Experimenting with Sound/Colour Charts in English and French

The sounds on both the French and the English sound/colour charts respect with only a very few modifications the order in which the corresponding columns are presented on the "Lecture en Couleurs" and "Words in Color" Fidel charts. These sound/colour charts were designed for use with native speakers of French and English, but native speakers only need to be able to recognise the sounds of their language as they are learning to read, whereas non native speakers must learn to make the sounds. Therefore this layout presents several disadvantages for language teachers.


A major disadvantage is that, quite logically, there are as many rectangles as there are columns on the respective Fidels. However the job of the Fidel is not to represent the sounds of the language, but the relationships between these sounds and the alphabet. Consequently, the original sound/colour chart for both languages would be more correctly termed a sound/colour/spelling chart. Such groups of sounds such as [ks] as in 'taxi' or [gz] as in 'exam' are represented on the Fidel to take the letter <x> into account. From the strict point of view of the sounds involved, they should be omitted. The problem is particularly acute in English, where a good third of the rectangles on the sound/colour chart should be omitted.


A second disadvantage in the presentation of the sound/colour charts in their original forms is that the order of placement of the rectangles on the charts was chosen for reasons arising out of the teaching of reading rather than for reasons pertaining to language teaching.


As far as the French sound/colour chart is concerned, a further problem arises because, in spite of the best efforts of the Académie Française, the language has evolved extremely rapidly over the last thirty years, and the number of sounds in the language has risen. The reason for this is the number of English words which have been introduced into French, and while many of these new words are contested, others have put down roots and have been happily adopted by the French. 'Jazz', 'match' and 'camping' are good examples of some of these new words.


Nearly fifteen years ago, a team of teachers in Besançon began reflecting on how best to modify the English sound/colour chart so as to create a true sound/colour chart, in which each of the sounds of English would be represented by one rectangle and no rectangle would represent a sound/colour

combination based on the spelling of the language. Since the team working on the project contained speakers from both the North Americain and British families of accents, and because these teachers were systematically working as teams of two made up of one person from each family of accents, a compromise was finally reached in which one rectangle, the white [a], was added so that both groups could work with the same chart with relative ease. Experiments were launched in the mid eighties. The chart was quickly found to be a significant improvement on the original. However, over the years many adjustments were made until a very serviceable chart was produced about two years ago. Experimentation is continuing however, since improvements are always possible.


Working towards a modified French sound/colour chart

The existence of the modified English chart, and the success it has met with in many classrooms with many groups of students, led to work on a corresponding French chart. This modified French sound/colour was first used at the beginning of the nineties in Japan where it was immediately recognized as an improvement over the original. However its creation involved two steps. Firstly it was necessary to decide which sounds to include, and this is much more difficult in French than in English. And secondly, the rectangles had to be placed on the chart.


Present-day French 

At the end of the twentieth century, it can reasonably be argued that the French language can best be represented by a sound/colour chart containing 18 vowels and 24 consonants. 


This means that one vowel must be added to those on the original French sound/colour chart. This vowel, the sound in the word 'pâte', is present on all the Silent Way charts for French—both the Fidel and the word charts—, but was omitted from all the Lecture en Couleurs charts, and so from the sound/colour chart. It is true that native speakers learning to read can manage without this sound. It is not very common in French, and words containing it can often be shown with the white [a] rectangle. However, the sound has by no means disappeared from modern French and is found in the speech of any speaker of good quality French. It is very difficult to justify its absence from the sound/colour chart when this is used for the teaching of French as a foreign language.

There are 20 consonants on the original chart of which 3 represent graphemes rather than sounds. This leaves us with 17 consonant sounds, to which a further 5 must be added.


The first consonant sound to be added is the second sound of the word 'lui', which is a semi-consonant. This is a very basic French sound, omitted from the word charts for La Lecture en Couleurs because its vowel equivalent could be used in its place and this was found at the time to be sufficiently precise for native speakers of the language. However, its absence causes difficulties for non native speakers since in this case the natural syllabification of French becomes irregular and unnecessary difficulties are thus created for the pronunciation of the language. It becomes more difficult to help students into good quality, smooth pronunciation of the language if this sound is not present.


Another sound omitted from La Lecture en Couleurs was [w]. This is a perfectly French sound but its vowel equivalent was substituted for it. Here again, this might be considered a satisfactory solution for native speakers, but interferes with learning for non native speakers. It is a sound which is inherent in the language, even if some newly added words such as 'kiwi' also use it. 


Other sounds to be included are the first sound in 'jazz', the last in 'match' and the last in 'camping'. These sounds could certainly be omitted much more easily than the sounds discussed in the previous paragraphs, because they simply add to the variety of the language but do not influence it at a deeper level, as do the sounds discussed above. However, there seems to be no good reason for deciding that certain sounds are somehow more 'noble' than others, simply because they have a longer history in the language, so that it was decided to include these vowels in the French sound/colour chart.


Consequently, the modified sound/colour chart for French is made up of 42 rectangles, each representing one sound or diphthong.


The placement of the rectangles on the French sound/colour chart

Once the number of sounds was established, the next problem was to find an intuitive presentation of these sounds so that students would be guided in their exploration of the sounds by the geography of the chart.

The original sound/colour chart was already ordered to a certain extent. Not only were the vowels at the top of the chart and the consonants at the bottom, but the four nasal sounds were situated together, and several other groups of sounds were side by side too. The "é" and "è" sounds, the "o" and "ô" sounds and the "e", "eu" and "oeu" sounds were presented grouped.


However, the presentation on the original chart could not lead students to realise that the French language has created a very interesting system of vowel modulation which, once they have become aware of it, makes learning the vowels much easier. Rather than having 18 separate vowels, French can be shown to have just 6 basic vowels which are then subject to two different influences, each of which can be worked on consciously and mastered.


The six basic vowels are those which appear in the home row, in the words 'si', 'clé', 'paix', 'ta', 'pâte' and 'bord'. These vowels are presented at the top of the chart, from left to right, corresponding to front to back production. 


The second group is derived from them by a process known as labialisation. Starting from the exact position of the home vowel, the lips are strongly pursed and a new vowel results. Thus, using labialization, the vowel in 'si' becomes the vowel in 'du', 'clé' produces the vowel sound in 'bleu', the vowel in 'paix' becomes the one in 'seul', the vowel from 'bord' yields the sound in 'beau'. The sound in 'sou', which is not related to a sound in the home row but is labialized, is added to the end of the row. 


Thus, rather than having to master all these sounds separately, the students can learn how to labialise, and then apply labialisation to the sounds of the home row.


The neutral "e" (schwa) is added under the sound in 'feu', since they differ only in their energy content. 


The other process used by the French language to generate vowels is nasalisation. The vowel in 'clé' yields its nasal equivalent as in 'main', the sound in 'seul' yields its equivalent which is the word 'un', 'beau' gives rise to its nasal sound, to be found in 'bon' and a midway position between the front 'à' and back 'â' gives the fourth nasal sound which is in the word 'pan'. These relationships are materialized on the chart using the geographical positions of the rectangles.

The vowels [oin] and [oi] are in the "ou" column, [oin] being in the nasal row as well.

This presentation of the vowels gives the students an intuition into the types of movements they must look for in order to produce the different vowel sounds of French. Instead of looking for 18 different sounds, some of which are fiendishly similar to each other, they can see how French has structured itself, and do the same with themselves. 


The consonants have also been repositioned. It is obvious that not all consonants require the same amounts of practice. We have never yet met a student who could not say [m], for example. On the other hand, we have met hundreds who could not say the [r] sounds in French. The teacher simply works with the students on a here and now basis depending on their mistakes. There seems to be no good reason why the chart cannot therefore be organised along phonetic principles. In French, this allows many possibilities. One, shown with short words, would be:

The sounds in the [il] of 'ail' and the [w] of 'oui' are placed at the top of the consonants, directly under their vowel equivalents, [i] and [ou]. The consonant [u] in 'lui'  is also placed directly under its vowel equivalent, the sound in 'du'. The consonants are arranged in vertical groups of two, voiced and unvoiced. The plosives [p], [t], [k] and [b], [d] and [g] are grouped together, and the three nasal consonants [m], [n] and [ng] associated with them are placed just under them, while at the same time being arranged side by side horizontally. This means that vertically, all the bilabials, all the labio-dentals, etc are together with each other and horizontally, the voiced and unvoiced are grouped. 


This has proved to be a very powerful organization of the sounds of French. The great majority of students seem to sense the logic of the chart, even if they remain quite incapable of explaining it—as indeed they should. They seem to have the intuitive feeling that somehow it is 'right'. They focus much less on remembering, or trying to remember the chart, and much more on the actual gymnastics of the production of French. This is particularly true for the less able students who might once have spent a lot of time and energy memorizing the chart instead of actually doing the work required.


Needless to say, the teaching built around the revised chart respects the principle of the Subordination of Teaching to Learning.


This text was first published in the acts of the Conference "Caleb Gattegno's Science of Education: Ten Years After" held in New York in November,1998 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Gattegno's death.


"Caleb Gattegno's Silent Way" by Roslyn Young is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License..