Of the many wonderful languages in the world, French is known for being particularly difficult to pronounce. There are accents, silent letters, the infamous French “r” and so much more, but that’s what makes learning the language fun! While the words may look scary at first, we’re here to help you master them. And remember, practice makes perfect. In this article, you’ll learn five French words that are hard to pronounce, what they mean and how to say them.
Before you get started, it’s worth having a quick look at some common French pronunciation combinations to dip your toe in the water of pronouncing French words and phrases.
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Some of the most complicated words in French are words you are unlikely to use, but the first one we’ve chosen is a more common word. Bouilloire, or kettle in English, has many tricky elements to get to grips with. First, let’s understand how we pronounce it: /bwee wahr/. Got it? No? That’s okay. Let’s break it down below.
It’s easier to separate the word into two syllables: bouill and oire. The first syllable is definitely the more complicated part of the word in French. Just imagine you’re a child going down a slide saying “wee” and add the letter “b” in front of it. For the second syllable, it’s similar to the word “war” but we pronounce the letter “a” like the word “ah” and to round it all off, we have the infamous French “r”! Phew, that was hard. Ready for the next one?
Œil means ‘eye’ in French and it’s quite a hard French word to pronounce. Contrary to the previous word, œil only has one syllable and is pronounced like the English word “oy”.
Fun fact: œil is the singular form for the word eye and the plural form in French is yeux!
This word might catch you out for looking “easier” than the other words, but it’s not the case.
Introducing the silent letter! Yes, you read it right, in French there are many silent letters including the letter “h”. So the word heure (or hour/time in English) is pronounced /œR/: for the first sound /œ/, open your mouth and place your tongue on your lower teeth. Then finish off the word with the infamous French “r”.
And just for fun, let’s also add in the plural form heures which starts with a silent “h” and ends with a silent “s”!
Frog in your throat? Well, you will when you try to pronounce the French word for “frog”! Grenouille is another French word with a tricky letter combination, the French “r” and is just generally hard to pronounce.
The word is made up of two syllables: /gre/ and /nouille/. The first syllable is deceptively simple because although it looks easy to pronounce, it does contain that pesky French “r”. The second syllable can be pronounced as “nooee” (not official phonetics of course!). The “lle” sound in French is similar to the beginning of the word “yes” in English. Just put the syllables together and you’ve got it!
The icing on the cake is our very last complicated word in French: chirurgien or surgeon in English! This tops our list because it has three syllables and letters that are pronounced differently in English. Let’s break it down.
/ch/ – nope, the French don’t pronounce /ch/ like we do in English. They pronounce /ch/ like /sh/ in English. Confused? Don’t worry, it just takes practice.
/rur/ – a double French “r”, how fun! Just think of a cat purring and stick the letter “u” in the middle.
/gien/ – to round it all off we have this syllable, and the first letter is pronounced like the beginning of je (I in French), followed by /eean/.
French is filled with tongue twisters that make the language hard to learn (but not impossible!). However, that’s the fun of it. It opens the door to a whole new way to pronounce words and it’s a great exercise for your brain. Once you’ve mastered how to pronounce French words and phrases, you can move on to some French slang and before you know it, you’ll sound like a native French speaker!
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Clara Avrillier is a writer, linguist and content manager living in the South of France. She loves getting out in nature, doing sport, reading and playing music. She also works with expats looking to move to France. Connect with her on LinkedIn.