Saturday, December 06, 2008

Parlez-Vous Français?

Some years ago, in preparation for a two week sojourn to France, I decided to take up studying French. I had more than six months and a lot of drive. Obviously, fluency wasn’t a realistic goal, but I wanted to be able to carry on a simple conversation, such as “How much is the room?” “We’ll arrive on Thursday” and so on.

My quest was successful and since making another trip, I decided to brush off the cob webs and reacquaint myself with the cadence and vocabulary of this singularly fascinating language.

By revisiting some of my study materials, I’m able to look at the language from a fresh perspective. Had I known then (when I first started my French studies) what I know now, I would have saved myself some grief by investing in a bit of conditioning. I did not realize what a physically demanding language French is to properly pronounce. By physically demanding, I mean exactly that. American English is so relaxed, so lazy if you will, that we Americans are not prepared for the extreme physical demands that enunciating French requires of us. To be able to speak French properly, you must train. Here are a few basic exercises to get you started.
Note: Before beginning any new physical exercise program, please check with your physician, especially if you have any concerns about your current physical condition.

Let’s begin. Sit upright in a straight-back chair. Put your feet flat on the floor, about six inches apart and place your hands on your knees in a relaxed position. Make sure your back is straight and your shoulders are back, but relaxed. Tuck your chin slightly, close your mouth, and close your eyes. Relax all the muscles around your mouth. Think happy thoughts. This is the “base” position.

Now, slowly purse your lips together into a nice pucker. When you think you have it, push yourself past the pucker point into a downright pout. I know you guys are thinking “Wait . . . guys don’t pout.” And you may be right. But French guys pout, so just give it a try.

Here’s the tough part. You need to really strain your whole mouth here. You should feel muscles straining around your mouth, upper lip, and all over your chin. You should feel tension along your jaw line up to your ears. Your mouth will be slightly open. Take your hand and feel the tension in your lower face. This is the “pucker-pout” position.

Return to the “base” position and relax.

The next exercise starts at the pucker-pout position and morphs into a half-open “whee” form. Your tongue should be up against your pallet and a soft aspiration emits from your lips. Your mouth is in a half smile and there will be tension, this time in your tongue and chin. This is the “whee-smile” position.

Your training regiment should consist of several cycles starting at the base position, then alternate between the “pucker-pout” and the “whee-smile.” After a half a dozen reps, relax and return to the base position.

Serious Francophiles will want to build a workout routine to condition themselves before attempting to pronounce any words in French. I’m not sure how 3- and 4-year olds have the strength to speak French, but it just goes to show you that maybe we can learn something from the French after all.


Anonymous said...

My mom told me once that, when I speak French, it sounds like I'm speaking with "a mouth full of ping pong balls." After all these years, and a few glorifying moments of being mistaken for a native speaker, there are still a few words I can't pronounce at all, among them "littérature" (my major), and "Rouen" (no explanation necessary, really).


Gail said...

Lovely comment Marie, thanks!