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Native North American speakers! Please, help me understand one thing:

I thought I understood the difference between the /æ/ and /e/ sounds, but now I doubt that anyone can. Please listen to the US version of France in the Cambridge and Oxford online dictionaries:

  1. http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/france

  2. http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/france?q=france

What about the second? To me it sounds exactly like /e/ and nothing like /æ/. I searched for similar words like fresh and french and only confused even more.

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I agree that your second pronunciation from Oxford Learner's dictionary was hard to distinguish. It sounded like it may have been a more southern US dialect. See the Pin-Pen merger.

Wikipedia has a pretty good explanation and table showing variations in accents of American English due to /æ/ tensing. Depending on the consonant following /æ/, the sound may be raised, lengthened or diphthongized. In my central Canadian prairie accent, it's hard to distinguish a difference between parish and perish.

There are simpler word pairs to distinguish these sounds. Try bat and bet.

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