Project Français log #1: The IPA of French and "Dernière Danse"

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Well, if you read my previous announcement then you know that I decided to say sayounara to Japanese, and that in the following months (and years) I will be learning French as part of my goal to emigrate to Canada. So here's the first log I promised, where I share with you my first little steps of this epic choco-adventure. Let's go!


Listening just for the sake of listening: Verifying how French sounds


I think that I've always liked how French sounds. It's kind of elegant, sophisticated, romantic... you know, all the typical stereotypes of the language. But it's been a year since I listened to anything in French – more precisely, this Friendship is Magic song in French and the opening of Silent Mobiüs in French. So, I decided to search for some content in French on YouTube to see if I still like how the language sounds.

I proceeded to search "french pop" on YouTube, and I found a music video titled Dernière Danse, by Indila, a female singer that I didn't know about. I watched the entire video and I liked the girl's voice. I also started searching for one of my main sources of solitary entertainment, but in French: Let's Plays!

I watched bits here and there of several Let's Plays in French, notably this Zelda: Majora's Mask 3DS Let's Play, and this one for Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (as I was writing this I was listening to this one).

Listening to those Let's Plays was something new for me, because I've never heard someone speak so much French for so much time. Listening to some guy speaking in his native tongue in a casual way while playing a videogame really helps eliminate any mysticism the language may have... and that's how I like it, all real and grounded in reality!

I just needed a couple of hours to realize that yes, I still like how French sounds, and I will have no issues about that.


Learning the IPA for French


If I'm going to learn a new language, and that language is non-phonetic (that means that how the language is written doesn't tell you exactly how it is pronounced), then for me learning the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) corresponding to that language is indispensable. Mastering the IPA of your target language allows you to read (instead of just listening to) the correct pronunciations of the words you consult during your learning sessions, which is much more trustworthy and less ambiguous than relying just on listening to audio recordings.

Nowadays I can't rely just on audio to verify the pronunciation of words in any language - I need some sort of written reference! And given that French is no exception, I started searching on Google for any resource that could show me the IPA symbols for French with some written and audio examples. I found this guide on 4StepsToFluency.com. Once there I started checking out the list with consonant sounds first.

I was pleasantly surprised, because I was already familiar with most consonants! From English I already mastered /ʃ/, /tʃ/, /ʒ/, /dʒ/ and /ŋ/, and from my native Spanish I already mastered the /ɲ/, which is the sound the letter 'ñ' makes in my native language (think of it as the sound in canyon, or just think of Nyan Cat singing "NyanNyanNyanNyanNyan...").

I feel I had no trouble imitating and producing the /ʁ/, the guttural 'r' that is used in French. And I had already seen the /x/ in the pronunciation guide of the Oxford Learners dictionary, but I didn't listened to how it sounds. Listening to the pronunciation of "loch" in Scottish English and the pronunciation of "Hanukkah" clarified this for me.

(By the way, I think it's interesting how Spanish, English and French all have a different kind of 'r'... I wonder if Portuguese and German have different 'r's too! xD)

When I started checking out the semi-vowels and vowels things changed a bit. I found the new symbols /ɥ/, /œ/ y /ø/. I carefully listened to the examples provided on 4StepsToFluency several times, but even then I could not distinguish certain sounds from others. To me the /ɥ/ sounds basically the same as the /w/, and the same happens to me with the /a/ and the /ɑ/, and the /e/ with the /ɛ/. To me, those couples of vowels sound basically the same.

I do distinguish the "schwa" symbol, the /ə/, from other vowels, but to me the /œ/ and the /ø/ sound just like the schwa. I was able to distinguish the /ɔ/ and the /y/ (hey, I thought that /j/ and /y/ were the same thing... oops).

Then comes a set of pretty interesting symbols: The nasal vowels /ɑ̃/, /ɛ̃/, /œ̃/ y /ɔ̃/. At first I didn't understand what this was about, but after carefully listening to the examples I started to figure it out.

I noted that (at least from the given examples) that those nasal vowels are used when the written word has a vowel followed by an 'n' or 'm', and I felt that said vowels generate a sound more or less similar to what happens when you pronounce the /ŋ/ in words that end with '-ing' in English. I feel that I can pronounce well the /ɔ̃/ and the /ɑ̃/, although I don't feel quite sure with the /ɛ̃/. To me, the /œ̃/ sounds like a nasal schwa.

I saved that page from 4StepsToFluency in my favorites for future reference, and to review the IPA in the future. A long time ago I would've built an Anki deck to review this... but bah, not any more. I think that with said page and the IPA transcriptions that I will be consulting in my dictionaries everyday I will gradually, little by little, master the IPA for French.


The accents and contractions


Ok, once I checked the phonetic alphabet it was time to check what symbols does the French written system use... ¿what? ¿It uses exactly the same alphabet as in English and Spanish, just with some diacritical marks on some vowels? All righty, moving on...

Now, in my life I've seen pieces of French texts here and there, and something I always noted is that several vowels in French sometimes have a "tilde" (acute accent) like the tilde we have in Spanish (é), or they could have an inverted tilde (è), or they can have what's known as a circumflex mark (ê), or they can even have a diaeresis (ë). I tried to check on this site in which cases you use each of these diacritical marks on the letter 'e'... and there is no way in heck that I'm going to memorize all those rules.

For me it's much less complicated to just follow the same principle as in English: To see the writing and pronunciation of each word as separate things, and learn them separately too. I might learn those rules in a couple of years once I master French... or maybe I'll get lazy and won't. I don't even remember the rules for the tilde in Spanish that were drilled into our heads during our Spanish classes in school.

(By the way, something that was interesting to me was reading about the use of the letter 'ç', known as the cedilla. I had already seen that letter before, both on the keyboard of the first computer I had (ahhh, the times of Windows 98...) and in the name of the island and tourist attraction Curaçao. I learned that the cedilla is used to indicate that a 'c' has a soft /s/ sound, and not a hard /k/ sound.

I think it's curious that this letter was not implemented in the Spanish language. If it was, written Spanish would be even more phonetic than it already is: "¡Hay un çerdito en el castillo! ¡Çierren las cochinas puertas y aseguren las çerraduras! ¡No lo dejen escapar!"

Translation: "There's a little pig in the castle! Close all the dirty doors and secure the locks! Don't let it escape!" xD)

Something else that I've noted in French texts are contractions like "l'amour" and "C'est". I wanted to find in Google a complete guide of all possible contractions in French, but I didn't find that. On that moment I decided to search for l', d' and c' in the WordReference Français-Anglais dictionary, and the dictionary does contain the corresponding meanings of these contractions. Yay! Although I tried searching for the contraction s', but I found no information about it... boo...


My first "deciphering": Dernière Danse




Once familiarized with the IPA of French I went to YouTube again to search for the song you are seeing on top of this text: Dernière Danse, which translates into "Final dance" (which is ironic considering that this is the first song I deciphered lol), and I watched the entire video again. Good video and beautiful music, and of course, I didn't understand a damn.

Then I proceeded to search for the lyrics of the song with a parallel translation in English to help me out (as I explain here). I found the lyrics of the song as well as a translation in English here on LyricsTranslate.

Once with the lyrics and its translation handy, I opened a new window, opened the WordReference Français-Anglais (French-English) dictionary, I put the lyrics on the left and the web dictionary to the right of my computer screen, and I started to decipher.

I put 'ma' (my, feminine) in the dictionary, checked its definitions and pronunciation, did the same with the word 'douce' (sweet), and I kept doing that until I got to the end of the line. Then I tried to interpret what that line of the song wanted to say (Hmm... "¿Oh my sweet suffering?"), and I compared it with the English translation. It was correct, yay!

And so, I kept searching for each word and analyzing each line in the song until I got to the end of the lyrics, and after that I played the video one more time. I must say that yes, deciphering content requires a bit of patience, and I won't remember aaaaaaaaall the meanings and pronunciations I deciphered. That's completely normal.

I couldn't figure out some few words just with the dictionary (you saved me, English translation!) But even then, I feel that I did pretty well on this first exercise, and I liked the process of deciphering bit by bit the lyrics of the song in French. It felt cool :D. I look forward to decipher more songs from Indila and other pop and rock artists in the coming months.


Things to improve


Well, first, reaching the end of the song took me more than two hours... not because the song was too long, but because I got distracted and watched other videos, or went to eat junk food, or started reading something in English in my Kindle app instead of focusing on just deciphering the lyrics and nothing else.

Look, that I'm still falling for the same distractions crap nowadays is inexcusable. Because of that, from now on I will start applying with discipline the pomodoro technique on my learning, and in all others of my daily tasks that require concentration. I will write a more detailed article about that later, but for now you can visit the previous link to Wikipedia to see what the technique is about.

Another thing is that before even starting to search information about the IPA for French I felt a bit of fear. I felt a weird fear about the huge journey in front of me, like a fear to start working on this project, a fear of really truly committing to it. I felt like a little voice telling me "Nooo, you are wasting your time man, don't start 'learning French' or whatever, it won't do you any good, you will not learn it, don't do iiiiiiiiiiiit"

The good thing is that I ignored my lizard brain and started my new language project anyways. I even wrote this log and the previous one to share my tiny initial experiences with the language, and... well... to show you that I'm serious about the Project Français. I might have only one deciphered song under my belt for now... but hey, the journey of a 1000 miles starts with a single step :D


Ok, that's all for now. I will keep dedicating two daily back to back hours (implementing rests using the pomodoro technique) to my French learning, and in a couple of weeks I will publish a new log where I will share my progress, any other important findings and some interesting nuggets here and there. I wish you huge success in your English learning (or any other language you might be learning), and thanks for following me on this French choco-adventure :D


Summary


I'm learning French. To start off I watched some Let's Plays in french to see if I still like how the language sounds. I do.

I then proceeded to learn the IPA of french. I discovered that I was already familiarized with most consonants and vowels. Learning the new consonants wasn't hard. I still have issues distinguishing certain vowels, like /ə/, /œ/ and /ø/ (for me they all sound basically the same). I don't feel very sure pronouncing the nasal vowels /ɛ̃/ and /œ̃/ either.

I tried to learn the rules that govern the diacritical marks (é, è, ê, ë). I realized that it's much better to see and learn the writing and pronunciation of the French words separately, just like in English. I searched the definitions of some contractions (like l', d', c') in the WordReference dictionary, and they were there.

The first song in French that I deciphered (using the lyrics of the song in French with a translation in English) is called Dernière Danse, by Indila. I liked the song and I enjoyed deciphering it.

Something I did wrong was getting distracted while I was deciphering. I will correct this using the pomodoro technique. I also felt fear of starting to learn this new language. I started learning it and writing these logs despite that dumb fear.


Last updated: June 28 de 2015

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