Recently, I asked my students to read a text out loud: a short story about a vieille grenouille insaisissable (an old uncatchable frog) – these last three words are very difficult to pronounce for most French learners. The story pictures Geoffroy trying to catch the frog so it won’t damage his chèvrefeuille (honey suckle)…
It has been very instructive for me to watch my students while they were struggling with all these difficult words. Those who succeeded were the ones who accepted to change their own appearance. Yes, appearance.
I often say that French is a grimace language. If you don’t do any grimace, it doesn’t work, everything that is said is bound to be heard as an amalgam of indistinct sounds. Quite like a dancer who would move without ever opening her arms or stretching her legs.
Making funny faces is opening your mouth wide to pronounce A, smiling to pronounce IN (the nasal sound), exaggeratedly rounding your lips forward to pronounce U… Not to mention all that is going on within the mouth with the tongue position.
When we make funny faces as language learners, we feel a little stupid because our face is distorted but we need to remain serious, as if this was our own self. This is unsettling – how our identity slightly changes when we use another language. Some people resist this, some others love it.
What the grimace brings along though is the adequate articulation. It allows us to momentarily exaggerate the physical production of a sound. Only momentarily, until we acquire the right pronunciation.
To articulate can be defined as : « utter the sounds with the help of lips and tongue movements » or « pronounce words by distinctively stating each syllable ».
So it really is about focusing on the movements of the lips and tongue, as well as on the rhythm and speed of speech. When we are stressed, we tend to speak fast and sometimes we think this will hide our pronunciation mistakes. But speaking fast only makes our speech even more opaque. A big part of the articulation work is slowing down.
When we think Pronunciation, we think about the sound in itself, as an absolute. But it actually is the result of a process. And this process is Articulation, with all its small steps.
Articulation is the journey that takes us to the destination sound!
Here are 3 techniques to help you focus on the articulation of sounds. They combine auditory, kinesthetic (movement) and visual approaches.
1- Slowly but surely – breaking down words
A lot of French words have these tricky letter combinations that are very hard to pronounce : grenouille / fauteuil… And there are these words very close to their English equivalent, but so differently pronounced : équipement / rythme / toilette…
- look for the word on an online dictionary or an app with a pronunciation tool (Reverso, Forvo, Duolingo or (How to) Pronounce)
- listen to the pronunciation as many times as you need to (on Duolingo you can hear the word slowly pronounced)
- break down the word and transcribe each sound using the sound/spelling connection of your language (English here)
- repeat the sequence slowly, syllable by syllable:
gruh – noo – ee – yuh
fo tuh ee yuh
ay kee puh mEN*
2- The mirror exercise
I often tell this story about one of my most difficult word in English: « moisturizer ». When I tackled this word, my bathroom mirror was a small round one with a swiveling arm – perfect for my pronunciation exercises : moï-ll-steu-wwaïe-zeur / moï-ll-s-teu-wwaïe-zeur…
Now your turn!
- repeat the syllables slowly (as in #1) with your eyes closed first, internally visualizing the position of your tongue and lips for each part of the sound : for example, when you say « gruh » (in “grenouille”), your lips end up rounded and forward
- pay attention to the transitions between the sounds : for example, for 2 successive consonants, don’t pause or insert a vowel sound like « uh » or « ee » in between (ree tmuh, in “rythme”)
- once you feel comfortable, repeat the syllables in front of the mirror, still very slowly, breaking down the word. By seeing them, you will internalize your mouth movements. It’s efficient because we can see how necessary the physical effort is in order to produce the sounds correctly. And it’s efficient also because it’s funny – this will help memorization.
3- The Post-it words
This technique comes from my Montessori educator years and it’s really fun!
- choose words that you like, that make you smile or that you find really weird(memorization increases when there is an emotion involved in the process), for example «libellule» with 3 syllables : lee bay lUl*
- take 3 Post-it and write 1 syllable on each using the transcription writing : lee bay lUl (libellule) ; fo tuh ee yuh (fauteuil) ; ay kee puh mEN (équipement)
- post your words in your home and leave a small space in between each Post-it so as to materialize a pause in between the syllables and to help you slow down
- change your words on a regular basis and choose places like your kitchen cupboards, your fridge, your bathroom… You’ll be able to look at them while cooking, shaving…By doing 2 things at the same time you will move your focus point and this in turn will enhance sounds internalization
- another idea : use different colors to transcribe the syllables and/or illustrate them with smileys showing the opening of the mouth and the lips position
So, you will probably keep a bit of your accent but the articulation and the slowing down will really help you understand French better because you will hear better. And it will completely change how French people understand you: they might even answer you in French!
By Sandrine Durand. For more practice and tips, feel free to write at : firstname.lastname@example.org and visit www.lalangueparis.com
*nasal sounds EN/AN [ɑ̃], IN/UN [ɛ̃] , ON [ɔ̃] and the sound U [y] are very hard to transcribe using an English sound/spelling connection, so I use their normal French spelling in capital letters here