French and English both have nasal vowels. These vowels
are produced when you lower your velum (the soft palate)
and allow air to resonate in the nasal cavity. Put your
finger lightly along the side of your nose and say:
"mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm." You should feel vibrations.
Now say: "ssssssssssssssssssssss." There shouldn't
be any vibrations. Keeping your finger along your nose,
say: "it", but really holding on the to vowel.
Again, there shouldn't be any vibrations. Now, say:
"in". Notice the difference.
French and English nasal vowels differ in their distribution.
That is, they're found in different places. In English,
any vowel can be nasalized and they appear ONLY before nasal
consonants (m, n, ng). In French, there are only three
nasal vowels and they may NOT appear before nasal consonants.
The three vowels are:
This sound the low, back, nasal vowel, and it is similar to the vowel in the English word "on." It is usually spelled with the "an" and sometimes with "en."
This sound is a mid-high, rounded, back nasal
vowe that really doesn't have a good equivalent in English. Say the word "long"
but with a New York accent. Make sure your lips are
very rounded. It is usually spelled with "on."
This sound is the mid, front nasal vowel. It is similar to the vowel sound in the English word "end." It has the most variable spelling: ain, ein, en, and ein all are possible spellings for this vowel.
Vowels that appear before a nasal consonant in French
are NOT nasalized, and that's exactly where we find
nasal vowels in English.
The trick in pronouncing French nasal vowels, then,
is to do the EXACT OPPOSITE of what you do in English.
When you pronounce a nasal vowel, make sure that you
don't finish it with an [m] or [n] sound. And when pronouncing
a vowel before a nasal consonant, put your finger lightly
along the side of your nose and make sure there are
Now, how do you know whether a vowel is
nasal or not? Look at the spelling. If the word
is spelled with a vowel followed by a nasal consonant
(the letters n, m, or gn) and then another non-nasal
consonant or the end of the word, you've got a nasal
vowel. If the word is spelled with a vowel, one
or two nasal consonants, and then another vowel, you've
got a non-nasal vowel and a nasal consonant. Compare
the vowels of the following words:
Notice that they have the same root. However, in the
first word, the bolded letters tell us that the pronunciation
is that of a nasal vowel with no following nasal consonant.
In the second word, the bolded letters tell us that
the pronunciation is that of an oral vowel followed
by a nasal consonant.
In the following sections, try to pronounce the nasal
vowels without producing a nasal consonant or try to
produce an oral vowel + nasal consonant combination
without nasalizing the vowel. Remember, a good check
of nasality is keeping your finger lightly against the
side of your nose. If anyone asks, you're thinking deep