English spoken naturally and at full speed bears little resemblance to a written version of the same sentence. This can present quite a problem for ESL students who can’t figure out how a simple question like “What are you looking at?” can become the unintelligible “Whachoo looknat?” But learning a few simple rules about the way that sounds interact in English can help you to parse out what native speakers are saying.
Here, we will cover some of the most common types of influence. For the sake of simplicity, the article will assume a generic North American accent. Please check the linked audio files for recorded examples.
Liaison is one of the most common ways that English pronunciation is affected. Sometimes called assimilation or sandhi, depending on the case, liaison generally refers to two adjoining sounds blending together. It helps to think of letters and sounds as being “sticky.” They attach to the sounds around them and influence them. In English, this often happens between words so that entire phrases or sentences are pronounced as one chunk.
Let’s look at some examples of when and how this occurs.
- When a consonant precedes a vowel: The two sounds link together and are pronounced without a pause in between the words. Unvoiced consonants sometimes become voiced ones (t sounds like d, s sounds like z).
Example: His name is Eric. The m in name and the i in is will join together and be pronounced like “namis.” The s in is and the E in Eric will liaison, making the s sound more like a z. All together it sounds like “His namizEric.”
- When a consonant precedes another consonant make in the same area of the mouth: The two sounds join together and are pronounced without a pause.
Example: get the dog, kick her The t of get and the th of the will join together. This makes the t sound a little softer. K and h are both made on the back roof of the mouth, so they join together to sound like “kicker.”
- When a vowel precedes another vowel: A glide, or a soft y or w sound, is added between the two and it is all pronounced together. Whether a y or w sound is used will depend on the lip position. When the vowels require rounded lips, it will naturally become a w sound. Otherwise, it should be y.
Example: go out, I am The two o’s of go out get separated by a w glide so that it sounds like “gowout.” Likewise, I am becomes “Iyam.”
- When T, D or Z sound precedes a Y: The sounds blend together, sounding like ch, j and zh respectively. Rem
Example: Nice to meet you. Did you know that? How’s your mother? Here meet you becomes “meechoo,” Did you becomes “dijou,” and How’s your becomes “howzher” since the s makes a z sound.
Other Changes in Pronunciation
Pronunciation changes in other ways as well, even within individual words. Let’s look at the ways that words are read differently than they are written.
- Elision: This refers to cases where sounds are dropped. The most recognized cases are contractions like can’t or I’ll. In those cases, the spelling even changes to match the pronunciation. In others, you just have to know which parts are not pronounced. Often elided sounds are weak vowels and difficult consonant clusters, such as the second f in fifth.
Example: family, chocolate, separate In all three cases, the middle vowel sound is dropped.
- Dissimilation: This terms refers to situations where two similar sounds in a word become less similar. In English, this often happens with r’s that appear in the middle of a word. They tend to be dropped entirely or take on a y sound as in February.
Example: caterpillar, governor In both cases, the r sound in the middle of the word is dropped.
- Devoicing: When a voiced consonant appears on the end of a word and is not linked to the word that follows it, the sound is dropped entirely or the consonant changes to its unvoiced counterpart (b to p, v to f, etc.).
Example: Bob, five, need In each case, the last consonant sound is dropped.
- Flapping: In English, this often happens with t’s and refers to quickly tapping the tongue against the spot just behind the front teeth rather than fully articulating a t sound. It happens when a t follows a vowel, an r or an l. The sound produced sounds like a soft d rather than a t sound.
Example: butter, water, later
Honing Your Skills
Once you are aware of the different changes that take place in English pronunciation, you can start to look for them everywhere. A great way to improve your listening skills is by taking dictation. Even if you don’t know what the speaker has said, write it down phonetically. Then by thinking about the rules of pronunciation you have learned, you may be able to backtrack and figure out what the individual words are. If you have some text accompanied by an audio component, try reading the text first and predicting where the sounds will change. Then listen to the audio and see if you were right. Most importantly, remember to try everything out loud too. The best way to improve your speaking and listening skills is through repetition, repetition, repetition.