In my last post, I posted a video of me rapping my first full verse of French. In accordance with The Mimic Method philosophy, the purpose of this activity is to train the motor memory in my speech organ so that I can produce French sounds at normal speeds.
Before I could rap in French, however, I needed to familiarize myself with its component sounds, or phonemes. Every language has its own phonetic menu, or list of possible sounds. In the case of “Standard French”, there are roughly 36 different items on the menu.
This may sound like a lot to digest, until you start to cross off the sounds that already exist in English. Of the 36 French sounds, 27 already exist in English. From a learning perspective this makes things much easier.
In all of the courses in The Flow Series, the first unit focuses exclusively on the “Sound System” of the language. The Sound System Primer contains:
- Detailed instructions for articulating each sound of that language’s phonetic menu.
- A list of all the common “English Speaker Tendencies” and how to avoid them.
- Drills for developing the motor memory needed to articulate the most difficult sounds.
For the sake of brevity, however, this post is just going to focus on my personal challenges mastering the basic phonemes of French.
The /ɲ/ is also an item on the phonetic menus of Spanish and Portuguese, and the /ɥ/ is also on the Mandarin Phonetic menu, so I personally can cross out these two sounds from my list of new consonants.
So that means there is only one sound that I have to master. It’s full name is the voiced uvular fricative, and it most French learners know it as “The French R”.
Saying the French /ʁ/ Quickly – The Real Challenge
This sound falls in a category of sounds that in Phonetics we call “Rhotics“. Rhotics are basically a series of elusive sounds that people have trouble differentiating across languages. They are typically written in the Roman lettering system with the letter “r”.
This French “r” sound occurs at the uvula, which is the little thing dangling at the back of your mouth.
You place the back of your tongue against the uvula to constrict air so that it passes through with friction. To make things trickier, you typically have to activate your voice box at the same time while making the sound (it’s easier to do it “voiceless” by just expelling air, but this is not always the right sound in French).
I could make the sound after a few tries, but not without some deliberate effort and preparation, which means it was going to be a problem in normal speech when the sound occurs often on consecutive syllables.
Here’s where the rap training comes in. The second rap song I learned is called “La Vie Est Brutale” (Life is Brutal) by Kery James. In it, there is a line that was very troublesome for me:
French: La vie ne leur a pas offert la richesse et l’argent
English: Life didn’t offer them riches or money
With such a high density of /ʁ/ sounds (4 out of 9 consecutive syllables have the sound), it was hard for me to hit the sound so many times at high speeds.
So everyday I sing this line to myself starting slowly and gradually building speed.
After rapping this song and other for a few weeks, I quickly developed a mastery of this sound and no longer have troubles mimicking it in normal speed native speech. I can even do the uvular trill now, which some accents of French use.
Before we go into vowels, it’s important to know some basics about what a vowel is. You create a vowel sound by letting air flow unimpeded out of your mouth (and sometimes the nose too). What determines the sound of a vowel is:
- The position of your tongue.
- The “roundedness” of your lips
- Whether some air is leaving through your nose or not.
So keeping that in mind, we can look at the vowel chart of French and see that there are six vowel sounds that do NOT exist in English.
Here’s the cool thing about language – since all humans share the same speech anatomy, all languages are based on the same physiological principles.
If you take time to understand the basic principles of phonetics, building your phonetic menu for a new language can be as easy as building a Lego set.
Let’s take these “unfamiliar” French sounds and strip them down a bit to find out who they really are.
There are just two phonetics concepts you need to learn to grasp the French vowels – rounding and nasalization.
Nasalization is when air comes out of both your nose and your mouth. If you say “Not now, I ain’t got time” while placing your finger in front of your nose (make sure your fingers don’t smell first), you should field a slight burst of air from your nostrils when saying the word “ain’t”. This is because the vowel sound in “ain’t” is a nasal vowel.
Nasalization is always much trickier for most people than rounding, as the speech muscle involved in nasalization (the velum) is harder to build awareness of than the lips for rounding.
I’m not going to cover nasal mastery in this post., so for now you’ll just have to listen and tune your pronunciation.
In IPA, the squiggly line on top of a symbol indicates that the only difference between the sound and the same symbol without it the squiggly line is nasalization. So to start, we’ll say the oral vowel first, then say its nasal counterpart.
First we have the /ɔ̃/ vowel, which is the nasal version of /ɔ/ – the vowel sound in the English word “dog” (assuming you don’t have a thick midwestern American accent).
Next vowel is /ɑ̃/. The oral vowel /ɑ/ is the same as vowel sound in the English word “spa”. Nasalize that and you get that.
Finally, we have the vowel /ɛ̃/, which is the nasal version of the vowel in the English word “bed”.
And voila! I now have a basic familiarity with every possible sound in French.
French Vowels – The Real Challenge
Knowing about the physiology behind the French vowels isn’t enough to truly feel them. It’s more like a blueprint to find the vowel in your mouth when your lost. To really feel a sound you need to build practical experience with it.
My biggest challenge was differentiating the three nasal vowels. Once again, this is where the rap training becomes essential. Take the following line from “Soul Pleurer” the song I rap in the previous post:
French: Nous avions tant de choses un comun
English: We have so much in common
In this one sentence, all three nasal vowels are present, with /ɑ̃/ occurring twice. So everyday I practice rapping just this one line very slowly, trying to distinguish the three sounds while making sure the two syllables containing /ɑ̃/ match exactly.
With a memorized reference to these sounds as they occur in real life, I was able to appreciate the differences between these sounds much faster than if I just listened to them separately.
A lot of people are afraid of phonetics and completely ignore it in their language studies, but it’s really the most useful knowledge to have.
With a basic understanding of the speech mechanics and acoustics, you can figure out your personal weaknesses on your own and come up with systematic ways to strengthen them.
In this post, I cite many Wikipedia articles for your reference, but you might find the language in these articles to be a bit too esoteric and hard to understand as a layman.
In future posts, I will write about certain phonetics topics that every language learner should know and try to keep the language and explanations as easy to understand as possible.
Till next time, Keep on Flowin’