Backstage Writers – Think Hope Do


Postmodern Challenges – Defining Impact

On Learning French

Shortly before moving to France, I found an interesting book at a garage sale, entitled Le Français Non Sans Peine (French Not Without Pain.) Now there’s an idea: a language method guaranteed to make students suffer.  It ought to have had a great commercial success.  However, as much as I might snicker at the idea of a truly militant language learning method, I do not agree that learning French is painful.    By simply applying a few important pronunciation rules, the average human being, born outside the francophone world, can make himself understood in a language closely approximating French.  Rest assured, in any case.  Contrary to popular belief, our Gallic neighbors have an extraordinary ability to understand the most abominable deformations of their beloved language.

My first advice to enterprising French students is to avoid obsession with la liaison (that pronunciation syndrome that causes all the words to run together.)  Understanding spoken French is somewhat of a challenge:  at first, you have the impression it’s all one word.  Then you realize that not even Welsh words run that long.  Little by little you start to distinguish basis sound patterns that you’ve heard over and over on those A.L.M. listening and comprehension tapes.  You pull a ‘Ah, c’est bon, ça!’ out of all the mess of mushy vowels and soft consonants.  Eventually, you get so that you’re only missing every other word.  You realize at about this same time that you’re no worse off than your francophone pals.  No one gets everything.  The natives are just more clever at extrapolating.  Bursting with confidence, you are tempted to give your own French efforts that let-’em-rip effect.  Don’t do it.  You may think the French are capable of understanding anything, since they manage to understand each other.  Yet, when an anglophone starts throwing French words about, he doesn’t necessarily make mush of his vowels and consonants in the same places as his French cohorts do.  The result is a very specific expression of embarrassment on the face of the French person.  He thinks he ought to understand what you’re saying, but is too proud to admit that he doesn’t.  You can recognize this expression without fail.  A French person found in this predicament tends to tilt his head to one side and wrinkle his brow, as if looking at you from a different angle will force you to talk slower.

When it comes to the pronunciation of specific letters and/ or words, I will qualify my advice with the trite expression ‘easier said than done’.  Knowing how to make a sound doesn’t mean you’re ever going to fool any real French people.  Let’s take the letter ‘u’.  How easy it is to confuse the sounds ‘ou’ and ‘u’ in French.  The former is not too difficult for anglophones, as long as they keep the vowel sound ‘pure’ and aren’t tempted to throw in any twangy diphthongs.  The ‘ou’ vaguely resembles an ‘oo’ sound like in ‘boo-hoo’.  The ‘u’ on the other hand is quite a different story.  It involves a strange puckering of the lips with an awkward tightening of the throat (like when you’ve got a thermometer under your tongue.)  You try to say ‘EEH’ when you mean to say ‘OO’, or you try to say ‘OO’ when you mean to say ‘EEH’.  Either way, if you manage to moo something out, after having carefully followed these guidelines, chances are you’ve got it. (It seems to me that the shoulders and right hip play an important part in the optimal execution of a ‘u’.  However, to avoid giving any misinformation that could be socially penalizing, I advise students to refrain from making any unnecessary body movements while formulating this prissy-pursy sound.)

Now when it comes to the ‘r’, that subtle sound for which the French language is notorious, we discover the source of French pride and superiority.  Such an exquisite, delicate little ‘grrring’ ‘r’ they make…  so soft, so unobtrusive.  They pass right over this letter without choking, without even salivating profusely.  This ever-so-discrete guttural floats off their tongues like something celestial, lingering briefly in the air before vanishing like a cloud wisp.  What advice might I give would-be American ‘r’ makers?  Give up.  Even if you manage to come close to ‘grrring’ as necessary, chances are you’ll be very proud of your accomplishment and that’s all we’ll hear when you talk.  Believe me, a sentence full of ‘r’s, no matter how cleverly conceived or articulated, is not at all euphonic.  Besides, we American ‘r’ strugglers hate to hear other Americans succeed at making this abominable sound.

To make matters worse for French ‘u’ and ‘r’ novices, many exceedingly common words use both letters in succession.  Try saying ‘rue’ (street) à la française. You start off way back in your throat where you’ve never gone before.  You gargle and ‘grrr’ as best as you can.  Then you throw all your efforts forward to purse out that ‘u’ with your lips puckered and your tongue rolled up like a hummingbird’s.  (Beware.  The neophyte has a tendency to cross his eyes.)  Don’t worry.  Whatever the result may be, you can be sure the French will love it.

If you want to mess up someone’s life, steal his post-its

Nothing is set in stone – Changes as they happen on Center Stage

-I’m not sitting here, Fran!

-Oh Tod.

-Don’t start that, Fran.

-He did say, “Center Stage.”

-Why us?

-We’re props, Tod.

-Why’d he choose us, Fran? We’re not the only Americans. We weren’t first in line. Is it my weight? Is it your-

-He looked so pleased to put us here.

-And so we’re just going to sit here ‘cause “Monsieur” looked pleased? Are you nuts, Fran?

-Oh, Tod. You wanted something contemporary… You like being on stage.

-I can’t even talk to you.

-Don’t touch them!

-There’s got to be a back door. Don’t want to step over your “Monsieur”. Why’s he standing guard like that?

-Tod, you never touch the curtains in a theatre.

-Why the hell not? Let me guess, because theatre is like life? Is that it, Fran? You don’t turn your back on anybody, and you don’t touch his curtains? You’re pathetic, Fran!

-Sit down, Tod.

-I don’t like that tone, Fran.

-What tone?

-That sweet little voice of yours! I hate it when you get all nice. I know what you’re thinking.

-If you don’t want to-

-Stop whispering, Fran!

-If you don’t want to be part of the spectacle, sit down and try to act-

-Act how?

-Now is not the time.

-Come on, Fran, how should I act?

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