Learning how to speak

I’ve been trying to reduce my American accent when speaking French. I tried taping my voice and playing it back, but that didn’t help. I couldn’t actually tell that I had a strong accent by listening to myself. My own voice is just too familiar to me. Then Malecki told me about the international phonetic alphabet, which is just great. And there’s even a convenient website that translates. For example,

le loup est revenu -> lə lu ε ʀəvny

I stared at Malecki’s mouth while he said the phrase, and I finally understood the difference between the two different “oo” sounds. That evening at home I tried it out on the local expert and he laughed at my attempts but grudgingly admitted I was getting better. On about the 10th try, after watching him say it over and over and staring at his mouth, I was finally able to do it!

I know this is going to sound stupid to all you linguistics experts out there, but I had no idea that you could figure out how to speak better by staring at someone’s mouth.

Whether I’ll put in the proverbial 10,000 hours to really learn to do this right, I don’t know. I doubt I will. But it was fun to find out that with focused effort I could make some progress.

30 thoughts on “Learning how to speak

  1. A random trick that works for me in French and may generalize to other languages. Get a recorded native sample of the same sentence from two places with wildly different regional accents, say rural Quebec and Paris. Then try to imitate both of them.

  2. I hate to burst your bubble, but some people are able to mimic accents very well, others just can’t do it. Assuming you’re American, how well can you do a British RP accent? Since it’s the same language, it should be even easier, right? Turns out it isn’t.

    Really, I wouldn’t worry about it unless you’re really horrible. I’m sure there are professors at your university who grew up speaking a language other than English. Does their accent make you think any less of them? I doubt it.

    Contrary to the conventional wisdom about the French, I’ve found them to be very pleased when an American knows their language well. They will overlook your accent, just as you do with your colleagues.

    • Marko1:

      I hate to burst your bubble, but I’d like to have a better accent than I have now. I’m not trying to be Meryl Streep, I just want to improve a bit.

  3. Two people on the other side of the subway car – I couldn’t hear them above the ambient noise, but from looking at their mouths, I guessed they were French. They were.
    I’d suggest trying to do a caricature exaggerated French accent in English. Then just think of those sounds when you speak French.
    And keep your tongue at the bottom of your mouth.
    Bonne chance.

  4. I remember having the same type of epiphany when reading Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct. In the chapter on phonemes, he goes into the mechanics of where your tongue should be, whether your vocal chords should be taut or relaxed and various other things. Now if I’m having a hard time pronouncing something I’ll ask a person to show me the exact configuration their mouth is in. I’ve found this especially helpful in learning the various Xhosa clicks and on another occasion I used it to try help my French friend pronounce the word “rural” correctly.

  5. Le loup est revenu seems straightforward to pronounce. What are the sounds you’re struggling with?

    I remember a small exercise which I found extremely difficult when learning French in my youth. It was something along the lines of:
    Un chasseur sachant chasser chasse sans son chien.

    Still hard to do.

    • Louis:

      It was that last vowel sound that I was getting stuck on (see Noah’s comment below).

      What amazes me, in retrospect, is that nobody ever tried to teach these sounds to me before!

    • That seems more like a tongue-twister (apparently “virelangue” in French?); in fact it’s the canonical example given at (see also ). The only sounds that seem (to me) to be hard to separate in that example are the last three nasal vowels (I’m not a linguist, that’s probably the wrong description: I mean ɑ̃,ɔ̃,ε̃ ) (my web browser doesn’t seem to want to put the tilde directly over the ε): “œ̃ ʃasœʀ saʃɑ̃ ʃase ʃas sɑ̃ sɔ̃ ʃjε̃ “.

      • PPS Many of the phrases at that site aren’t even what I would call tongue-twisters, they’re puns (i.e., they’re not hard to pronounce, they just provoke a confusion of meaning), e.g.

        Mon père est maire, mon frère est masseur.
        (“My father is mayor, my brother is (a) masseur”)
        “mɔ̃ pεʀ ε mε:ʀ, mɔ̃ fʀεʀ ε masœʀ”

        sounds like

        Mon père est mère, mon frère est ma sœur.
        (“My father is mother, my brother is my sister”)
        “mɔ̃ pεʀ ε mε:ʀ, mɔ̃ fʀεʀ ε ma sœʀ”

        (the phonetic translator wouldn’t translate “soeur” without the ligature, only “sœur”)

        OK, back to work!

        • It is indeed more of tongue twister, but my dad was fond of letting me repeat this. it did help a bit I guess but I still have to concentrate to get it right.

          The example with the confusion of meaning seems to dependent on the mastery of the language (at least that is my impression). The better your command the less you’re confused with the meaning.

          A somewhat similar example is song (popular over here) which goes like: “Tu étais formidable, j’étais fort minable”.

        • Not discussing the content, but I pronounce the “et” in “mon frère et ma soeur” in another way then the “est” in “mon frère est ma soeur”.

          I do not master phonetic writing so I won’t bother trying to make this precise. But to my ear it should be a different sound.

        • You can hear the difference on this handy pronunciation chart with audio.

          Of course it would be confusing to have two of the most common words in the language pronounced exactly the same way. As Louis points out above, these subtle differences make it difficult to pun in French. My point was that the pun has to make sense in both interpretations, and this one in particular is a riff on a well-known song.

  6. My semiotics professor http://www.semioticon.com/people/bouissac.htm did some (self) research experiments that suggested there is another challenge. Though he could make the correct sounds (verified electronically) when he tried to do it while “languaging” he could not. His thesis was that the brain’s language processing interfered with how he had learned to make the sound while not actually speaking.

    > On about the 10th try
    You realized you had got it – or your local expert _said_ you did ;-)

    It is hard to find people with patience and skill needed to get help – these various online resources will likely be more widely helpful.

    Its the cost/benefit and enjoyment/effort thats hard to sort out.

    Being Canadian and living in Ottawa, we _made_ our kids learn French (enrolled them in a French School system where some of the kids could hardly speak any English.)

    Now they have both moved to Toronto to attend university and are suggesting that it was not such a good idea.

  7. The IPA is indeed great, and learning a bit about it’s underlying structure will help even more. You can think of the IPA as a model of the vocal tract – the symbols are defined with respect to phonetic features (for consonants, things like place of articulation, voicing, manner of articulation, phonation mode; for vowels, things like tongue height, tongue ‘backness’, lip rounding, nasalization).

    So, to keep it relevant to the discussion here, the difference between [u] and [y] is (primarily) the position of the tongue body. French [u] is (roughly) like English [u] – the tongue body is pushed back toward the soft palate, and the lips are rounded (depending on you dialect, the tongue position and degree of lip-rounding will vary), while (French) [y] has roughly the same tongue position as English [i] (the ‘ee’ as in ‘feet’) but with the lip-rounding of [u]. (All three vowels – [u], [i], and [y] – are ‘high’, which is why I didn’t say anything about vowel height here.)

    The point being that learning the phonetic descriptions of non-native sounds can help with more accurate pronunciation, whether or not you have a native speaker’s animated face to look at.

  8. After 5 children, I have the theory that looking at an adult’s mouth is how kids learn to speak. When I’m playing with a one-year-old, I say “Look at my mouth” and then say “food” or whatever. Autistic kids like my nephew have a hard time learning to talk, and I wonder if part of that is that they aren’t so interested in looking at people’s faces.

  9. I like the idea of using the phonetic alphabet. We adults have read too much, and so we filter French through our English reading. If it’s written in phonetic (or Cyrillic, which is what I thought Ben Bolker’s example above was!) then maybe we would get it into our brains that we’re supposed to say everything differently. (My approach to French is like the common approach to trying to lose weight: I’ve been trying for 20 years but without much progress!)

  10. Pingback: Weblog » Using the International Phonetic Alphabet to Learn How to Pronounce French

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