There is a huge difference between what our students see printed on a page and what we actually say in everyday speech.
In a recording of a TESOL Spain Presentation on Youtube (well worth watching), Mark Hancock makes the following joke:
Patient: Doctor, Doctor, I’ve got two theik, a near rake, sore rise, bruise darms a stummer cake and I far tall the time.
Doctor: I see, perhaps you’d like to way tin the corridor?
(Try reading it aloud)
The joke [apologies for the vulgarity ] showcases a good number of examples of features of connected speech. Teacher can tend to shy away from highlighting these in the classroom, but research shows that teaching learners about connected speech can really make a difference in terms of how well they understand native speakers. See for example, Authentic Communication: whyzit important ta teach reduced forms (Brown 2006) . Equally, some ability to use these features in their own speech will also be likely to make students more confident and fluent speakers.
Features of connected speech
As a brief overview, there is a strong tendency in English to simplify and link words together in the stream of speech, in order to help the language flow rhythmically. Some of the most common features:
This is when the sound at the end of one word changes to make it easier to say the next word. For example:
‘ten boys’ sounds like ‘ tem boys’ (the /n/ sound changes to the bilabial /m/ to make it easier to transition to the also bilabial /b/)
Incidentally bilabial just means two lips together, which is a good example of the kind of jargon that puts people off!
This is when the last consonant of the first word is joined to the first vowel of the next word. This is very very common in English, and can be very confusing for students. For example:
‘an apple’ sounds like ‘a napple’ (Teacher, what is a napple?)
Elision means that you lose a sound in the middle of a consonant cluster, sometimes from the middle of a word. E.g. ‘sandwich’ becomes ‘sanwich’.
Or from the end of a word. For example:
‘fish and chips’ ‘fishnchips’
This is when an extra sound ‘intrudes’. There are three sounds that often do this /r/ /j/ and /w/
E.g. ‘go on’ sounds like ‘gowon’
I agree sounds like ‘aiyagree’
Law and order sounds like ‘lawrunorder’
[I probably should have used a phonemic keyboard!]
If you want to discover more about features of connected speech- and I think it’s fascinating stuff, there’s a list of useful books at the end of the post, but now let’s look at some activities to help raise awareness and encourage more natural sounding speech.
Connected speech activities
I remember reading somewhere that there are three ways to deal with pronunciation in the classroom: integrating it into other activities, dealing with it discretely, and completely ignoring it. Let’s assume we aren’t going to do the latter, and look at the other two approaches.
I strongly believe that students should be made aware of the basics of connected speech right from the start. I don’t mean that you should be teaching your beginners exactly what catenation is, but you can certainly show them how words link together and what happens to sounds in the stream of speech. You don’t have to be an expert, and you don’t even need to know very much about the technical aspects; you just need to listen to yourself very carefully and notice what is happening in your mouth as you speak.
Drilling and using the board
At lower levels, we tend to teach quite a lot of functional chunks, such as ‘What’s your name?’ Phonetically that could be transcribed as /wɔ:tsjəneɪm/. However, this is likely to confuse (terrify) the students. Instead, using the board, you can just show the students how the words link by using arrows, and write the schwa /ə/over the top of ‘your’ . Alternatively, you can use your fingers to show how the three words (separate fingers) meld into one long sound (push fingers together). And model and drill the phrase as it is said naturally.
If students struggle with longer phrases, try the technique of back-chaining, starting from the last sound and working up to the whole sound bit by bit. For example with ‘Where do you come from?’ you drill ‘frum’ ‘kumfrum’ ‘dz-kumfrum’ ‘where-dz-kumfrum’ I have no idea why this works- but it does.
Using recording scripts
Where new language has been recorded (or by recording it yourself), ask students to first look at the chunk of language written down and try saying it a few times. Then play the recording several times and ask them to write down what they hear, however they want to spell it. Use the two written forms to elicit the differences (such as the use of the schwa) and then drill the more natural pronunciation. You could of course just say the phrase for them, but it can be hard to keep repeating something exactly the same way.
Make it part of presenting new language
Whenever you are dealing with new language, you need to be thinking about the meaning, the form AND the pronunciation. So if you’re teaching ‘Have you ever + past participle’, make sure you’re teaching it as something like /əvju:w’evə/ not ‘Have… you… ever…’ You don’t need to explain that the first /h/ is elided or that there’s an intrusive /w/- just provide a good model.
Incidentally, I say ‘something like’ because individual ways of connecting and simplifying speech do vary a bit.
Be aware of the difficulties connected speech may cause with listening
If students struggle to understand something in a recording, or that you say, be aware that they may actually know all the words, just not recognise them in the stream of speech. A great example of this is the student who asked me what ‘festival’ meant. I went into an explanation, giving examples of different festivals…but teacher, he said, why do you always say it at the beginning of the lesson? (I was saying First of all…).
If students don’t understand a phrase, see if they do understand it written down and then take the opportunity to highlight the differences between the written and spoken forms.
As well as teaching connected speech as you go along, it is also worth doing some discrete activities for the purpose of awareness-raising.
- A good activity to start learners thinking about connected speech and weak forms is to dictate just part of some phrases. For example: ‘uvbin’. After students have written these down as best they can (this should be a light-hearted activity), you dictate the full phrase, in this case ‘I’ve been to Paris.’.
- After doing a listening activity, try doing a dictation where you handout the recording script, with chunks of 2-3 words missing. These should include some aspects of connected speech. Students have to complete the gaps, which will help to develop their decoding skills.
- Mark Hancock has some great activities in Pronunciation Games and on the HancockMacDonald website. I particularly like The Word Blender, a game for A2/B1 students which starts to help students identify some of the features of connected speech.
This is necessarily a very brief and somewhat simplistic overview. For more information and ideas, you could try:
Sound Foundations- Adrian Underhill- Macmillan
Pronunciation- Dalton and Seidlhofer- OUP
Pronunciation Games- Mark Hancock-CUP
Sharon Noseley-Kallandzhs’ DELTA Phonology_Assignment_and_Lesson_Plan
Sharon Noseley-Kallandzhs’ powerpoint on features of connected speech