Why is spoken French so hard to understand?
The first thought I have when I hear French spoken naturally is “Why are they speaking so fast?” And even when they speak slowly…I think "How on earth am I supposed to know when one word ends and another begins?". It all just blurs together!
for english speakers, the two things you have to get used to are that french is an non-stressing language, and it is more vowel-focused, rather than consonant-focused as the germanic languages are. the fact that french has no syllable stress means that it really does sound like a big long string of sounds. in english you can differentiate words pretty easily if you know the general stress rules, but this isn't possible in french. as your vocabulary grows, it will get easier. right now every sound you hear has a million possibilities. if i was to say "je suis dans l'école", your brain is thinking, did i just hear "je souille dans les colles"? or "je suis dans les colles"? or "je suit dans les colles"? or "je suit dans l'école"? your brain has no idea it couldn't possibly have heard that. in your current knowledge, those really could be sentences you heard. and if the person keeps talking, your brain doesn't even have time to slow down and understand. the person is ten sentences ahead while you're still taking in the first sentence. the more vocabulary you know, the faster you can understand and keep up, because your brain quickly puts a non-gibberish sentence together.
Every language I started to learn was hard to understand at first (except maybe Spanish and Italian), but it does get a lot easier. Portuguese took some getting used to, and then I thought I was going to fail at Danish because so many words are not pronounced as they are spelled (many final letters are not pronounced and whole syllables seem to melt away, etc) but now I'm pretty used to it. And again with Turkish I would pound my head on the desk for many of the dictation exercises, but I'm getting the hang of interpreting that, too. If you stick with it, it'll get easier, it just takes time and patience.
I also found that the computer speaker on French misses some pronunciations. I've seen French speakers on youtube explain the difference between "les chiens" and "les chiennes" but the difference is missing from the computer generated voice. They are distinguishable, but not through duo's bot. The same thing is true for its English voice, as I was using it on English for Indonesian learners. Close, but missing a certain "je ne sais quoi".... which I now know what that means! Yay team!
Yes, listening to french songs is a good way to realize these differences.
lol with time you are going to understand, it is not so hard :) I almost got crazy in the beginning but now I can see videos on youtube and I understand well :)
It's funny that you say that because, grammatically speaking, French is a polysynthetic language. This means that every individual word is just an affix for the big word meaning a phrase. (ex: nous aimons parler français = nuzemõparlefrãse = We like to speak French). But irrelevant of that: to answer your issue, this problem is ubiquitous among most learners, but you must listen very closely. You have to listen very hard and your brain will learn eventually where words are. Not to mention that but spoken French, in most contexts, is very colloquial with phrases and other words, etc. My advice: take any youtube video of good spoken French, not a song or a video with improper French, and watch it several times; write down what you understand each time you watch and watch as you, if using subtitles afterwords to check yourself, being to get better. Good luck with your adventure :)
Sorry, but French is not a polysynthetic language - polysynthetic languages are many a time characterised by so-called sentence-words. They feature very strange phenomena like noun incorporation, a complete disregard for word order and have a plethora of inflectional prefixes and suffixes (sometimes running into the thousands) that combine in a variety of forms. French, like many other Indo-European languages (and Latin from which it is derived) is a synthetic language.
Listening to French is tricky for a non-native with limited experience in the language because two of the features that set it apart from its neighbours is its liberal use of liaison and the fact that its stress system is very different from languages like English or German - French words aren't stressed in regular positions like English, the whole sentence or phrase carries stress only at one point, the last syllable. These two features create the illusion that a sentence in French is one long assortment of syllables.
But, as you suggest, it simply takes time and practice. The more you hear the language AND use it, the easier it becomes to separate out words or phrases.
Interesting idea presented in the paper. I will have to have a closer and more in depth look to comment. Thanks!
Sure! I thought that it was fusional too, but then this guy I know gave me this paper and I was like "bs" for first couple days until I realized "wow, it really is polysynthetic". Great to meet a fellow person interesting in linguistics :)
Haha..when I saw your reply I also thought BS. I am dusting off my linguistics at the moment. It was one of my majors at university, but I have headed off in other directions and do not get much chance to stretch those muscles. Are you also doing the Coursera course on linguistics which started this week?
The paper DOES raise dome interesting points. And people, and that includes me (mea culpa), too easily throw around terms such as "analytic" or "polysynthetic" as absolute definitions. Most languages do not fit neatly into one of these categories - most languages simply have a preponderance of one type of structure over the other. The most fascinating part of these labels is that a language's forebears do not necessarily determine which type of language it will be. Languages change from one type to another seemingly at the collective whim of their speakers.
In this case, I think the author makes some valid points. The rigid configurational pattern of the verb complex is quite typical of polysynthesis, BUT it must also be remembered that in truly polysynthetic languages the verb complex requires these adjuncts as not only as indexes to NPs but as necessary parts of the verb complex while theNPs can be arranged (or omitted) as the speakers sees fit (i.e pragmatically, not grammatically driven). This is still not the case in spoken French. You can have a sentence with the COD and COI and the NPs to which they refer, but you can also dispense with the COD and COI and simply use NPs and PPs.
The liaisons and compulsory elisions do show that there is a growing affinity between certain elements with one almost acting like an affix, but mostly these changes are driven NOT by any syntactic necessity, but by simple phonological rules in very specific sound environments. The fact that these phenomena are not (yet...) driven by a syntactic necessity speaks against the idea of polysynthesis as polysynthesis requires that the syntactic distinctions become clustered rigidly inside the VP.
The paper ends by saying that Spoken French seems to be changing into a polysynthetic language, or, at the very least, is acquiring a lot of polysynthetic characteristics.
Considering the conclusion of this paper I think Spoken French still is mostly a fusional language. What is so interesting is that it attempts to give an explanation for why French has always stood out among the other Romance languages. It has some odd features which make it quite distinctive and I agree that it is probably because French is slowly evolving into a language that is more polysynthetic than fusional.
On a side note: I am not sure I agree with the example sentences that the author gives at (23) - I cannot imagine that many of them would be considered at all correct (linguistics correct, not grammar book correct) by many French speakers in even the most informal circumstances (I am particularly dubious about c,d,e and h but some others also feel unnatural). I think I should post a poll and ask the French speakers on Duolingo to rate the grammaticality of those utterances. Fieldwork (from a couch) - yeah!
That's because they connect the words and phrases together so the beginning of one word is the ending of another. They throw the pronunciation of the last part of the phrase onto the start of the next.
LOL. You think French sounds fast, listen to some Spanish spoken at a 'normal' rate. But I know exactly what you mean. I've studied French for years and I still find it hard to follow dialogue in movies and TV shows. Just as we do in English, the French (especially the younger people) use a lot of slang and slur over or chop off a lot of words. It took me a long time to realize that the way my college instructor taught me to say 'Ce n'est pas' is way too slow, and the phrase sounds more like 'Snaypah' when spoken by a native. And sometimes they even leave off the negative 'ne' so it ends up sounding like just 'Snay.' :) We do exactly the same thing in English: 'Wassup?' All I can suggest is to listen, listen, and then listen again. Over time, gradually, you'll start hearing more and more. Bonne chance!
(I'm french) it doesn't end up sounding "snay", mate ! "it is not" is indeed "ce n'est pas" but we, as french speaking persons, almost always leave off the negative "ne" and never the "pas" so it's not "snay" but "say pa" hahaha, talking to friends I would say "c'est pas un oiseau" (that is not a bird) and absolutely not "ce n'est un oiseau" which would not even be understood I guess
http://french.about.com/od/pronunciation/ Once you have thoroughly learned the pronunciation, then you have to look at the liasons: http://french.about.com/library/pronunciation/bl-liaisons.htm http://french.about.com/library/pronunciation/bl-liaisons-r.htm http://french.about.com/library/pronunciation/bl-liaisons-f.htm http://french.about.com/library/pronunciation/bl-liaisons-o.htm http://french.about.com/library/pronunciation/bl-enchainement.htm
Looking at the mistakes we make in pronunciation shows what we need to concentrate on to understand other people's pronunciation. http://french.about.com/cs/pronunciation/a/mistakes.htm http://french.about.com/cs/pronunciation/a/mistakes_2.htm
listen to native speakers here: http://fr.forvo.com/languages/fr/
One thing that confuses English speakers is the 'liason'. The 'z' sound between an s and a vowel. Or pronouncing the last consonant at the start of a word beginning with a vowel (sometimes). Eg. 'Est assez = es tassez'.
This explanation is sketchy I know but that is what I find most difficult :D Just look up 'French liason'.