Walking out of the exam on oral comprehension during the testing for the Diplôme approfondi de langue française a couple months ago, I found a very unhappy-looking young man waiting for the elevator. Are you OK? He shook his head glumly: I flunked again, I know it. I made sympathetic noises. Was this your first time taking the test? I responded in the affirmative. He gave me a look of pity–clearly the expectation was that I was going to find the experience as brutal as he had. Repeatedly, apparently.
Indeed, the oral comprehension exam got me my worst score out of the whole test. Spoken French and spoken English can both be brutally difficult to understand if they’re not your native language, and for many of the same reasons. One of those is their sets of vowels–both languages have vowel “inventories” (the technical term) that are shared by relatively few languages. Another is a process called reduction, which leads to things having a range of ways that they could be pronounced, some of which are less distinct than others. For example, in French, some unstressed vowels are optional in casual spoken language, so that cheveux is often pronounced chveux, matelot can be pronounced matlot, and so on. Furthermore, the sounds that are “left behind” can be changed as a result, so that, for example, the j in je becomes pronounced as ch when je suis is “reduced” to chuis. So, when I describe this as becoming “less distinct,” think about this. In French, there are these two words, and the difference between them is the sound of j versus the sound of ch:
- le jar: secret language, argot
- le char: chariot; in Canada, car.
When j becomes ch, as in chuis, the difference between the two sounds goes away, and in that sense, a “reduced” word is less distinct from other words than it might have been.
Reduction processes are rampant in spoken American English, and they can make the language pretty difficult to understand if you’re not a native speaker. I’m trying my hand at putting some videos together that aim to help people learn to understand these reductions. You can find the first one, on the topic of the reduction of let me to lemme, at the link below. If you’re as mystified by spoken American English as I am by spoken French, check it out–I’d love to have feedback on what does and doesn’t work, whether that be here on this blog, or in the Comments section on YouTube. Unfortunately, I haven’t figured out the whole subtitle thing, and I’d like to know to what extent that does or doesn’t interfere with the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the video. Any input at all would be appreciated, though!