In this article I would like to focus on an area of difficulty that we learners of foreign languages often encounter: letters and their respective sounds.
As a teacher firstly, I often witness learners remark on the “odd” or at least very impractical spelling conventions of French or English and on the fact that the letter does not produce the sound they had expected.
Why indeed add a final E to a French noun if it can't be heard? Why the S for the plural if it remains silent? Why do infinitives in ER sound like the letter “é”?
English is just as unruly: Why does the letter “i” sometimes sound as in “little” while other times it produces two different sounds such as in “Indians” ? It can even sound like “ay” as in “high” or be completely silent as in “business” !
One path of reflection I would suggest is to examine the very nature of these letters. In which way do they represent a sound? How reliable are they? How much does this convention vary from one language to another?
The key to avoid frustration when dealing with the spelling in a foreign language is that you need to consider letters as visual cues rather than signposts on which we rely on as we make our way through the language.
In the street, a blue arrow towards the right means that we must turn to the right. There are no two interpretations possible. In languages, “A” means...well, it depends!
Let's consider the word “guitar”. If we are familiar with the word, our brain will recognize this assembly of six letters and within a split second know the sound that the collocation of these letters has come to indicate. It could have been “ghetour” but instead it is spelled “guitar.”
In this word alone, there are two silent letters in B.E. (u, r). Any attempt to read these 6 letters like signposts in the street is a sure path to failure. We don't read (g + u + i + t + a + r) by adding up the letters. Instead, we accept that the chosen order of these letters produces ɡɪˈtɑː
This is exactly what anagrams are about: “host” can be turned into “shot”. In the process, the “o, h, s” now all make a different sound. The “sound“ of a letter is thus subordinate to its order as it is placed next to other letters in a word.
In English, G might be pronounced “djee” when reciting the alphabet, it might be a hard G in “guitar”, F in “cough” or completely silent in “caught” .
In French it is pronounced “j'ai” when reciting the alphabet and in two different ways in the word “gorge”. In the word “seconde” it is the C that sounds like a G!
Up North, the Danish word “Jeg” is not pronounced “yegg” but rather “yay”. Where has the G gone? Let's not forget that in other Danish words there is also a hard and soft G.
The Flemish pronunciation of Dutch has a G that involves an air flow. (geel, geen...) while Dutch from the Netherlands pronounces the same words with yet another type of G.
Across the border, German has a hard G that is pronounced differently following its place in the sentence : initial, medial or end (with or without “i” next to it). And even a G pronounced à la francaise in words like: ingenieur, passage...
The difference between the French and English “R” is the embodiment par excellence of this situation. Both languages use the visual symbol R but the result could not be further apart. In French we make a “rolling sound” at the back of the throat without moving the lips or tongue. In English, the lips are involved as is the tongue. Yet if we asked native users of theses languages, they could tell us with no hesitation what an R is!
One conclusion that can be drawn from these few observations is that it may be useful when reading in a new language to keep in mind that letters in themselves mean very little.
When the letters are placed together they remind the brain of a word rather than inform about the pronunciation. As we know, these are visual cues and not signposts.
Also, the learner must also be strong. We must be ready to see our certainties crumble as we learn the language of our neighbour. Never again will the twenty-six letters of our childhood classroom mean what they meant in those days of sweet innocence. Instead of A for “apple” it's now A for “banana”.