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First lesson of French Pronunciation

13 Apr

As some of you may already know, I am French and Australian. I speak English and French with almost equal fluency, although my French compatriots assure me that, since I have returned from my 6 years in Australia, I have a slight English accent.

I have a great interest in languages, and I am always eager to help people learn how to better speak or write English or French. I have taught my wife the basic foundations of French pronunciation, and the efforts have borne their fruits, since she has little difficulty pronouncing new words she learns in her daily French classes. I decided to make my rather unusual approach to the study of the French language available to the public: this is the first in a series of short lessons on the French language, starting with pronunciation.

In my opinion, pronunciation should always be taught first, before any vocabulary or rules of grammar. The reason is that pronunciation will eventually settle down to the most automatic, unconscious level of the mind of the French speaker, and will thus become extremely difficult to un-learn or correct. The way we shape our mouth, move our tongue and form our lips while we produce certain sounds only have to be learned once. They take a fair amount of effort initially, especially if the sound is foreign to us (for example, the infamous ‘R’ of the French language). But once we have produced a sound that is sufficient to make oneself understood, we usually become comfortable with it, no matter how distant it actually is from the actual sound needed by the language.

So, when I teach French, I always start with pronunciation, and I am relentless in correcting the pronunciation of every single word until they are pronounced to perfection. That often leads to frustration, because my pupil (in this case, my wife) thinks I am too strict. However, I cannot do less than this if I care about her proficiency in this language. Once she has become comfortable with one way of pronouncing French words, she will probably never vary from it, and my corrections will just be a form of nagging. She might as well become comfortable with the correct way of pronouncing French, right?

OK, so enough for the introduction, here are the first principles. The idea here is that you identify the ways of pronouncing words in English that are absent in French, and conversely, the ways of pronouncing words in French that do not exist in English. Then we can talk about the commonalities.

Diphthongs

In English, you have diphthongs that are compacted into one letter. Or, more simply put, you have single letters that are pronounced as several contiguous sounds. Although diphthongs exist in French, they are all (without exception) written with as many letters as there are sounds. Here are some examples (Please read a bit about phonetics first):

Same: the letter ‘a’ is pronounced using 2 sounds: [ei]
Fry: the letter ‘y’ is pronounced using 2 sounds: [ai]

In French, the rule is simple: one letter can never produce more than one sound. Sometimes, however, several letters combine to produce one sound, but we’ll get to that later. The essential is that English speakers have to consciously stop pronouncing vowels the English, diphthongian way in order to pronounce the clear-cut, one-sound, open vowels of the French language.

Variable-length vowels

Another element absent in French is vowels with variable length. I’m not sure how better to describe them. This simple example should suffice:

  • ship
  • sheep

A native French speaker learning these two words would pronounce them exactly the same way. However, to a native English speaker, the confusion is rarely possible, thanks to the elongated ‘ee’ in sheep. No vowels are ever stretched this way in French. They are all rather short and of equal length.

Emphasis

Finally, something almost entirely missing from the French language is the importance of emphasis. This is an element of spoken language which is very important in English, even though it is not codified in any way in the language: there is no way to know on which syllables to put the spoken emphasis by looking at a piece of written English. Most native English speakers are utterly unaware of the importance of this element of their language, yet they are often unable to understand words that are perfectly pronounced in English if the emphasis is placed on the wrong syllables.

What exactly do I mean by emphasis? Well, to illustrate what I mean, in the next example I will underline each syllable that is meant to be emphasised in English (monosyllables will be ignored):

I am the very model of a modern major general; I’ve information vegetable, animal and mineral; I know the kings of England and I quote the fights historical; from Marathon to Waterloo in order categorical;

I’m very well acquainted too with matters mathematical; I understand equations both the simple and quadratical; about binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot of news; with many cheerful facts about the square of the hypothenuse

As you can plainly see, it would be unfair to ask English learners to figure out the logic behind the correct placement of the elusive emphasis, considering that most English speakers are not aware that it even exists! The complication is even greater for native French speakers learning English because, contrary to many other latin and anglo-saxon languages, the French language puts no emphasis on the emphasis! In fact, the emphasis is used in French to change the meaning of a sentence slightly. What matters more is the word being emphasised, not the particular syllable.

This means that French speakers will usually understand native English speakers if they speak French with correct pronunciation but with traditionally English emphasis. However, this difference in emphasis will almost always be a clear give-away of the speaker’s English origin.

To summarise this section on emphasis: French people will understand regardless of where you put the emphasis, while English speakers often need several repetitions before they can associate two differently emphasised utterances of the same word. I’ve learned this through many frustrating experiences, the most recent of which was attempting to describe a children’s slide to a friend of mine by using the French word: Toboggan. I knew it also existed in English so I pronounced it in English:

Toboggan.

To which my friend looked at me with a blank stare:

“Toe what?”

After several repetitions, I realised that I was probably putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable. So I tried:

Toboggan.

To which she exclaimed:

“Ah!!!! Of course! Toboggan!!!”

sigh…

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1 Comment

Posted by on April 13, 2009 in French lessons

 

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One response to “First lesson of French Pronunciation

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