Des blancs pains, des bancs peints, des bains pleins.

Tonguetwister Tuesday again!

Des blancs pains, des bancs peints, des bains pleins.

day blah PAA, day bah PAA, day baa PLAA. Click below to hear this pronounced!  

White bread, painted benches, full baths.

These, of course, have nothing at all to do with each other, except pronunciation. That’s the whole point of a tonguetwister, isn’t it?

So this tonguetwister depends on the irregular alternation of three pairs of sounds: /b/ and /p/, /bl/ and /pl/, and /ah/ and /aa/, those last two being nasal sounds.

Your mouth doesn’t have to do a lot of moving here. Here, it’s your brain that has to be agile, not allowing itself to fixate on one pattern, because the next pattern might be different. The tonguetwister lulls us into thinking we have it made, because the first two patterns are the same. It’s only the third one that changes–and it changes in several ways.

You may have noticed that my pronunciation keys do not attempt to reproduce the sound of a nasal vowel. That’s because there is no accurate way to show it, except for the International Phonetic Alphabet (which is like learning yet another language), without somehow using the letter “n”. The trouble with that is that learners tend to see the “n” and say it in the way that their native language calls for. But “n” is a consonant, and nasal vowels are, well, vowels.

So here’s how you do it: Shape your mouth for the oral vowel (the “regular”way to say it). Notice that shaping vowel sounds doesn’t normally call for a whole lot of tongue action. But when you change a vowel from oral to nasal (for example, the difference between a and an or en in French), the back of your tongue kind of bunches up in the back of your mouth. The effect of this is to cut the air flow off from your mouth, and to force the air out of your nose instead. (You do know that air is constantly flowing through your mouth when you speak, right? That’s why you can’t talk while you’re swallowing. Swallowing cuts off the air, too.)

You can tell by listening to the audio files which vowels are nasal and which are oral. But even if you can’t quite figure it out, don’t worry too much about it. If the vowels don’t come out right, you will just sound like a Frenchman with a bad cold. It’s far more important, for good pronunciation, to get the quality of the vowel right–open your mouth the right amount, and shape your lips correctly.

And just for the record, note that the c in blancs and bancs is silent, as of course is the s.

Meanwhile, if you are a native speaker of French, don’t turn up your nose at these tonguetwisters! They are great pronunciation practice for learners, yes, but they are also yet another way to maintain your brain, to think on your feet, to be prepared for the unexpected. Someone should do a scientific study of the effect of tonguetwisters on the brain!

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