NEW! Lisa’s weekly tips provide answers to the most common student questions.
THIS WEEK – How can I understand native speakers?
In the past, my students have often said to me, “I can understand you and my classmates, but when I’m outside school and I speak to a native speaker I don’t understand anything. Why is this?”
The answer, in my experience, is simple. It’s not about vocabulary or grammar or even listening. It’s usually because of pronunciation. In particular, a feature of pronunciation called connected speech.
Think about the following sentence:
I’ve got apples and oranges.
You would probably say (and expect to hear):
I . have . got . apples . and . oranges.
A native speaker, however, would say:
There are three features of connected speech happening here: contractions, linking and elision.
Most of you know about (but don’t always use) contractions. A contraction is a shortened version of the written and spoken forms of a word group, created by taking out a letter (sound) in the middle. So, “do not” become “don’t”, “I am” becomes “I’m” and in the above sample sentence “I have” becomes “I’ve” /aiv/. Many students seem shy of using contractions when they speak, but what you must remember is native speakers ALWAYS use contractions in spoken English. Therefore, you need to get used to recognising them.
Linking is a way of joining the pronunciation of two words so that they are easy to say and flow together smoothly. In the above example we can see consonant to vowel linking. This is when the final consonant sound of the first word rolls into the vowel sound beginning of the second word. So in the sample sentence above “apples” sounds like “tapples”, and “oranges” sounds sounds like “doranges” (or more often “noranges”. See #3 Elision below.)
Elision is when you don’t pronounce one or more sounds in a word or phrase, so that it is easier for the speaker to say. You probably all know the examples of “wanna” instead of “want to” and “gonna” instead of “going to”. In the above example sentence, we can see what often happens to “and” between two words of equal value; it becomes very weak and the /d/ sound isn’t pronounced at all. So fish and chips becomes fish ‘n’ chips and black and white becomes black ‘n’ white.
As a student of English you may feel strange using connected speech and it’s not vital that you do because you can still be understood. However, you do need to be able to recognise it when native speakers use it.
So to summarise this week’s Tip – If you find it difficult to understand native speakers ask at GIL for some practice exercise you can do with connected speech and hopefully you’ll see your listening skills improve.