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This critique requires a look at the french phonemes in order to understand why french people have certain pronunciation problems. french and english Phonemes There are 37 phonemes in french (and 45 in english). The 37 french phonemes comprise 18 consonants, three semi vowels (or semi consonants), 12 vowels and four nasal vowels. The 45 english phonemes comprise 23 consonants, two semi consonants, 12 vowels and eight dipthongs (vowel pairs). Table 1 provides a comparison of the french and english
phonemes and indicates where the phonemes are the same for the two languages. It can be seen that 21 of the french phonemes correspond with those used in english; of which 18 of these are consonants or semi consonants and three are vowels. There are also another five french vowel phonemes, which although are not the same as the equivalent english phoneme, are close. This leaves a massive 19 sounds in the english language which are not used by french people and as such may be difficult or at least unfamiliar to pronounce. Consonants Looking first at the consonants, the french do not have the phonemes ? as in child; d? as in jazz or ? as in thin, ð as in this or h as in hat. I have observed
most difficulties with the last three. Looking at the two ‘th’ phonemes, these are fricative dentals and there are not any of these in french. An english speaker may not realise that there is any difference with the ‘th’ in thirsty or the ‘th’ in this, but the first in unvoiced and the second in voiced and as such require different positioning of the tongue and teeth. There are no rules for which ‘th’ to use and unfortunately for learners of english the difference just has to be learned. For french speakers the ? (in thin) can be mispronounced as s (in sun), with ‘mouse’ and ‘mouth’; ‘sum’ and ‘thumb’; ‘sick’ and ‘thick’ for example sounding the same. The ? (in thin) can also be mispronounced as an f (in fan) or a t (in table) resulting in ‘first’ and ‘thirst’; and ‘tree’ and ‘three’ being confused. Similarly the ð (in feather), can be pronounced as d (in door), with ‘then’ sounding
as ‘Dan’, ‘they’ sounding as ‘day’ and ‘there’ sounding as ‘dare’ for example. This phoneme can also be mispronounced as a z (in zoo) and so ‘close’ and ‘clothe’; and ‘breeze’ and ‘breathe’ can be sounded the same. The h (in hat) is another phoneme which is mispronounced by the french, as this phoneme does not exist in french – most h's are silent. The french either don’t sound an h when there is one or want to add an h when there isn’t one. Omitting an h results in ‘hill’ being pronounced as ‘ill’; ‘hold’ as ‘old’; ‘his’ as ‘is’ and ‘hear’ as ‘ear’ for example. Adding an h results in ‘hungry’ being confused with ‘angry’ and the reverse of the examples just provided. . The r is rolled in french and so french speakers have the tendency to want to roll an r in english
or to over pronounce the r when it is silent such as in ‘tired’ or ‘bored’. Also these two words, perhaps because of the r can be pronounced with two distinct syllables ti-red, bo-red. As final letters are often not pronounced and in particular the plural of a word sounds the same, there is the risk of a final ‘s’ not being pronounced. Vowels There are 19 different phonemes for vowels in english and of these only three exist in the french language, although a further nine vowel sounds are close (and I cannot detect the differences with some). Whilst the english vowel sounds are not necessarily difficult to pronounce, the diffciculties arise to the similarity of the vowel sounds which causes pronunciation problems with many minimal pairs (ie words which differ by one similar sound). Examples I have observed include walk and work; torn for turn, warm for worm, short for shirt, although the list of minimal pairs can be endless. A common problem I have observed is that a frenchman
will say 'seat' instead of 'sit', which is not be due to any particular difficulty with the pronunciation of i, but more so because the letter i in french being pronounced as the letter ‘e’ in english. There are four nasal vowels in french (and none in english). These phonemes often include an ‘n’ in their spelling and so french natives can nasalize an ‘n’ and especially when it appears at the end of a word. Stress and Intonation Stress and Intonation is an area of difficulty for french speakers. Native french speakers place equal emphasis on each syllable. Many common words in the french language
are used in the same way and with the same spelling in english, but with stressing on different syllables sound quite different. Such words include important, situation and machine. Having only learnt a foreign language where there is no word stress (french), the realisation that this exists in the english language has been quite a revelation. Looking at some of the textbooks and resources for learning english I note that stress is taught from beginner level. Initially I considered this to be a rather complicated aspect at such an early stage, but on reflection, if you can’t pronounce the words correctly, you are not going to be understood and so getting it right from the outset seems a better way forward, despite the greater pain and effort.
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