How to Deal with Phonetic Difficulties when Learning French

My previous article on difficulties that learners of French face when learning the language covered some of the structural issues that learners find challenging. Here are some phonetic difficulties that arise with some regularity. As in any language, the sounds that are used in French take some getting used to, since the vocal cavity needs to work in a specific way and learners’ ears need to be trained to distinguish certain sounds as having meaning in language. While the recognition and production of new sounds may not come right away, it is possible to work on these and it is important to distinguish sounds that are particularly challenging so that these can be addressed.

1- The French r

Although the French r /ꞟ/ is not used throughout the francophone world, many programs of study focus on standardized French, so it is something you are likely to come across while studying the language. Some learners who try to replicate the French r may initially roll or trill it, which actually reflects older versions of French that are not absent from today’s francophone world. Others might use the raspier allophone /χ/, which you are more likely to hear in words like treize or propre. Words such as arabesque and irreél generally use the more voiced /ꞟ/ in standard French. Of course, when you are adjusting to producing the French r, the sounds you make can fall somewhere in between all of these, and at times overzealous attempts to use the back of the throat can even make it hurt. Since speaking shouldn’t be painful, unless you have laryngitis, it makes sense to try and find gentler ways of producing this sound.

Ways to Deal with The French r:

Gargle with water and keep doing this with less and less water – or just mimic gargling – until you adjust to producing an r from farther back in your throat. Think of the French r being rolled, but with the back of the tongue rather than the tip on the hard palate.

2- Even Stress on Syllables        

It is very easy to project the rhythms of your first language onto your second or third language, but remember that French places even stress on words and that the pitch does not change very dramatically. The Encyclopedia Britannica even describes French as sounding monotone. The even rhythm of French, facilitated by the elision and liaison that occurs between words, sometimes makes it difficult for beginning and intermediate learners to distinguish individual words. Producing this rhythm also proves challenging for those who are used to pausing between words or emphasizing certain syllables within each word.

Ways to Deal with Even Stress on Syllables in French:

It is perfectly fine to tap out the rhythm of phrases while you practice speaking. Of course, you might not want to do this when you are having an actual conversation with someone, but in this case, your focus should be on what you are saying rather than all of the structures and phonetics that are contributing to getting your ideas across. In conversation, though, or while listening to French native speakers on television or radio, listen to the gentle rising and falling of the voice over the course of an entire sentence and to the way in which words are connected. It may help to think of segments of words as one long word. Reading poetry, particularly poetry with even meter, can help with segmenting in French.

3- Certain Combinations of Sounds, as in the Words grenouille, deuil        

Grenouille is not pronounced “gren-wee”. I’ve heard it pronounced this way over and over again, particularly by anglophone learners, even when the proper way is explained to them. The sequencing of an /u/ vowel sound followed by a /j/ semivowel sound seems to be particularly difficult for learners. Since shifting from an /u/ to a /j/ does require a fair amount of change in the positioning of the mouth, it might take some getting used to, but it is important to be aware of this and, if necessary, to give it extra attention until you are able to produce it reasonably well.

The same is true for words like deuil. The /œ/ followed by a /j/ is also a difficult sequencing of sounds, although the brighter side is that it sounds funny to some learners of French, who end up having a good laugh when pronouncing it. I remember a group of learners in stitches while practicing the word deuil – they kept saying a version of “duh” that sounded more like “doy!” and did not sound like they were en deuil at all.

Ways to Deal with This:

Remember the even stress that characterizes the French language so that you do not over-emphasize the /j/. If anything, emphasize the /u/ over the /j/ in the initial stages of adjusting to this combination of sounds. Do not be afraid to use your lips to form an o shape for the /u/ sound and take the time to do this before getting to the /j/. It helps to practice each component of phonetic sequencing you find difficult. For the word grenouille, you could practice the /u/ in easier words, such as doux and roue, before proceeding to the /j/, and then pronouncing all components of the word together. Remember that grenouille is like the word nouille, but with gre in front of it.

4- Use of élision        

Correct French requires elision of vowel sounds when words ending in a vowel sound are followed by words beginning with a vowel sound. This is seen most often with the e caduc, an unstable e that appears and disappears, according to context, and is sometimes graphically replaced with an apostrophe in written French. We also see and hear elision of the a of the definite feminine article, la, when followed by a word with a vowel sound. Words such as eau and hémistiche are preceded by l’ rather than la and le, e.g., l’eau, l’hémistiche. Remember that certain h’s are aspirated, though, so these articles will not elide with them, e.g., le hibou, le homard.  

Ways to Deal with This:

Treat the elided words as one word. In the sentence “L’arbre a plusieurs branches”, the first three words count two syllables because of the elided e’s. Remember that elision facilitates pronunciation and that the French prefer to alternate vowel and consonant sounds, creating the enchaînement that is characteristic of their language.

5- le vs. les        

Many learners of French pronounce the article le /lә/ as the article les /le/. These two words actually indicate different things, the first being a singular masculine definite article and the second being a plural definite article that can be either feminine or masculine. Needless to say, this can cause some confusion.

Ways to Deal with le vs. les:

Contrast these two e’s by alternating between them so that you can establish the different sounds and positioning of the vocal cavity. Use them in definite articles along with words that are singular and plural, e.g., le poème, “Le Chat”; les poèmes, “Le Chat” et “L’Invitation au voyage”.          

Conclusion

These aspects of French pronunciation may be difficult, but they are achievable through practice and repetition. As with any aspect of language, they could take extra concentration initially, which might seem unnatural, but the more your vocal cavity adjusts to them, the more easily they will come. Phonetic practice can be quite fun and you can also use songs, rhymes, poems, and tongue twisters as ways to condition your vocal cavity!


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