An advanced student of mine speaks both clearly and usually correctly, but can often sound over formal and at times stilted. He has learnt his English "through the eye" and has trouble interpreting the utterances of native speakers who do not monitor their output. His delivery is an attempt at a precise version of every sound. With native speakers, articulatory precision is a stylistic device, a conscious choice if we want to emphasize a point, be insistent or threatening. In normal social interaction though, this is not usually the case and articulatory imprecision is the more natural and functional option.
- Aspects of connected speech
- Intrusion and linking
- Working on connected speech
- Integrating work on connected speech
Aspects of connected speech
Speech is a continuous stream of sounds, without clear-cut borderlines between them, and the different aspects of connected speech help to explain why written English is so different from spoken English.
So, what is it that native speakers do when stringing words together that causes so many problems for students?
Intrusion and linking
When two vowel sounds meet, we tend to insert an extra sound which resembles either a / j /, / w / or / r / , to mark the transition sound between the two vowels, a device referred to as intrusion. For example:
- Intruding /r/ - The media /r/ are to blame. Law(r)and order.
- Intruding /j/ - I /j/ agree. They /j/are here!
- Intruding /w/ I want to /w/ eat. Please do/w/ it.
Word boundaries involving a consonant and a vowel are also linked, as we tend to drag final consonants to initial vowels or vice versa. For example:
- Get on. (geton)
- Not at all. (notatall)
- It's no joke. (snow joke
As I have mentioned, a native speaker's aim in connecting words is maximum ease and efficiency of tongue movement when getting our message across. In minimizing our efforts, we weaken our articulation. If articulation is weakened too much, the sound may disappear altogether, a process known as elision. It is the vowels from unstressed syllables which are the first to be elided in non-precise pronunciation.
Common sound deletions
- A syllable containing the unstressed "schwa" is often lost. For example,
- / t / and / d /With consonants, it is / t / and / d / which are most commonly elided, especially when they appear in a consonant cluster. For example,
- The same process can occur across word boundaries, for example,
- mus(t) be
- the firs(t) three
- you an(d) me
- we stopp(ed) for lunch
- / h / The / h / sound is also often deleted. For example,
- you shouldn't (h)ave
- tell (h)im.
Working on connected speech
If your learners have not worked on these forms before, you might wish to set some lesson time aside to work specifically on these features of connected speech. One way of introducing them to sound deletions could be to write a few short phrases on the board. For example:
- That's an interesting idea.
- Are you coming out tonight?
- It's the tallest building.
- You must tell him.
Try if possible to use language you have recently been working on in the classroom. Then ask the class to count the number of sounds in each word, and write the numbers which they give you on the board above the words, like this:
Now play a recording of the phrases, or read them yourself, and ask the learners to listen again and write down how many sounds they hear. Prompt them if necessary, asking if, for example, the "t" is really pronounced twice between "must" and "tell", or only once.
- Drill the phrases then ask the students to practise these phrases themselves.You could also read out the phrases, once using the elided forms, then again in a more clipped, emphatic manner.
- Ask the learners which sounds more natural. Highlight that the features of connected speech not only make the phrase more natural sounding but that it is also easier to pronounce the words in this way.
Exercises like this help to show learners the differences between written and spoken English, and they highlight the importance of listening to words rather than relying on their written forms.
Integrating work on connected speech
It is a good idea to try and integrate work on connected speech into everyday lessons. When studying grammar for example, don't focus solely on the form of the words, draw attention to the way they are pronounced in natural conversation.
- Superlatives, for example, provide practice of sound deletions. You could write a few phrases on the board:
- The Nile is the longest river in the world.
- The Vatican is the smallest country in the world.
- Ask the students to listen to the sounds while you repeat the phrases a few times and see if they can spot the disappearance of the "t" on the superlative adjective.
- Drill the phrases, chorally and individually. Students might like to write their own general knowledge quiz, using questions such as, "Which is the tallest building in the world?".
- As they read their questions, make sure they elide the final "t" (unless of course, the next word begins with a vowel).Such exercises provide practice of both grammatical form and pronunciation, and the repetition helps students to begin using these features of connected speech in a natural manner.
Anything which you have recently been working on in class can be used as a basis for pronunciation work. For example, a useful way of practising the intruding sounds / r /, / w / and / j / is when studying phrasal verbs.
- play / j / up, Go / w / away, Go / w / out
- Drill the verbs chorally and individually before providing a more personalized practice activity in which students ask each other questions using the verbs you are focusing on.
Phrasal verbs can also be used to show how we tend to link final consonants and initial vowels across word boundaries.
Get out ( getout ), Put on ( puton ), Come out ( cumout )
Students often find pronunciation work fun and stimulating, as well as valuable. However, they will need time and confidence in order to assimilate the features of connected speech and to make them their own. Research does suggest though, that by simply drawing students' attention to these forms, you are giving them considerable help towards making sense of the language they hear.
- Sound Foundations by Adrian Underhill
- Pronunciation by Dalton and Seidlholfer
- How to Teach Pronunciation by Gerald Kelly
- Teaching English Pronunciation by Joanne Kenworthy
Vanessa Steele, British Council, Barcelona