How to understand French – even if you don’t know a word of it

Here’s a passage in French, spoken in the thrilling tones of an accomplished classical actor. Listen carefully for the hidden message that should come through to you even if English is your only language.

Play the audio once or twice right through (15sec), noticing carefully what happens in your mind as you listen. As always, it’s a good idea to jot down what you hear, so you have an unbiased record to refer to later on.

Once you’ve listened independently, click this link to open the text. (Try to make sure it opens in a new window; then you can come back here, click to play the audio, and while it plays, go back and read the text in the other window.) Again, observe what happens in your mind as you watch and listen.

Some things to notice

Did you find that it sounded like French until you noticed one or two familiar English words, and then it all sounded like English? Did you find your perception slipping back and forth between listening to French and listening to English? How easy was it for you to control whether your mind focused on the French or the English?

Again, the most important thing to note is that the audio remained the same throughout. The only change was in your mind.

A question

Languages certainly differ in their sounds – they sound different. But does this demo give you a hint that a far bigger difference between languages might lie in the minds of the speakers? In how they think about speech.

One last question

Is this recording really French? Or English? Or something in-between? Or neither? Or what?


Many thanks to my dear friend and former colleague, well-known actor, director and Shakespeare scholar, Professor Adrian Kiernander, for this rendition.