Why are native English speakers so hard to understand?

by Jun 15, 20166 comments

One thing I’ve heard a lot in my teaching career is that English speakers eat their words and they don’t articulate properly. I can’t really disagree with that! In this post I want to introduce you to five “magic tricks” we use to speak more quickly. As you know, “time is money” in many countries of the English-speaking world. Why waste time pronouncing words and expressions carefully, when we can still be understood, even if we remove sounds, modify them or link them together? I’ll show you what I mean by this and hopefully you will start to understand spoken English better, especially the fast, spontaneous conversational variety.

Magic trick number one – a magical sound

There is one sound that we use more than any other in English. To pronounce it, your lips, tongue and jaw all need to be nice and relaxed. It’s fairly easy to pronounce, but it’s actually very difficult to hear. Watch and listen to me pronounce this sound here:

This sound is so common that it even has its own special name, schwa. Its phonetic symbol looks like this /ə/. There are two reasons we hear it so often:

  1. In English, we’ve decided that not all the syllables in a word are important, so we don’t pronounce them the same way. We say that the important syllables are stressed, and the unimportant ones are unstressed. Listen to me pronouncing the words ‘mother’, ‘castle’, ‘careful’ and ‘little’ in the recording below. The first syllable of each word is stressed. Is there anything you noticed about the unstressed syllable in each word? It’s a schwa! Think about it, you have to be relaxed to pronounce a schwa, why would you put it in a “stressed” syllable! Jokes aside, it’s very important to know that not all the syllables in a words are stressed and that often, the unstressed syllable is a schwa sound. Listening tip: two-syllable words like ‘careful’ and ‘mother’ are usually stressed on the first syllable.
2. In English, we’ve also decided that some words are more important than others and this is reflected in how we pronounce them.
I suppose these are the words that we “eat” according to my students. Take a look at the mind map below. Is there anything you notice about these words?
weak forms mindmap
Let me ask the question another way? Could you make a story using only these words? Could you describe yourself, your family, you job etc with these words? What’s missing? What you need to make a story or have a conversation, or say anything interesting are ‘content words’, that means nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. These are the important words in English and so we stress them in sentences. Words in the mindmap above like auxiliaries and articles are ‘grammatical words’ – they help us to structure our sentences, but they don’t contribute to the meaning. That’s why they are generally unstressed, meaning that we replace the vowel sound in these words with a schwa in fast, natural speech. Click here to listen to me pronouncing grammatical words in their unstressed or ‘weak’ form, that is to say, with a schwa vowel sound and in their ‘strong’ or stressed forms that occur at the ends of utterances (spoken sentences) or when we use them for emphasis.

Magic trick number two – disappearing sounds

In addition to putting schwa sounds everywhere, in normal, fast speech, to go a bit more quickly, we simply make certain sounds disappear. That’s right, we don’t actually pronounce them at all. Poof, just like a magic, they disappear! This can be shocking for English learners like you, because you think you have to pronounce everything nice and carefully to be understood. Now, we don’t do this to every sound in the same way; there are some that disappear more often than others. Listen to these examples first in careful speech and then in less careful, faster speech.

Careful speech
Fast speech
What do you notice about the fast versions, apart from that they are faster of course? If you listen carefully, you can hear that I drop the /d/ at the end of ‘and’ in the “and so I said” example. This happens very often to this sound in fast spoken English when the next sound is a consonant. Similarly, in “please don’t leave”, I don’t pronounce the /t/ at the end of ‘don’t because the following sound is also a consonant. These are not the only sounds that disappear, but disappearing /t/ and /d/ sounds are important because they can modify the pronunciation of very common words like conjunctions ‘and’, ‘but’, superlatives ‘best’, tallest’ as well as past simple endings ‘walked’ (remember this sounds like ‘walkt’ not ‘walk-ed’ when pronounced carefully).

Magic trick number three – transforming sounds

Sometimes it’s actually easier to transform a sound than to make it disappear. It all depends on the next sound, and what our tongue and lips need to do to get there. If the movement is too complex, then we just make it easier and modify the sound. Listen to these examples.

What is the difference between the careful example and the fast example? in the fast one, it sounds like I’m saying ‘righ chew are’. This is because it’s difficult to go from the /t/ sound, to the /j/ sound (/j/ is the phonetic symbol for the initial sound of words like ‘you’ or ‘useful’). What’s quicker and easier is to pronounce is an intermediate sound like /ʧ/ (this is the phonetic symbol for the initial sound of words like ‘church’). This is quite common in English. Some other examples are ‘don’t you’ which sounds like ‘don chew’ or ‘would you’ which sounds like ‘wou chew’.

Magic trick number four – linking or inserting sounds

Sounds in fast speech can help each other out. As you now know, we don’t always pronounce words in a nice, clear way. In fact, often, it’s actually more difficult to pronounce each word clearly, distinctly and individually. What we do instead is, we make links between different words to help us pronounce them. Listen to me pronouncing “for a while”, “was it” and “what a day” in careful speech. After, listen to me say them quickly.

What do you notice? You should hear me link the consonant sounds at the end of “for”, “was” and “what” with the following vowel sound.

Sometimes, we even add a sound to make our lives easier. Listen to these examples in careful speech. Now listen to me pronouncing them more carefully. It’s difficult to hear, but in each case, I add a sound to help me move between the sounds in the different words.

In the first example, I add a /j/ sound between the vowel /aɪ/ in ‘I’ and the vowel (it’s a schwa in fact) at the start of ‘agree’. In the ‘law and order’ example, I add a /r/ sound between the /ɔ:/ sound at the end of ‘law’ and the schwa at the start of ‘and’. Finally, between the vowel /əʊ/ in ‘go‘ and the /aʊ/ sound in ‘out’ I add a /w/ sound as in ‘water’. Try pronouncing these examples yourself. Feel what your lips, tongue and jaw have to do to move between these sounds and you’ll understand why we need these magic linking sounds if we want to speak quickly!

Magic trick number five – squeezing sounds and words

One advantage of spoken language compared to written language, especially casual, everyday conversation, is that we use a lot of the same informal words and expressions. I have no problem understanding spoken French, but when I read in French, I often see words and expressions that I don’t recognise. That’s because in regular, conversational speech, we’re interested in building relationships and exchanging information with others, not using words for literary effects. Conversations follow a fairly predictable routine, and we generally use the same types of language such as:

  • greetings and salutations : hi, how are you doing?
  • filler words and expressions: “you know”, “do you know what I mean”?
  • grammatical “chunks”: “you must have seen him”

Because we frequently use the same expressions, we also expect to hear them. That means that we don’t have to make as much effort to articulate them properly In fact, we can squeeze all the words together, so they almost sound like a single word. Listen to me pronouncing some examples.

It’s magic

So now you know – we’re not eating sounds, words and expressions, we’re just using some magic tricks to help us speak more quickly and easily. As an English learner, you don’t have to use the same magic tricks if you don’t want to. In fact, it’s much more important for you to be aware of them so that you can listen and understand spoken English more easily.

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