French accents: what are they and how many are there ?
There are 4 accents and one other symbol you have to know by heart if you want to learn French and and especially to master French pronunciation.
They are essential: they will guide you on how to pronounce certain words and sometimes they can even change the meaning of a word. So be careful and don’t ignore them. Here is a chart to help you differentiate them:
|Accent||Name||Can be found on||Example||Traduction
|`||accent grave||a, e, u||près de||close to
|^||accent circonflexe||a, e, i, o, u||tête||head
|¨||accent tréma||e, i, u||maïs||corn
On which vowel are they and when do we put an “accent aigu” ?
Accents can be found on all of the vowels: a, e, i, o, u. But there is one exception: the “Y”. Beware, all accents don’t go on the same vowel. The easiest one, the accent aigu, is to be found on the letter “e”.
It changes the pronunciation of this vowel: The “é” sound is similar to the letter “e” in Spanish. In English, it is often compared to the way you pronounce the sound “ay” in words such as “say” or “way” but it’s not exactly true.
Or rather, it is true for the first part of the diphtongue “ay”. If you want to learn proper pronunciation you should learn the IPA (the International Phonetic Language) that will help you get the exact pronunciation of each sound.
The “é” is pronounced /e/ in the IPA.
Everything you neet to know about the accent grave
The accent grave can be found on the letters a, e and u only. In very little cases the accent grave modifies pronunciation (in words such as “très” or “près” (very/close) compared to “tres” or “pres” which are words that doesn’t exist)
But in most of the cases, it just marks the difference between two similar words: ou and où (or/where) – à and a (at/to) – là and la (there/the) etc.
To help you, remember that this accent will modify the pronunciation of the letter “e” only (IPA : /ɛ/). It doesn’t change anything if it’s an a or an u, and is only used with these letters to differentiate one word from another.
When do we put the accent circonflexe?
Just like the accent grave, the accent circonflexe is either used to differentiate two words or change the pronunciation. It can be found on a, e, i, o, u vowels. There again, it changes the pronunciation of the letters a, e, and o but doesn’t change the pronunciation when it’s on an u or an i.
There is a little exception to this: the pronunciation of the vowel u can be modified when e+u are attached: “eû” (uh). You can find this example on very few words such as “jeûne” = fasting)
In most cases, the accent circonflexe on a “u” vowel just helps us differentiate one word from another: mur/mûr (wall/ripe) – du/dû (the/due) – sur/sûr (on/sure)
What’s a tréma? What is it for?
The last accent is the tréma accent. It indicates that two consecutive letters should be pronounced differently and separately: noël (christmas) is pronounced no-el. You can find this accent on i, e and u, although the vowel i is the most common one.
Careful with words such as Pompéi, protéine, pléiade etc. Because the letter “e” already has an accent, we know the letters are pronounced differently. The tréma is not necessary and we won’t mark it.
Another French symbol to know: the cédille
This one is not a real accent, it is more of a diacritic (a sign written on a letter to modify its pronounciation), and is only used with one letter: the consonant “c”. It may be the easiest to understand: the “ç” is pronounced like an “ss” sound instead of a hard “c” sound (like a “k”)
The “ç” is only found before a, o or u. If you know about French pronunciation, you will know that a “ç” before an e or an i wouldn’t be necessary: the letter “c” in “ce” or “ci” is already pronounced like “ss”. So you will find the sound “ss” in ce as well as ça.
How to learn French accents
Now that you’ve learned what the French accents are and the correct pronunciation of French vowels, here is a quick guide on how to learn them.
This platform is an incredible gold mine for learning any language. There are tons of videos about the French language and its aspects. This is a great opportunity to search for educational YouTube channels about learning French. A lot of them are about the pronunciation and the accents. Associate what you’ve learned today with the sound and image of a YouTube video and you will master the French accents in no time.
Listen to French songs. Pick up easy French songs and listen to them, focus on the lyrics. You can easily find any of the lyrics you want online. There also are some websites such as lyricstraining that allow you to listen to your favourite songs with subtitles on. They even have a karaoke mode if you want to practice your skills!
Audiobooks are also a great way to practice your accents: choose a book you like or one you’ve already read and listen to the audiobook version while reading the paper version. This will not only help you associate what you hear with what you see (and thus, help you master the different accents and their pronunciation) but also help you memorise sentence structures as well as lots of vocabulary words.
Know your IPA
We’ve mentioned it already but knowing the International Phonetic Alphabet will be a huge advantage in your learning journey. This alphabet will help you with learning how to pronounce the French alphabet, accents and French words in general. If you truly want to master pronunciation in any language, learn the IPA.
Online exercises and activities
There are so many exercises and activities about the French language you can do for free online it is impossible to not find something about the accents. Remember that one the best ways to master is to practise, and to master the accents you should practice them in context first.
Look for FSL or FLE activities when looking online (FSL and FLE exercises are meant for people who want to learn French but are non native French speakers).
Our tips to learn French accents
Learning the French accents is not so hard to achieve, especially if you follow our simple tips.
Tip#1: Practice listening
We won’t repeat this enough: practice makes perfect. Especially when learning a language and its pronunciation. So take songs, audio books and videos about accents and listen. It is better if you can read at the same time so make sure you have a transcript.
Knowing the accents allows us to be able to speak and read with a good intonation and pronunciation. So, to practice, repeat exercises, whether they are oral or reading exercises. It is a huge plus if you can vary the kind of activities you do, but focus on associating what you hear with what you see.
Tip#3: Write them down
You can’t learn an accent if you’re not used to writing them down yourself. If you only know the pronunciation, it will be hard for you to spot them in writings so make sure you don’t forget to practice writing them too.
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