As a native French speaker studying Tamil,
Tamil pronunciation is the thing that I have found the
most difficult to master in the course of these
studies. Foreign language learners of Indian languages often find it difficult to acquire a native-like pronunication in Indian languages.
2. SPECIAL PROBLEMS WITH TAMIL PRONUNCIATION
Tamil is indeed a language belonging to a linguistic
family different from that of French, or from that of
all the other languages that I have studied or
been exposed to before, like English. But I also feel
that Tamil is a language with a specifically subtle
and non-straightforward pronunciation, with a range
and variety of sounds that I think is not often found
in other languages.
3. SHARED FEATURES FACILITATE BETTER PRONUNCIATION
Among the different sounds of Tamil, some did not
give me any problems, being similar or close to French
sounds - the different vowels sounds, S (of Sooriyan =
sun ), P (of Paiyan = boy), T (of TaaTTaa =
grandfather), dental n, often pronounced as an alveolar nasal ( of neelam = blue), CH (of CHennai),
l (of illai = no), V (of VaNDi = vehicle), or M (of
Maadam = month). All the diphthongs and nasalized
sounds of Tamil did not pose any problem to me either,
as we do have them too in our French language.
4. MOST DIFFICULT SOUNDS
The sounds that I have found the most difficult to
master are R and the other N sound (of paNam = money),
and also, but in a lesser degree, the lateral sound peculiar to Tamil and Malayalam z (of pazam = fruit) and the other L sound (of naaL = day).
5. WHY THESE DIFFICULTIES?
I must say that I am still unable today to distinguish
between the two different R sounds; it is however
mentionned in all the books and textbooks that I have
studied from that the difference between the two R
sounds is virtually non-existent in the form of Tamil
spoken in India, which is the one that I have been
studying (whereas this difference is present in the
form of Tamil spoken in Sri Lanka, and in the Kanyakumari district dialect of Tamil.)
In that specific
case of the R sound, I feel that my difficulties are
inherent to my being a native French speaker; we have
such a specific way of pronuncing R in French and it
has always been very difficult for me to pronounce
another kind of R sound, whether in Tamil or in any
other language; in the same way I have always heard
that foreigners find it very difficult to pronounce
the R sound the way we native French speakers do.
It is also very difficult for me to make a distinction
between the two nasal sounds, n and retroflex N. I find it difficult to even noticing this
difference when hearing someone speaking Tamil. Studying the script of Tamil enables
me to know when one form or the other of the two nasal
sounds should be used, but practically, when speaking,
I am virtually unable to do so.
Distinguishing between the two lateral sounds (L and z), and
pronouncing the z sound, was also difficult for me
initially, but with practice it was possible to
overcome these difficulties.
6. THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SCRIPT AND PRONUNCIATION
As regards the relation between the script and
pronunciation, the fact that different sounds can be
written using the same letter (like T that will be
pronunced differently in Tangei = sister, maaTam =
month, and aTTei = aunt), did not pose any problem to
7. KEEPING THE SPOKEN AND WRITTEN FORMS SEPARATE
I feel that strictly separating my studies of the
spoken and written forms of Tamil may have helped me
in the matter given above. I have not been studying spoken and
written Tamil from the same textbooks.
Incidentally, with time, I have come to know words in both their
spoken and written forms, and hence I have become aware
of the variation of the pronunciation of some letters.
But by carefully distinguishing, both practically and
mentally, between the two forms of the language, this
has not caused me any difficulties.
8. GREATEST CAUSE FOR CONFUSION AND DIFFICULTY: DIALECTAL AND IDIOLECT DIFFERENCES
What seems difficult to me, however, is the way the same
sound may be pronounced differently by different
speakers. For instance, some people seem to pronounce
"Chennai" with a c in the word initial position, and others "Sennai" with a s in the word initial position for the same word. This
is probably in relation to the regional and social
variations of Tamil, but it is confusing for a student
to have to face such variations. Sometimes, a word
that seems to be a new one is actually a word that has
already been studied, but that is being pronounced in
a different way.
9. BEST WAY TO LEARN THE PRONUNCIATION OF INDIAN LANGUAGES
I feel that the best way to learn the right
pronounciation of Tamil is to get exposure to Tamil
sounds as often as possible. If one lives in Tamil
Nadu, that is easy. But for a student studying from
abroad, recorded lessons are a must. Watching Tamil
movies and listening to Tamil songs, quite easily
available, also help; even if one is not able to
understand everything initially, being exposed to the
sounds, to the intonation used by Tamil speakers, is