Listening practice: the everyday words of English – an introduction

The paradox of familiarity

The everyday words of English – an introduction

In our continuing look into why listening to natural, unrehearsed English is so difficult we must turn to some of the most frequent words spoken in conversation.

These are called the function words (prepositions, articles, pronouns, auxiliary verbs, etc.).

of, the, he, can – for example

“But I am very familiar with the pronunciation of these words”, I hear you say.

There may be some truth in this. However, did you know that many of these words get reduced in conversation? They may get abbreviated, de-stressed and frequently omitted altogether. The result is some kind of ‘weak’ form that rarely gets taught in Japanese classrooms. Most students just learn the ‘strong’ forms and as a result need to learn a whole new set of pronunciations to understand authentic English. Suddenly the familiar is not so familiar.

These words are the glue that bind the important information-carrying words together (such as nouns, main verbs and adjectives).

So why worry about them if they do not carry the primary meaning?

It is true that listening comprehension should not be an attempt to understand everything. Even native speakers don’t always catch every single word. Yet being familiar with the weak pronunciations of these function words may in fact help students to focus their full attention on the important words of the sentence. When a learner of English is struggling to decode these function words, they become a distraction and divert attention away from the important words.

Let’s look and listen to some examples – with a southern British accent

Auxiliary verb: CAN

The strong form: pronunciation: /kæn/

Main uses of the strong form:

  • To point out an error or contradiction

Person A: “You’re not a good swimmer, are you?”

Person B: “Excuse me, I can swim!”

  • If the word is at the end of the sentence.

“Yes I can.”

  • For added emphasis

“I can speak Japanese, but only a little.”

These 3 uses of the strong form are used relatively infrequently compared to all the other uses. This often surprises students. When no emphasis or contrast is required, the weak form is usually adopted in colloquial English.

The weak form: pronunciation: /kən/

Here, the vowel has changed to the schwa – the most frequently occurring sound in English. If you are unfamiliar with this sound, you should practise it many times and notice how frequent it actually occurs.

In isolation, this is the only change – a change of vowel. But in reality, the weak form of ‘can’ is never said on its own. In conjunction with the vowel change, is the de-stressing. The word does not have the same stress value as the other key words (main verb and nouns) that follow it.

Example: “can you PASS the SALT, please?”

Normal speed:

Slowed down, but with the different stress placements preserved:

Notice that this example request contains a second function word next to the modal verb (can):  the pronoun ‘you’.

Nearly every learner of English is familiar with this word and its strong form: /juː/

But how about the weak form? In isolation: /jə/

Once again, the schwa replaces the original vowel.

So, in our example request, we can hear 2 weak forms side by side, before we arrive at the first information-carrying word: the main verb to pass.

They are both de-stressed (using the schwa sound), linked together to sound like /kənjə/, and said with a lower pitch compared to the verb and noun that follow.

In the last blog piece, we introduced some useful websites that provide access to free unscripted authentic English, with an accompanying transcript.

One use, therefore, is to practise detailed listening for these function words with the transcript in front of you. The goal would be familiarisation of the weak pronunciations of these words. Use your teacher to ask questions about sections of audio that are challenging for you and together try and decode the speech stream. Then, at the end, remove the transcript and try to listen out for the function words. Are they a bit clearer now? Does this practice help you to focus on the key information being spoken? Such training will take a long time to see results. Don’t give up too easily. Perseverance, persistence and practice are the only way!