Getting good at French is one thing, but getting good at sounding French is quite another. I’ve posted before about how listening to French songs regularly can help you absorb accent, stress, and flow in French (in response to this JonRoss Swaby piece in The Guardian).
But I’m only now realising – thanks to a growing number of observations and comments from my students – how much studying French poetry helps too.
Poetry helps us to slow down our reading. With language condensed into a shorter form, every word, every syllable, every phoneme counts. As language practitioners we so often train our students to discover the nuances of language usage via longer journalistic or literary texts, or by very short grammar sentences for which we get them to fill in the gaps, select and conjugate the correct verb tense and so on. But poetry sits in the middle ground, and is becoming – for me – an increasingly invaluable tool for enhancing language and pronunciation proficiency.
With its rich vocabulary, we can peel back layers of meaning. I get my students to use a historical dictionary so that they can unearth the unusual, unexpected meanings of French, as well as get a grasp of the historical linguistics and cultural concepts underpinning the development of French as a language.
A student studying Baudelaire’s prose poem L’Étranger researched the use of the keyword ‘nuage’ which concludes the final statement of the dialogue which makes up the poem. ‘Nuage’ of course refers to the natural phenomenon in the sky, but its multiple metaphorical uses developed over time. The portail lexical of the CNRTL offers, for example, analogical uses of the term in agriculture, atrophysics, physics/chemistry, maths/statistics. But it also shows how, around the 1820s – 1850s in France, writers began to use the term to mean ‘Ce qui assombrit, masque la visibilité des choses’ or ‘Menace pesant sur quelqu’un, annonce d’un danger’. These more sinister meanings could add a more ‘gothic’ tinge to a reading of Baudelaire’s prose poem, or – read in conjunction with the politically-infused questioning earlier on in the poem – it could point towards a predilection for political change, revolutions, upheavals (which characterised much of the nineteenth century in the years leading up to Baudelaire writing his poetry).
But beyond the meanings is the sound world. Poetic French creates crackling, sparkling sounds by bringing choice consonants (t, p) into close contact with tight u and i vowels (‘tu m’es en riant apparue’. Mallarmé ‘Apparition’) and judicious use of polysyllabic words (‘délicatement’. Verlaine). So too does it favour more mellow and rich sounds of the deep ‘ou’ vowels (‘Les roses étaient toutes rouges / Et les lierres étaient tout noirs’. Verlaine ‘Spleen’; ‘Écloses pour nous sous des cieux plus beaux’. Baudelaire ‘La Mort des amants’).
Encouraging students to work closely with these various poetic soundscapes means enabling them to develop a really fine and subtle ability in French pronunciation. It is not just about developing a very French pout (which does, admittedly, help – it’s a technique I use with singers who need to ‘sound French’ with minimal time left to prepare for a concert; it’s not something I recommend as a general rule!). It is all about learning how to move the mouth in a very different way – from the tight forward lips required for the ‘ou’ and ‘u’ sounds (‘nous’, ‘tu’, depending on the lowered or raised tongue position) to the wide and open ‘é’ or ‘a’ sounds (e.g. of ‘éclater’), and everything in between – the really neutral loose mouth shape for an unaccented ‘e’, the dropped lower jaw for many of the ‘o’ sounds, and so on.
So I’m finding myself doing increasing amounts of language coaching with my French degree students, along the lines of the work I do with professional singers. It’s particularly rewarding working with students studying poetry because they are able to focus in on the details, they have a good grasp of versification, accent, and metre, as well as the range of semantic play. But what so often eludes them is the intensity of the soundworld, and that’s where hard work starts to pay off.
And the proof that this approach works?
Well, it is still anecdotal, of course, but what I’ve observed is that it doesn’t just pay off for their French poetry assignments. I watch my students flourish as their confidence and ability in spoken language clicks into place. They suddenly begin to sound so French even after working on just a few lines of poetry, and this work transfers almost instantly into the rest of their spoken French – whether for oral exams, for informal conversations with native speakers in and around the University, or in the wider world beyond the University (many go on to work in France or a French-speaking country after finishing their degree).
So. French poetry may seem like a niche area of study, but it’s shaping up to be a key training ground for linguists aiming to develop that ever-so-elusive fluency skill so that they sound completely French too. And the pay-off? Better (British) linguists means better global citizens.