Five pronunciation and decoding issues in French-as -a-foreign-language instruction that seriously affect grammar learning and should be targeted as early on as possible

Please note: this post was co-authored with Steve Smith of http://www.frenchteacher.net

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As I explained in several previous blogs, our students’ ability to decode the target language sounds can seriously impact acquisition. And I am not simply talking of their ability to acquire vocabulary and pronunciation. I am also alluding to the learners potential to notice and internalize grammar. Why? Because receptive decoding, i.e. the way the human brain ‘deciphers’ the sounds we hear, can cue us to certain grammatical features of words (i.e. endings) we process aurally that lead us to noticing and making assumptions about their gender and/or number (for nouns and adjectives), person, conjugation and tenses (for verbs) and other ‘anomalies’ (e.g. ‘l’’ before nouns, the pronoun ‘y’ before a verb).

For instance, today, a student I help outside school, had still not grasped the phonetic difference between ‘ne’ (as it sounds in ‘ne’) and ‘n’ai’ (as in ‘je n’ai’). This has led her for many years to presume that ‘je n’ai pas vu’ was actually spelt ‘je ne pas vu’. This in turn affected her assumptions as to how the Perfect Tense is formed in French which resulted in the mental representation ‘Je + past participle’ (i.e. Je vu). I could not blame her as, evidently, her previous tutor must have not emphasized adequately the difference between ‘Je’ and ‘J’ai’.

In this post I will focus on five pronunciation/decoding issues in FLE (Français Langue Étrangère) instruction which do usually receive some emphasis but are not in my experience duly emphasized and practised in the typical L2-French classroom.

Issue 1: [ə] vs [e] in receptive decoding

This sound is one of the most important to learn in terms of receptive decoding, not only for the ‘Je’ versus ‘J’ai’ distinction alluded to above, but also because of the potential it has for cueing the students to the presence of a plural noun. Take for instance the sentences ‘ le fils de Marie étudie l’anglais’ et ‘les fils de Marie étudient l’anglais’. In this context the inaccurate perception of the sound [ə] as [e] (as in les) may easily cause confusion (is the subject ‘fils’ plural or singular?) – confusion that might exacerbated by the fact that the ‘s’ in ‘fils’ may lead the beginner French learner to believe that the noun is plural.

Another huge issue that novice teachers often overlook is the pronunciation of ‘é’ as [e] or [ə] in active decoding (when reading a word). This is particularly a problem when it comes to the Perfect tense. When a student pronounces ‘j’ai mangé’ same as ‘je mange’ unless there is a time marker (e.g. hier) the potential for confusion and communication breakdown is great.

The difference between the two sounds must be duly emphasized from the very early stages of instruction. Most often teachers do when it comes to the ‘je’ vs ‘j’ai’ dichotomy. I have often witnessed the very good practice of modelling the two sounds by over-emphasizing lip movement in an attempt to create a muscle memory of the articulatory process and through minimal-pair work. What I have not often seen, however, is the teachers recycling those through many other familiar and unfamiliar contexts until the acquisition of those sounds has occurred. To presume that one or two minimum-pair demonstrations will lead to the automatization of the phonemes is over-optimistic; for most students, acquiring the ability to discern between the two sounds in receptive decoding will take several weeks or even months.

As recommended in previous posts, teachers may want to engage students in micro-listening-skill enhancers reinforcing the distinction between the two sounds for a few minutes (10?) per lessons over a period of 4 to 8 weeks in order to obtain very good results.  For the rationale for this approach read my previous post ‘How to teach pronunciation’.

Issue 2: pronunciation of ‘t’ /’d’/ ‘p’ / ‘s’ at the end of words vs same letters + ‘e’ or ‘es’

Learning the correct (active) decoding of  the above consonants with and without ‘e’ or ‘es’ at the end of words from the very early stages of French instruction is of paramount importance. Why? The reason is two-fold. Firstly, if the students are not aware of the distinction ‘t’ vs ‘te’ / ‘tes’, they will not be able to distinguish between masculine and feminine nouns and adjectives – a distinction that many L1 English learners of French find very challenging. Secondly, the pronunciation of ‘t’ / ‘p’ etc. at the end of many words or nouns can cause serious misunderstandings in terms of meaning. Think about the nouns ‘point’ and ‘pointe’; ‘vent’ and ‘vente’; ‘coup’ et ‘coupe’.

Issue 3 – [z] vs [s] in liaison

This is another issue that it is not always tackled effectively. This can cause quite a few problems, the most frequent and important of which pertains to the famous cross-association elles/ils ont vs elles/ils sont. Since this distinction is not often ‘drilled in’ adequately, many learners of French end up confusing the two all the way to year 11 (when they are 16 yrs old). Often, this leads to ‘elles ont treize ans’ being interpreted as ’elles sont treize ans’ and the assumption that the French, too, like the English, use ‘to be’ when telling somebody’s age.

Confusing [z] and [s] is very common and can cause misunderstanding in many contexts, for example: ‘elles avaient beaucoup de choses’ was interpreted by one of my student as ‘elle savait beaucoup de choses’.

Issue 4 – ‘un’ vs ‘une’

The effects of decoding issues with these words on the acquisition of the French grammar are possibly the most obvious. If a learner is not clear about the differences in pronunciation between these two words, they will make incorrect inference as which nouns are masculine and which are feminine. This issue will affect, if unresolved, other more complex structures such as ‘aucun’ vs ‘aucune’.

After modelling the lip-movements through over emphasis of the sound articulation and contrasting English words such as untouchable and unsolvable (in which the two first letters ‘un’ are highlighted in red) with words like Unesco, tune, (where the key letters ‘une’ are highlighted) one may want to reinforce the differences through micro-listening -skill enhancers such as ‘Broken words’ whereby the teacher utters words such lune, lundi, rune, aucun, aucune etc. and the students have to complete the gaps in l__di, r____, auc___, auc____, etc.

Issue 5 –  voicing ‘ent’ at the end of verbs

This is a very common issue that in my experience receives some attention but not as much as it actually requires and deserves. When not acquired effectively, the wrong decoding of ‘ent’ in the third person plural of  the Present Indicative and Subjunctive of verbs can cause quite a lot of problems. In a class I observed recently, for instance, the belief that ‘ent’ is voiced, led to the students often confusing (in a listening activity centred on modal verbs)  ‘veulent’ and ‘veut’, ‘peuvent’ and ‘peut’, and ‘doit’ and ‘doivent’. In the past I have also witnessed issues in the pronunciation of the third person of the imperfect indicative and of the conditional. Another related issue pertains to adverbs (e.g facilement, lentement) which are occasionally mistaken for verbs.

Concluding remarks

Whereas most published course-books usually converge in the way they sequence the teaching of grammar (especially tenses), when it comes to pronunciation they use quite a random approach which does not appear to be principled in any way. I suggest that, pronunciation/decoding skills instruction should first deal with the easiest-to-acquire phonemes and then gradually concern itself with the more challenging ones, another criterion ought to be considered, too; the extent to which, that is, the ineffective mastery of those sounds can affect the acquisition of the grammar of the target language. The five sets of pronunciation/decoding issues discussed above are only but a few examples of the way in which phonological awareness and the ability to transform graphemes into sound can affect the acquisition of the target language grammar. Teachers ought to pay attention to this very important facet of language acquisition and devote sufficient time and effort to it using the research-based framework I outlined in previous posts.

You will find more on this issue in the book ‘The Language Teacher Toolkit’ that I co-authored with Steve Smith and is available for purchase at www.amazon.com

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