The Ins and Outs of French Nasal Vowels



The Louvre Museum ParisIf you are thinking there is no difference between the nasal vowel sounds in

or the nasal vowel sounds in

You wouldn’t be the only one!

The nasal sound in each of these words represents one of the four different French Nasal sounds. Many find that they can distinguish one group of sounds from the other but have difficulty finding the difference between sounds within the group, just as in the case above; the “cinq” and “brun” nasal vowels are difficult to tell apart but sound different to the nasal sounds in “cent” and “bon”.

Listen to the French Nasal sounds in the tables below (Windows Media Player is required for audio) and then have a go recording your own sounds to playback in our French Audio Lounge.

ɑ̃ɔ̃ɛ̃œ̃
lenttrompettepleinbrun

Groups make French Nasals easier to learn

Understanding my own limitations with pronouncing French nasal sounds, I placed them into groups within the Spell and Sound French Charts. You might find that you can hear the subtle differences of these sounds already, so further down this page are some pointers to help you pronounce the subtleties of French Nasal vowels. I often found however, that many French students didn’t have a “place to start” when it came to French Nasal sounds.

Using your Spell and Sound French Chart to pronounce French nasal sounds

French nasal sounds to English word song boxLets look at the nasal sounds represented by the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols ɑ̃ and ɔ̃ Both are represented within the same sound box in your Spell and Sound French Chart, the song box. Now officially, we do not pronounce either of these sounds in English, so many regular French-English bilingual dictionaries do not have an English word that represents them.

So why are these nasal sounds represented by an English word?

To offer a “place to start”. The “o” sound in song, when said as though you were going to say the rest of the word but just pull-up short, is similar to the nasal sounds in this group. Your French teacher can offer you advice and you can listen to authentic French nasal sounds individually here at spellandsound.com.

If you feel the word “song” doesn’t represent these nasal sounds for you, take a look at the information on English accents and French exceptions to find a different word and when you’re comfortable pronouncing these nasals with one sound like “song”, move on to the more detailed information further down.

french nasal sounds and english word sun boxThe other group of French nasal vowel sounds, represented by International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols ɛ̃ and œ̃ are represented within the same sound box in your Spell and Sound French Chart, the sun box. And once again, officially, we do not pronounce either of these sounds in English, so I took an English sound that’s pretty close and used it to represent the French sound. This is only a guide for the person who doesn’t know where to start when it comes to pronouncing French nasal sounds.

Use the sound in sun like this; voice the “u” in sun as though you were going to say the “n” as well but stop yourself just before the “n” sound is completely realised. Again, your French teacher can offer you guidance and you can also listen to authentic French nasal sounds individually, here at spellandsound.com.

If you feel the word “sun” doesn’t represent these nasal sounds for you, take a look at the information on English accents and French exceptions to find a word that suits you and when you’re comfortable pronouncing these nasal vowels with one sound like “sun”, move on to the more detailed information further down.

REMEMBER: French nasal sounds are made by passing air through the mouth and nose at the same time!

What’s the difference between cent and bon?

Not much, but the difference between them is slightly greater than in the nasal sounds in vin and brun. You might find that after only a short time, you can hear the differences between the sounds ɑ̃ and ɔ̃. Some people can tell the sounds apart straight away and recognise them easily in the spoken word. If you are one of those people or someone who has mastered them using the song sound, it’s time to look at ways of pronouncing those individual sounds.

Pronouncing ɑ̃

  • Say the nasal sound as used in the sound box “song”
  • Make sure your lips are in the position used to say the “o” sound in “fox”
  • Breathe the vowel out through nose and mouth at the same time

Pronouncing ɔ̃

  • Say the nasal sound as used in the sound box “song”
  • Push the lips further forward
  • Move the lips together, still holding the round shape so they are in the position used to say “oo” in “fool”
  • Breathe the vowel out through the nose and mouth at the same time


What’s the difference between cinq and brun?

If you’ve listened to these sounds a hundred times and still can’t tell the difference, you are in good company. The differences between these two nasal sounds are so minute that many French Language textbooks no longer differentiate between them.

Give yourself some time to master the “u” sound in “sun”. This sound is closest to the œ̃ sound in brun. Simply breathe out the vowel through the mouth and nose at the same time to produce the sound.

The other sound in vin represented by this symbol ɛ̃ is quite commonly used in French, and many describe it as the nasal version of an English “a” as in “an” or “cat”. Just breathe out the vowel sound through your nose and mouth at the same time.

If you want to keep to the word “sun” as recorded in your French Chart, you simply say the nasal “u” in sun with a smile on your face. Just peel your lips to the side as though you would say an exaggerated eee sound, but say the nasal “u” in sun instead. Remember breathe out through the nose and mouth together. You should get the same sound as the nasal version of “a” in “an” or “cat”.

How did you go?

French nasal sounds are difficult to make in isolation never mind trying to sound them out in the middle of words. If you know of a different way to pronounce these tricky sounds, I’d love to hear about them.

Top Tip

  • Record yourself! It sounds scary but no-one else needs to hear you.
  • Use our online voice recorder within our Audio Lounge if your browser supports flash.
  • If you use Windows, there is a built in sound recorder that is extremely easy to use.
  • When you’ve made a recording, compare it to the French sounds here at spellandsound.com.

Don’t forget to try out your new skills in the “Try it!” section below.

Try it!



Listen to these authentic French nasal sounds. Can you tell which one is which? Record you own French nasal sounds and compare them to ours.

We are always looking for new ideas on how to pronounce French sounds here at spellandsound.com. If you know a great way to sound French, contact us via our Feedback Form or leave a comment within the various articles. Your input is always appreciated.

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