I am trying to learn French vowel sounds using this IPA chart. My question is about this chart. I use it for the first time and I am interested how comprehensive it is. Does a position at this chart fully "describe" a vowel? With what do I have to complement this chart?

Also the explanation is confusing, for example for a close-mid vowel I read: "the tongue is positioned two-thirds of the way from a close vowel to a mid vowel." How would I measure this two-thirds? Especially it is difficult for back vowels, I don't feel the back of my tongue at all, I don't know how high it is located.

Anyway, any help or additional information concerning this chart is appreciated.

  • 4
    Using an IPA table without knowing phonetics is like using a table of logarithms without knowing arithmetic. A good book, designed for the autodidact, is Catford's Practical Introduction to Phonetics. It's full of little experiments you can carry out yourself to answer questions like these.
    – jlawler
    Sep 19, 2014 at 14:37

2 Answers 2


The exact pronunciation of vowels differ from language to language, from dialect to dialect and even from person to person. Vowels are also influenced by the other surrounding sounds. So the short answer to your first question is: No, that chart does not fully describe the exact vowels as pronounced by a native French speaker.

Vowels have many distinguishing features like back/front, open/close, rounded/unrounded. These features together form a vowel space and that chart is a two dimensional representation of that vowel space. But the vowel space is continuous; for example, Turkish also has an open vs. close /e/ but the Turkish close /e/ is more open than the French close /e/. IPA does have diacritics to notate finer distinctions but they're rarely used in the context of a single language.

Furthermore, vowels have other distinguishing features like buccal/nasal, rhotic/non-rhotic, short/long etc. French happens to have nasal vowels too. They're not represented in that chart (but they are here).

In short, there is no substitute to listening to native speakers and practicing (a lot). Having said that, learning how to pronounce the generic IPA sounds can be an excellent starting point for almost any language.


Forget about measuring the two-thirds; it's very hard to introspect the exact tongue position. Instead, try to locate the IPA sounds in a language you know; for example, if you look at the wiki page for close-mid front unrounded [e], you’ll find it's contained in English “play” (which for some speakers is [e] and for others, [eɪ] – pay attention to the start of the sound). Now just try to pronounce this English sound and compare it to the sample French recording. I believe you’ll find it to be close enough most of the time; if not, try to experiment until your voice sounds like the recording.

(In fact there are minute differences in the exact position of a typical English [e] and a typical French one, but as long as your [e] is closer to French [e] than to [i] or [ɛ], it’s more than good enough.)

Some vowels may not be present in any language you know. For example, [ø] isn’t in English. In this case, start from a vowel you know, and then try to modify it until it resembles the recording. Comparing the IPA descriptions, you’ll find [ø] is just like [e] except it's "lip-rounded". Try to find any vowels you know with this feature – e.g. [u] in English "boo" is also rounded. Now produce an [e], but round your lips as in [u]. You should get the hang of it soon. Whenever in doubt, record your own voice and compare it to the native sample.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.