Understanding Spoken French: Common Reductions in Everyday Speech

By   February 9, 2010

A simple video showing the differences between written and spoken French. I’m new to making videos and Youtube, but I’ve already uploaded a few travel videos and I plan to make more spoken & informal French videos to show people that learning written French from books is not enough.

Learning Two Languages Together: Where are the Resources?

By   February 6, 2010

Remembering new vocabulary involves a lot of connections between what you already know and what you want to know. This is why I don’t agree with “target language only” classes. Sometimes you need your native language to help you  learn a second language, and sometimes a second language can help you learn a third language even better.  For example, learning German in French is actually easier for me instead of learning German in English even though German and English are more closely related.  Whenever I try to think in another language and want to say something, French is what comes out first because it’s my second language. So now I think in French first for a few seconds before I can switch to German. It’s just simply easier for me to go from French to German than from English to German.

Whether you are learning two languages together and are at the same level in each, or whether you know one language rather well and are using it to learn the other, having the grammar and vocabulary compared side by side is a useful resource. This is why I decided to start writing comparative tutorials. So far only French & German and French & Italian are available, but I would like to do French & Spanish and Spanish & Italian someday. I don’t know of any language learning books that do this apart from the English Grammar for Learners of…. series, but that is always English + one other language, and I am trying to find resources for learning two languages simultaneously that is geared towards English speakers. But perhaps the market for learning two languages is not very large since most people seem to think learning one language is hard enough. But what about the multilingual enthusiasts like me? Or graduate students who must learn two languages in order to finish their PhD? Surely there are resources for students in a Romance Languages PhD program? Or are those books only available in graduate libraries?

I know there are plenty of multilingual phrasebooks for travelers, but I’m looking for introductory books that teach basic grammar and vocabulary of two languages (any combination, really) side by side. It seems to me that a book on learning Spanish and French together would exist since those are the most commonly learned languages in the US, but I cannot find this book. Does anyone know if something like this actually exists?

Luckily, I have some other multilingual comparative books, and I’m keeping a list here if you’d like to buy them too.

Let me sleep! And study languages! And work on my site! (I hate insomnia.)

By   February 2, 2010

Thanks to my insomnia and headaches, I haven’t been able to work much on my website or study languages. I basically get up, feel like a zombie, go to work, come home and still feel like a zombie and then try to sleep, unsuccessfully. Monday through Thursday. Luckily I have 3 day weekends, but that doesn’t mean I can actually sleep then either.  I have about a bazillion and one things on my to do list, but I can’t do many of them because I am just too tired. Working on my website and studying languages is what I love most, and yet I can barely sit at the computer because I need to lie down and I definitely don’t want to listen to audio in German or Italian when I have a never-ending headache.

I wanted to finish typing the French Listening Resources transcripts & import them to LingQ, create French-German and French-Italian flashcards, record more mp3s in French (especially for the slang vocabulary), create audio flashcards for Spanish, finish the IPA transcriptions for French, and and and… everything! I’ve managed to update Twitter and join a few more sites like StumbleUpon, FriendFeed, Youtube – though I have yet to make any language videos of my own, another thing to add to the list! Social networking is exhausting. But that’s the best way to get my site out there and let people know that there are free resources for learning informal French as well as two languages at once. I really wish I could spend all day helping others learn languages, but it doesn’t exactly pay the bills in France.

Maybe when my current job is over in April, I will succeed in crossing everything off my list. Until then I can only attempt small updates here and there. Tonight I was able to add a few more words to the Informal French & Slang page and a few days ago I created individual pages for the Listening Resources, but that’s about it. Now I’m going to attempt to sleep. Wish me luck.

French and its Secret Liaisons: Why everyone thinks French pronunciation is hard

By   January 30, 2010

Ok, they’re not so secret in French. I just love the word liaison and I’m fascinated by the obligatoire, facultative and interdite liaisons in French pronunciation.

Liaison is the reason why a lot of people think French pronunciation is hard. Many French words end in consonants that are normally silent, unless the next word begins with a vowel sound – then that consonant sound is pronounced at the beginning of the next word (though sometimes it is not the actual consonant sound represented in the orthography, but its voiced or voiceless counterpart) unless the next word begins with an h aspiré in which case there is no liaison. Easy, right??

French and its Secret Liaisons: Why everyone thinks French pronunciation is hard

There are many rules as to when you should or should not do liaison, but of course it can vary with how formal or informal the speaker is being, as well as their age. (Older people tend to use more liaisons.)

OBLIGATOIRE : The required liaisons happen after…

  • determiners: un, les, des, ces, mon, ton, quels, etc.
  • pronouns: nous, vous, ils, elles, les, etc.
  • preceding adjectives: bon, mauvais, petit, grand, gros, etc.
  • monosyllabic prepositions: chez, dans, sous, en, etc.
  • some monosyllabic adverbs: très, plus, bien, etc.
  • comment when referring to health
  • est

FACULTATIVE : But liaison is optional after…

  • some monosyllabic adverbs: pas, trop, fort
  • quand when it precedes est-ce que
  • all other forms of être

INTERDITE : And liaison should never happen…

  • after et
  • before onze
  • before letters (le A) or citations (les “ah”)
  • before words beginning with an h aspiré
  • after singular nouns or proper names
  • after plural noun subjects
  • after interrogative adverbs (but see comment and quand above!)
  • in plural forms of compound words
  • after on, ils and elles in inversion, when followed by past participles or infinitives

Pronunciation Changes: First you need to remember when to do liaison and then you need to remember what the final consonant of the word is so that you can change the pronunciation of the following word. If the written word ends in -s or -x, the pronunciation will be /z/ while words ending in -d or -t will be pronounced /t/. Another common one is -n, which is pronounced as the nasal /n/ instead of a nasal vowel. Less common liaison pronunciations are -r as /R/ and -p as /p/. Words ending in -g are supposed to be pronounced as /k/ in formal speech, but this is often ignored in informal speech and it is left as /g/ or there is no liaison. The -f of neuf is pronounced as /v/ but only with the words ans and heures.

Here are some examples from the French Phonetics page:

elles arriventmon amour
ils ontles ours
vieux arbresdans un sac
dix heurestrès aimable
attend-il ?plus ouvert
grand amiil est allé

Confused? If you are not already confused enough, it gets worse. Sometimes liaisons can create even more confusions. Il est tout vert is pronounced the same as il est ouvert, so is it all green or is it open??  In spite of these what-appear-to-be-random rules for forming liaisons, it actually isn’t that hard to get used to. In the beginning, it does cause a lot of problems for learners who are trying to understand each word because French phonology is not based on word boundaries like English. All the sounds are linked together in a phrase in French, which gives the language its smooth flow but also makes it so difficult to understand.  In English we tend to pause more often between words, but in French this happens between phrases, whether it’s prepositional, adverbial, etc. (And I’m using the word phrase in a specific sense – a group of words with a single grammatical function.)

I remember trying to learn the liaisons long ago in class, but I don’t really remember what worked best for me. Nowadays I have no problems with liaisons – it’s just automatic.  I like to think I simply picked it up after hearing enough examples, but I’m sure it took a while and I made a lot of mistakes along the way. I always wonder how native speakers learn it too. Is it taught in school? Is it easier to learn spelling first or does it not matter? (This is mostly unrelated, but I’ve also always wondered about learning the gender of nouns. Do French kids have vocabulary tests where they have the identify the gender? Is using the wrong gender a grave mistake?)

Cheese leads to /p/. And the reason why I was thinking about liaison today is because of a cheese commercial. I’m not even kidding. A man says /tRo pepɛ/ and at first I thought he was talking about a grandpa (pépé) but then I realized he was actually saying trop épais (too thick). I don’t know why exactly, but I really don’t like liaison when it involves /p/. I like that -s becomes /z/ and -d becomes /t/ but I hate that -p is actually pronounced as /p/. It just doesn’t fit. It’s a bilabial for goodness sake, it doesn’t belong with alveolars! (Sadly yes, I am that obsessive compulsive about symmetry and patterns…) I cannot bring myself to do liaison with trop, but I’ve been hearing a lot of people do it lately and I find it very odd. I hope I’m not the only person who is this crazy about liaisons involving /p/…

Anyway, that was your French pronunciation lesson of the day because of a TV commercial.

I don’t speak British English, but I (supposedly) teach it.

By   January 28, 2010

Maybe part of the reason why I don’t want to continue teaching English in France is because I’m usually expected to teach British English… but I speak American English.  The students’ vocabulary books are British English…. but I speak American English. The recordings for the pronunciation labs are in British English… but I speak American English!!!

The students are confused and I’m annoyed at all the vocabulary and pronunciation differences that they can’t pronounce in either accent anyway. Listening to their oral exams make me feel as though I’m talking to several people, first with a Brit who says little with a /t/ and then all of the sudden, the American personality comes out with car with an obvious /r/. They haven’t quite mastered the concept of sticking to one accent. I wish the students had a choice of which accent they wanted to learn though. I wish I could teach nothing but American English since that is what I know best, obviously. I’m afraid the students will constantly confuse the two and accidentally say fanny to a British person and fag to an American thinking of the more innocent meanings or not even knowing the other meanings.

I suppose it was the same when I was learning French in college. We were always taught standard European French even though I preferred Quebecois French. I had to learn how to understand the accent on my own, which isn’t too hard to do with enough listening practice. But knowing more of the common vocabulary differences would have been helpful before I studied at Laval. Luckily I never made the mistake of saying gosses while I was in Quebec, so that’s something at least.

RSS Times Three: Automatic Updates

By   January 24, 2010

I now have three RSS feeds for my site (well, four if you count my Twitter). Most of you are probably reading this through my blog feed, but I also have a feed for ielanguages.com website updates and I just created a new feed for the mp3s that I upload to the French Listening Resources page.

So for the RSS junkies, here are all the feeds:

Jennie en France Blog

Updates to ielanguages.com

French Listening mp3s OR you can subscribe directly through iTunes by clicking here

Isn’t technology great?

Using Audacity to Listen, Record and Compare Your Pronunciation

By   January 23, 2010

I use the free, open source software Audacity to create and edit sound files for my site, but it can also be used to simply listen to mp3s as well as to record while listening.  This way, you can repeat what is said and compare your pronunciation to the original. Many language students never record themselves speaking and so they never really have a chance to listen to their pronunciation mistakes, much less in direct comparison to native speakers. At the university we used to have a program called LogoLab that allowed students to listen to an audio file, and record their pronunciation in blanks after the native speaker. Then the student could listen to the file once again and compare the native speaker’s pronunciation to their own. Luckily Audacity also allows recording a second track while listening to the first one, but with one little difference – it is still possible to actually talk over the original recording, so you have to try to fit your speech in the blanks.

In Audacity, you just need to choose Edit and Preferences… and check the box before “Play other tracks while recording new one” that is on the Audio I/O tab.  Then after you’ve opened the mp3, you click Record (the pink circle) and the first track (the original mp3) will play while a second track will open for your recording. If there is not enough time between words or phrases in the original mp3, you can click between them to place the vertical line and choose Generate and Silence… and add a few more seconds.  In the picture below, you can see the source audio on top with a word to repeat and the recording underneath with repetitions of the words.

The faster you can repeat the words or phrases, as well as the number of times you can repeat them, is very important in aiding your memory to retain the information. And of course, you should always practice pronouncing out loud, not only to help you remember, but also to help your mouth get used to different movements (such as front rounded vowels) that don’t exist in English.

For the truly nerdy who are interested in the link between phonology and vocabulary acquisition, read up on Baddeley’s Model of Working Memory.

Refocus on French & Languages

By   January 20, 2010

I’ve decided it is grand temps that I get organized and focused on learning languages again. I feel as though I’ve been too distracted and/or lazy lately. I haven’t finished nearly as much as I would have liked on my site and I certainly haven’t been studying the way I used to. So to begin, I’m going to refocus my blog topics and attempt to mostly stick to teaching & learning languages, especially French. Foreign languages is one of the few things I’m very passionate about and I love knowing that I can help others learn through the internet.  And since I can’t exactly teach French in France, I’m going to try my best to do it online and spread the love of Francophonie to everyone.

I will still post about Chambéry and the Alps from time to time, but if you’d like to see beautiful photos and videos from this area, then I suggest you head over to Cynthia’s blog at www.american-in-france.com.  I’m sure I’ll still find some aspects of French culture that boggle my mind, and of course I will keep everyone informed of my love affair with the préfecture and our rocky carte de séjour relationship. (Still no news after 7 months…) But most of my energy is going into helping people learn  languages, and HOW to learn them.

As for my website, I am continuing with the IPA for the French tutorials and uploading more listening resources (exercises to come… someday). I would also like to finish the comparative tutorials because there is a serious lack of multilingual learning material on the internet for those of us learning several languages at once.  Being bilingual will never be good enough for me!

Polysemy and Homonymy in Beginning Vocabulary Acquisition

By   January 19, 2010

Polysemy simply means many meanings, so one word has several definitions and grammatical functions. Homonymy is a related concept broken into two parts: homophones and homographs.  Homophones are words that have the same pronunciation, whether or not they are spelled alike. Homographs are words that have the same spelling, but may or may not be pronounced alike. Homonyms are both homophones and homographs, i.e. words that are spelled and pronounced alike, but with different meanings.  It is important to learn the different spellings, pronunciations and meanings of words in the beginning stage of language learning or you could say something you don’t mean or understand something to be what it is not.

Polysemy of common verbs is probably something that should be learned early on. Verbs such as faire, mettre, and passer have numerous translations in English depending on how they are used and with which expressions. Faire doesn’t always mean simply to do or to make, as it is also translated as to be (especially when talking about the weather) and other various expressions such as to get used to (se faire à) or to worry (s’en faire).  The reflexive pronoun se and the prepositions that follow verbs can also completely change the meaning. Plaindre is to pity, but se plaindre is to complain. S’ennuyer is to get bored, but s’ennuyer de is to miss.

Homonyms are words like mer, mère, and maire. All of these nouns are pronounced the same so you really need to understand the context of the sentence or you won’t know whether someone is talking about the sea, a mother or a mayor. The word gare in French is most often first learned as train station.  It is very basic vocabulary that all beginners know. But gare also means something else. When it is an exclamation instead of a noun, it means watch out or be careful. Another homonym is bois. As a noun it means wood, but as a verb, it is the singular conjugation for the verb drink. Cours is a lesson, class or course (among others), but the verb form cours means run, race or compete.

Examples like these are easier to spot in writing, since nouns generally need an article in front of them, but in everyday speech if you cannot understand every word and only catch certain basic vocabulary, you could completely misunderstand the message.  This is also why learning the pronunciation of conjugations of verbs is important at the beginning stage.  French has a large number of homonyms between nouns and verbs because of the numerous conjugations so it is not enough to just focus on the nouns or adjectives that sound alike.

Obviously for words that are spelled the same, it easy to look up their definition(s) and pronunciation(s) in the dictionary. But for words that are not spelled the same, yet are pronounced the same, it can be a bit trickier.  Luckily the Dictionnaire du Francais that I posted about a few days ago does include notes about words that sound alike, and good vocabulary books include sections on homonyms, such as Vocabulaire expliqué du français (unfortunately, it is not available through Amazon.com)