In our program we face the tough phonetic challenge head-on. During our first six French classes, I spend 80% of the time doing drills in phonetics. The goal is for the sounds to be created and delivered automatically without the student having to thinking about them, in the same way that you hit a backhand in tennis without thinking about it. With French, the key is to work harder on the phonetics during the first phase than is necessary with any other language because the sounds are more complicated than any other western language. Toward the end of the first six lessons the student begins to feel what it is like to deliver the sounds automatically. This intense process has a brighter side as well. For many results-oriented executives, it is fun. It is the kind of physical challenge that they relish. It is very much a form of linguistic aerobics.
So, this is what happens during linguistic aerobics. We do lots of fun, challenging drills until the student reaches the point of being able to produce automatically the specific sounds (phonetics). Until the student clears that hurdle, both speaking and understanding are compromised. During a normal conversation, whether it is in one’s native tongue or in a foreign language that one speaks fluently, as we listen to what the other person is saying we are automatically preparing our response without having to think about the sentence structure and phonetics. And since this is a largely subconscious process, we can listen carefully what the other person is saying without actually focusing upon the nuts and bolts of the response that we are about to make. But when we have to make the response in a new language in which we do not yet dominate the phonetics, that largely subconscious process becomes a very conscious process, and we begin to focus upon the complex sounds that we will to have to produce and connect in the upcoming response. In thinking about all this shaping and connecting, we quickly lose the focus on the incoming message. This is especially true in French because it has a large number of vowel sounds, diphthong clusters, and elisions that are totally different from anything in English. As one focuses on the upcoming phonetic complexity that we are about the put together in our next response, the meaning of the incoming message flies right by and we lose it completely.
But after the appropriate amount of aerobic drilling, the complex phonetic combinations become internalized, and they come together effortlessly, just as they do when you are speaking your native language. In my tennis analogy, when your opponent’s ball is coming at you very quickly on your backhand side, you need to produce the full backhand stroke, from the footwork to get into the precisely right spot, to the racquet preparation, to the contact between the racquet face and the ball, and then to the follow-through, all without thinking about it. If you have to think about it, the ball is passed you and you lose the point. But if you’ve reached the point where the shot preparation is automatic, you step into the ball and you hit a crushing backhand winner down the line.
Because the aerobic drills need to be so precise, rhythmic, and repetitive, you need a coach at your elbow. You cannot do it with software and listening exercises, which is the approach of Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur.
After you get through this first aerobic phase, however, learning French is no more difficult than learning Spanish or Portuguese.