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Words do not have neat one-to-one mappings between languages. You do not need to be a very advanced language learner to be aware of that phenomenon, so it’s surprising how often this seems to trip up the unwitting translator. Read More
As a French native speaker, it became obvious to me very early on that I would need to learn at least one, and ideally two foreign languages, in order to optimise my chances of getting a good job in the future. How does this relate to the claim that we should all study phonetics in school.
Funnily enough, although English is the first foreign language that we learn in school, I found that Spanish came to me much more naturally, both in terms of understanding written material and speaking the language.
Reading a language is usually easier, as your brain has more time to process the information at hand. But what about the speaking part? Is it because there are so many similarities between French and Spanish words, and because those words have the same Latin roots, that it’s easier for us French to learn Spanish rather than English? Or is it due to another reason?
For my part, I think the pronunciation plays a very important part in the language learning process. This is also made obvious by people who get put off learning German, Arabic or Chinese on the grounds that it’s too difficult to pronounce words correctly.
Although English is widely spoken and taught, the actual phonemes (units of sounds) in the language are not that easy to grasp. They are made easier through constant exposure to these sounds, through music and TV, but the sounds remain very different from those we are used to creating in our mother tongue. This is why many French people have such a strong accent when speaking English.
You may notice that our accent gets worse when we try to enunciate words carrying sounds we do not have in French (the strong or soft “th”, the long or short “a”, the closed or open “o”, etc…). We wouldn’t think before learning a language that the same letter could be pronounced so differently from what we are used to.
And without the study of phonetics to guide us through this, it is very difficult to learn from our mistakes and pronounce those letters the way they are meant to be pronounced. The sad thing is that in France, you don’t actually learn phonetics when you learn English. I only learnt phonetics when I studied English at university, but what about the 7 years wasted before that in secondary school?
Some research has shown that our palate, one of the most important parts of the mouth responsible for elocution, along with the tongue and the throat, stops evolving after we are 16 years old, with the implications that if we start learning a language after that point, we will never really sound native.
Isn’t it therefore time to start teaching kids phonetics when they learn a new language, rather than keeping this subject available only to those who want to specialise in it? It would be great if we could finally recognise the importance of speaking a language properly, rather than this “good enough” attitude that some countries, including my own, seem to have towards language learning skills.
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