How do you learn a foreign language? For most people, this involves the tedious learning of grammar rules, the memorization of vocabulary, sometimes stammered words with embarrassment or, for the youngest, watching TV series and using apps. playful.
A lot of time and energy are devoted to it, but sometimes without convincing results. Remember that, according to the CNESCO consensus conference on language learning conducted in 2019, 75% of students at the end of middle school would not be able to express themselves orally in generally correct English.
Doesn’t this discrepancy between the efforts made and the level reached invite us to question the approach commonly chosen in the study of a language? Are we not giving too much importance to its intellectual dimension compared to its physical dimension? And shouldn’t we rather think of the acquisition of a foreign language as sports training?
We too often forget that “speaking” a language is an eminently bodily act: speaking is emitting conventionally meaningful sounds in a given linguistic community, with the help of organs located mainly in our oral cavity (tongue, teeth) and our larynx (vocal cords).
A work of adaptation
To better understand the work required to learn a language, we can venture into a metaphor, and ask ourselves if the tennis champion Rafael Nadal, for example, would make a good badminton player. On another register, would we listen to Renaud Capuçon with the same pleasure if he swapped his violin for a cello? One can doubt it, because the control of a sport or an instrument is not easily transposable to another, the apparent similarities being able to be misleading.
In the same way, if our organs of speech and hearing are instruments common to all of mankind, they must necessarily adapt when switching to a language different from ours.
Do you speak english? French politicians speak English (Brut, January 2017).
When we speak a foreign language, we naturally tend, by unconscious mimicry, to apply these articulatory gestures of the mother tongue to the target language, thus creating an accent which can be charming but quickly becomes disabling in a professional context or in everyday life.
Emitting sounds not recognized by the interlocutor results in imperfect communication: we often underestimate the gap between what we think we are saying and what is actually understood by the interlocutor. To use our analogy, this automatic transfer would be like playing badminton with the rules and the tennis racket…
The acoustic and phonatory dimensions of language are the poor relation of language learning at school, even if they appear in many online tutorials or in the verbo-tonal method in FLE (French as a Foreign Language). Pupils and students are sometimes made aware of phonetics (the written transcription of sounds, which can be compared to music theory for music).
But they only too rarely practice this physical activity: the production of adequate sounds (phonation), closely linked to the ability to perceive sound (decoding of the chain of sounds, also requiring a form of ear rehabilitation ).
When the FRENCH ACCENT isn’t SEXY (Moontajska Productions).
Among the learners there is indeed the belief that the language bath alone would be enough to trigger a transfer of skills. Listening to/watching English, staying abroad , would magically lead to becoming bilingual. But does one necessarily become a good tennis player by simply observing or even hanging out with champions? Obviously not. A long and regular personal training is necessary in order to educate the body to reproduce the right gestures, even automatism.
This physical training is just as necessary for learning a foreign language, a process compared by some researchers to motor or speech therapy rehabilitation: according to Didier Bottineau ,
“learning a foreign phonatory mode at an advanced age (schoolboy, high school student) presupposes the re-education of the speaking body in a sporting phonatory discipline for which the body has not been prepared and of which the mind is not aware . »
This essential work can however be thankless because it consists in “imposing on one’s body a system of constraints for which it is not intended because of the orientations of its previous development determined by the use of French – which amounts to initiating classical dance a bow-legged rider by ten years of daily riding”.
What type of rehabilitation is it? The simple study of phonetics (theoretical description of sounds) is not enough: a good musician must certainly work on music theory, but also practice diligently on his instrument to improve his performance. The key to successful learning is to become aware of the articulatory posture of one’s own language.
Let’s take a concrete example. If French is your mother tongue, you unknowingly speak in “tense mode”: you regulate the flow of exhaled air with each syllable, which you pronounce with equal force by hammering more the last syllable of a group of meanings . This articulatory mode seems so natural to you that you instinctively place it on English, which can prevent you from pronouncing and understanding statements in this language correctly.
Indeed, the English language operates on a very different articulatory pattern, called “expiratory mode”: greater volume of air retained in the mouth, familiar consonants and vowels pronounced differently (short/long vowels, “h” sound accompanied by a breath, restraint and sudden exhalation on the plosive consonants p/t/k ⎯ the current wearing of the mask also helps to control this gesture: the projected breath of air must make the mask move).
It is therefore not the famous “th” which constitutes the main pronunciation difficulty, but the complete articulatory position which must be modified, as well as the rhythmic, similar in English to an electrocardiogram with a regular alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables, distribution that affects vowel reduction (compare in an audio dictionary the pronunciation of agenda/agency , Canada/Canadian: the letter “a” is pronounced only once with the sound /a/ in these words).
Here is an illustration of the necessary change to be made, if necessary with the help of a metronome (video example from 32’45 in the video below):
When a Frenchman calls an Indian Call Center: The iRabbit (Moontajska Productions).
To use the sports metaphor, a French speaker who wishes not only to speak but to make himself understood in English, must necessarily “change discipline”: he must abandon the typical body diagram of the 100m race to comply with the constraints of the 110m hurdles ( correctly jump the hurdles which represent the accented syllables in English, under penalty of being disqualified!).
Now let’s take the example of Castilian Spanish : this language is characterized by a posture of the lower jaw that is significantly more advanced than in French (“prognathic mode”) which, by the stretching of the vocal cords induced, impacts the different sounds of the language (apical rolled R), but also the rate and timbre of the speakers. Taking this fundamental difference into account should lead to teaching Spanish based on bodily exercises that gradually make it possible to automate these new gestures.
In summary, the passage from one language to another should not be apprehended as a purely mental process, but should induce a conscious and observable physical change (at the level of the face, we are not mentioning here the gestures linked to the non-verbal communication ). As in any sport, this gymnastics must be practiced very regularly and be felt physically: aches (in the muscles of the face) are a sign of successful transfer!
Author Bio: Evelyne Muller is a Lecturer in English Studies, ENSGSI at the University of Lorraine