here is a lesson to help them make the difference between the two sounds.

Do those sounds exist in both French and English ?

1) The sound corresponding to the French group of letters "ou" does not exist in English the way French people pronounce it, but it is approximately the sound you hear in the English word group. It also reminds a little bit of the sound you find in words like food, or soon, but the English "oo" is longer than the French "ou".

2) The sound corresponding to the letter "u" does not exist in English, as it does in other languages, hence the difficulty for some English speaking students (but not only) to pronounce it. 

It is perfectly normal to have difficulties with this "u". With some training and repetition, you will finally manage to say it.

A little bit of phonetics.

1) In many languages, words are not pronounced the way they are written. This is why the phonetic alphabet is very useful, because you note the pronounciation of the words, not their spelling. Each sign refers to a sound. 

In the phonetic alphabet, you note sounds a little bit like in music you note notes, if I may say so. The sound corresponding to the group of letters "ou" is noted /u/, with two bars.

To avoid confusing the notation of the sound and the written letter, or group of letters, I have chosen to write letters or groups of letters between quotation marks, like this : "letter" (or "group of letters").

And I have added a colour code.

Letters or groups of letters are written in green,

Sounds are noted in red.

Not very nice as a choice of colours for colour blind people, I admit... So if you are colour blind, please refer only to the "..."   and the  /.../

2) The sound corresponding to the letter "u" is noted /y/ (so please do not confuse it with the written letter "y" that you find in words like yaourt, meaning yoghurt).

3) In other words, the sound that the letter "u" produces is noted  /y/

And the sound that the group of letters "ou" produces is noted  /u/

Erica, can we listen to these sounds, please? 

Sure! Let's start with the easiest part of the lesson, and let's see how French people pronounce the group of letters "ou", in other words the sound noted /u/. Listen to me:

You will find this group of letters in many words in French. Here are a few of them, with their pronunciation. Try to pronounce the words after me:
Ps: if you are an absolute beginner in French, please note that nouns in French are either feminine, or masculine.

(You can choose to watch the video below in full screen.)

To pronounce this "ou", your lips must be round, as if you were going to whistle, but not too much, and your tongue must be placed at the back of your throat (not too much either, don't swallow it! 😊) and placed downwards.

Now, to pronounce the "u", noted /y/, place the lips exactly the same, BUT the difference will be in the position of your tongue. 

To prononce the "u", you must lift your tongue upwards, as if you wanted to stick it to your palate, but with the tip of the tongue touching the lower teeth. 

Try it! Pronounce a long, very long "ou", then as you pronounce it, move your tongue upwards to turn your "ou"  into a "u". Even if your "u" is not perfect yet, you will see that just changing the position of the tongue changes the sound. Funny, isn't it? 

My red tongue, as I drew it, looks a bit too small on the first drawing and a bit too big on the second one, but you can see the difference in the positioning and also the shape, so hopefully you'll get the idea. I might take a few drawing lessons in the future to improve my artistic skills...

U  u

There is another method to learn to pronounce  /y/ ("u"), which is to place your mouth as if you wanted to pronounce  /u/  ("ou"), and try to say "i" (what corresponds to the "ee" in English, like in the word free). Personally, I prefer the first method, as it makes you more aware of the position of your tongue, and also because some people do manage to pronounce a "i" like that, but it might suit you better.

Here are a few words in French that contain a "u". Try to pronounce them after me.

Remark 1

Have you noticed that I have chosen to pronounce the word roue (wheel) for the "ou", and the word rue (street) for the "u"?

Their spelling is very different, but when you pronounce them, the only difference you hear is the /u/ (= "ou") or the /y/ (= "u").

This is why it is important to pronounce those two sounds as accurately as you can, otherwise you might be misunterpreted one day. 

Like for roue and rue, there are plenty of words in French that are spelt differently but sound practically identical except for this /u/ or /y/

Here are a few examples:

Tout (all, everything)   and   tu (you)
Doux (soft)   and   du (some, like for example: du pain = some bread)
Joue (cheek)    and    jus (juice, we've also seen this one)
Boue (mud)   and   bu (drunk, as in: they have drunk)
Sous (under)   and   su (known)
Loup (wolf )   and    lu (read, as in: you have read)

Remark 2

You must also have noticed that some words are spelt the same in French and in English, and they have the same meaning, but of course they are pronounced differently. This is the case for judo and statue, which we have already seen.

Here are a few more examples with the sound /y/. First, observe these words:

Altitude (feminine in French: l'altitude/une altitude)

Avenue (feminine in French: l'avenue/une avenue)

Budget (masculine in French: le budget)

Cactus (masculine in French: le cactus)

Conclusion (feminine in French: la conclusion)

Cube (masculine in French: le cube)

Culture (with two "u"(feminine in French: la culture)

Jury (masculine in French: le jury)

Justice (feminine in French: la justice)

Monument (masculine in French: le monument)

Solution (feminine in French: la solution)

Surprise (feminine in French: la surprise)

Now listen to them, repeat these words after me (the blank between two words lasts for 5 seconds), and then compare with the pronunciation in English.

altitude / avenue / budget / cactus / conclusion / cube / culture / jury / justice / monument / solution / surprise.

A moment ago, you have pronounced a French word that contains two "u". Would you like to pronounce a French word which has three "u"
Here we go! 😀


Have you got difficulties with this one? Then repeat the word step by step after me:

Lesson reference number: PRON-A1-OUU

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