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1.2. Phonological difficulties for French speakers

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It is not rare to hear French students say that English pronunciation is “too difficult”, “too
irregular”, or “too different”, hence very bad results in phonetics exams – the mean mark of
students doing an English degree is sometimes around 5 out of 20. In this respect,
Abercrombie (1967: 20) evokes the idea that a foreign language possesses “unpronounceable
sounds”, but he specifies that those are just “myths”. Contrary to what L2 learners might
think, there is no such thing as a typically English sound that French speakers are physically
unable to pronounce, even though it is true that each language only uses a portion among all
the existing human sounds. Abercrombie’s argument is that from a biological point of view,
all human beings have and use the same organs for speaking, heedless of their native
languages, countries, religions, etc., and not to mention the universal language capacity of
newborn infants, explained in more detail in Chapter 2.

Greenwood (2002) gives a list of problems that he believes to be the cause for the
difficulties encountered by L2 learners as regards the pronunciation of the target language.
Among them, he evokes personal factors: the lack of self-confidence, or sometimes a real
embarrassment of speaking a foreign language in front of others. The true difficulty in
hearing, and therefore producing L2 sounds and prosodic features also exists. Besides, the
author points to methodology problems (see 1.1. above), added to conventional beliefs
shared by the teacher, e.g. that students will pick up the right pronunciation by themselves
over time, or that pronunciation is simply not so important. Without a change of those
beliefs, learners will necessarily have difficulties and make pronunciation errors. Nakashima
(2006) says that teachers are not really good judges of learners’ performance anyway, since
they are already used to hearing their students’ productions. They do not have enough
detachment to evaluate learners’ pronunciation, and the result is a lack of error treatment
(Corder, 1967). Finally, the seemingly minor question of choosing a model of accent, viz.
mainly British or American English, is, according to Greenwood (2002), on the teachers’
minds, but the lack of answer often generates the renouncement to a serious pronunciation
teaching, and therefore learners’ misproductions. As a matter of fact, apart from their
unavoidable French accent, learners often do not realize that there are several accents of
English, and they mix British and American accents. This is linked to their difficulty in
correctly identifying spoken English, and not only to the teacher’s renouncement to
pronunciation teaching. Greenwood’s (2002) suggested solution to learners’ problems is to
focus on the difficulties that the specific learners, i.e. native speakers of French in the scope of
this work, have with the pronunciation of English from both a segmental and
suprasegmental point of view. That is reminiscent of Celce-Murcia, Brinton and Goodwin’s
(1996: 19) comment: “[…] we need to consider their [EFL and ESL students’] native
language(s) in deciding on pronunciation priorities”. Burgess and Spencer (2000), too,
recommend that the teacher should be able to compare the phonologies of the source
language and the target language so as to anticipate the difficulties that learners might
encounter, although this necessity tends to be forgotten by EFL teachers.

The following analysis of the extent to which segmentals and suprasegmentals are a source
of difficulty for French learners and how they lead to unintelligibility will enable us to
compare the role and importance of each at a theoretical level, before discussing the
experiment in Chapter 3 and the link with pronunciation teaching. Since a complete list of
the phonological difficulties and errors is impossible, what is presented below is only an
overview of the most common and typical ones, with a special focus on production. British
English is the variety that is usually – but not exclusively – used as a model and taught in
French schools and universities, and that is why it was chosen in the descriptions of English
phonological features. Finally, the stress-timing/syllable-timing typology of languages is
mentioned, as it concerns a basic difference in rhythmic structures of the two languages; it
plays a large part in the understanding of the problems and errors of French EFL learners.

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