Welcome to today’s Lunchtime Lessons post. This week we are looking at connected speech. Our Lunchtime Lessons are free Online English classes where we look at areas of English which are often difficult for students.
If you didn’t manage to join us for our live session, you can catch up with the highlights of the class below. If you’d like to join our live session for the chance to ask the teacher questions, you can book your place directly on our website. These classes are 100% free and are on Tuesdays at 12pm.
You might not have heard about this before. Connected speech is a feature of phonology. First, I’m going to take you through some of the theory of it. And then I’m going to show you some really practical ways to incorporate connected speech into your speaking.
What is connected speech?
So, what on earth is connected speech? Connected speech happens when we’re speaking quickly and fluently. When we do this, words quite often sound different to how we pronounce them individually or in isolation. We introduce or add a sound, we sometimes assimilate a sound and sometimes we even take away a sound. The reason why we do all of this is that we can speak more efficiently. We can save time when we’re speaking fluently and it’s easier for us to produce language. This is actually something that happens in every language. Think of your language, I’m sure you can think of words that are written differently to how you would say them.
What happens if we don’t use connected speech?
Connected speech is important for a several reasons. First of all, if you’re pronouncing every word in a sentence like you would if you were just pronouncing the words in isolation, it causes quite a lot of problems. So first and foremost, it’s going to affect your fluency. You’re not going to sound fluent. You’re going to sound a bit robotic. It makes your speech sound very stunted. Also, it usually makes you sound overly formal. If we’re speaking fluently and bringing in this connected speech, we sound a lot more natural and relaxed. So that’s another problem if we don’t use it. And finally, you can sound a bit boring if you’re not using connected speech. As we have already mentioned, it affects your fluency and it makes you sound robotic and that’s not very interesting to listen to.
Connected speech is not only important for your speaking, it also has a really big impact on your listening skills. If you are listening for how words are be pronounced in isolation, you’ll really struggle to understand people who are speaking fluent as words hardly ever sound as they would in isolation. This is actually a very common thing. Many of my students tell me that they can’t understand other people as they speak too fast. But that’s only because they’re trying to understand words in isolation instead of the blocks of sounds that a fluent speaker produces.
It’s a bit like with reading. If you read a text and try to understand every single word, you lose sight of what the global meaning of the text is. And it’s the same with listening. If you’re trying to understand every single word you’re never going to understand the general meaning.
How can we produce connected speech?
So, I’m going to show you five examples of the most common aspects of connected speech. This will be a bit of a theory part and might seem a bit complicated. But don’t worry, I’m going to break it down afterwards and show you how you easily can bring it into your speaking.
Assimilation occurs when a phoneme (sound) in one word causes a change in a sound in a neighbouring word. For example, try saying the following pairs of words:
- in Bath
- last year
- Hyde Park
You’ll notice that the last sound of the first word changes in each case. The /n/ sound becomes /m/, /t/ becomes /tʃ/ and /d/ becomes /b/. And the reason I’m making all of those changes is because it’s more convenient for me to change the sound so that the next word I produce is easier. Just try it out yourself. say /n/ and then /t/ and /m/ and then /t/. Which one is easier? The second one, as your mouth is in a more similar position and has to do less work to produce the sounds.
It is worth to watch the video to hear the difference between the slow and the fluent pronunciation. Start the video at 5.50min.
Elision is the loss of a phoneme, most commonly the last phoneme of a word, and most commonly the /t/ and /d/ sounds. Have a look at these examples:
- left back
- stand by
- looked back
- I must go
In each case the last phoneme of the first word is elided (lost). The reason is that the time and effort required to change the mouth position is too much for us! So, we change the /t/ to the /b/ sound (as in left back) or the /t/ to the /g/ sound (as in I must go).
You can hear the examples if you start the video at 8.15min.
“Red dye” and “red eye” is an example of delayed plosion.To articulate “red dye”, we must take a very short pause between the two /d/ sounds. When speaking quickly we don’t do that and it kind of melts together and sounds like “red eye”. It’s an area where misunderstandings can happen quite easily.
A plosive sound is when we produce a consonant sound where we stop and then open and release air again. The /d/ is an example of a plosive, consonant sounds. Other examples are /b/, /d/, /g/, /p/, /t/ and /k/. This pause before the plosive gives us the name of this feature, delayed plosion. Another example: the right tie (delay) – the right eye (no delay)
To hear those examples, start the video at 9.30min.
In catenation, the last consonant of the first word is joined to the vowel sound at the start of the second word. For example:
- pick it up
you hear something like: pi ki tup
- what is it
you hear something like: wo ti zit
To hear those examples start the video at 11.15min.
Intrusion is when an extra sound “intrudes” into the speech. Try saying the following pairs of words:
- media event
Do you hear the /r/ sound intruding after “media”?
- I always
Do you hear the /j/ sound intruding after “I”?
- go away
Do you hear the /w/ sound intruding after “go”?
Start the video at 12min to hear the pronunciation of the examples.
The reason we’re doing this intrusion is because we have two vowel sounds right beside each other. That can be very difficult for English speakers to produce because that’s what we call a vowel cluster. A vowel cluster is when you have a group of vowels together. Other languages like Italian or Spanish have are lots of vowel clusters. Paella is a great example of that. English speaker will struggle with that word. They have to introduce consonant sounds because those vowel clusters are really hard for them to produce.
Ways to introduce connected speech into your speaking
That was all the theory of connected speech. It can be really challenging to produce connected speech, especially if you have been learning English for a very long time and you’ve never even heard about this before. And it is especially challenging if your first language is a phonetically transparent language, like Italian or Spanish.
It’s also hard to break habits. Think about how long you’ve been speaking English for, and how long you’ve known that connected speech exists. Those are difficult things to change.
But if we can introduce some of these features of connected speech into our speaking, it can have such a positive impact on both your listening and speaking skills. My students that apply some of these features have all told me that they really notice an improvement in their understanding of L1 speakers. Also, if you want to do an exam, by bringing in these features into your speaking exam you’re demonstrating what is considered to be advanced phonological features. And that’s going to get you a higher mark for your speaking.
Let’s think about a couple of ways that we can introduce these into our speaking. I have here two very common examples of assimilation. Remember, assimilation is when two sounds come together and change. So, in the first column we have examples where this happens: /t/ + /j/ = /tʃ/ and in the second column this: /d/ + /j/ = / dʒ/.
Look at the example sentences and try to figure out where those assimilations are happening. In the last example sentence, there’s actually an example of both sounds. And remember, if you are doing pronunciation work, you have to say it as words sound differently in your head than spoken out loud.
A side note, the British and American pronunciation for student is different. Start the video at 19.53 min to hear the difference in pronunciation and some other words that are pronounced differently in British and American English.
Let’s have a closer look at those three examples:
- Do you like it?
- Could you help me?
- Would yours work?
Do you notice something? They are all questions. This is a great place where you can begin to use assimilation in your speaking. This only works, of course, if we’re using you or yours, but there’s lots of auxiliary verbs we use in questions that have that /d/ sound at the end. For example, Did you go? Had you been?
So, start using assimilation when you are asking those kinds of questions. That was step one for how to easily bring in connected speech into your spoken English.
Start the video at 21.10 min. Claire is going to say three sentences, which you should write down.
Were you able to write them down? These were the sentences:
- Are you going to go to class next week?
- Can you pass me the salt, please?
- Have you got to go to work tomorrow?
In those sentences she used the words going to, can and got to. Those are three really common words. But when speaking fluently we say them very differently to how we say them in isolation or as they are written down. They appear like this:
- going to /gənə/
- can /kən/
- got to /gɒtə/
If you want to be very Scottish you would pronounce got to like this /gɒ?ə/. Scottish people do something that’s called a glottal stop, they replace the consonant sound with an air sound. The phonetic transcript for that sound is /?/. For example, the Arabic language has lots of glottal stops.
These three words are another great way to bring in connected speech into your speaking. All of those examples are either assimilation, elision or intrusion. Start the video at 12.16min to hear the difference in a slow and fluent pronunciation.
Do you remember the class about the Schwa? We saw some great examples of elision. Do you remember that we looked for the Schwa in different words (marked in green) and notice that we drop a sound (see second slide) when we say those words quickly? And that’s actually what we call an elision within a word. Start the video at 25.40min to hear the words.
One of the most common examples of connected speech are contractions. The reason that we have written contractions is that they’re reflecting what we say when we speak. Here are some example sentences. Can you say them quickly and using contractions?
- I have been to Spain
- I would have gone to work if I had not been busy
- I will ask him
- I am not busy
- You must not do it
- He cannot have heard you.
Start the video at 26.45 min to hear Claire say them. If you like you can repeat after her.
All of those examples with contractions are common structures. It’s not difficult and you are probably already producing them. But in general, students do not use contractions when they’re speaking. Even though using contractions when you’re speaking is one of the best things that you can do to improve your listening. It’s also one of the best things you can do to improve your fluency. So, another brilliant place where you can start to use connected speech.
- BBC Radio 4
- Film and TV – IMPORTANT: without subtitles, you want to improve your listening not your reading!
I recommend choosing content that you’re familiar with. For example, if you know every episode of Friends, you don’t need subtitles to watch it in English because you know the story.
And remember with passive listening, it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand everything. That’s not the goal. The goal is exposure and noticing connected speech. Noticing is the first step to being able to produce it and better understand it. So, start today using connected speech. Practice makes perfect!