3 aspects of English pronunciation that you’ve never considered
Do you regularly have difficulty being understood? Do you regularly struggle to understand other people speaking English? Studying English pronunciation and intonation in greater depth can have profoundly beneficial effects on your English skills. By focusing on and imitating features of native speakers’ pronunciation and intonation, you will sound more natural (if that’s your goal), but importantly, you will indirectly improve your ability to understand native English.
Here are 3 features of English pronunciation for making headway with your spoken English.
Know your tees
No, this is not about teeing off on the golf course, or about English cups of tea – though both are crucial to understanding the traditional British way of life in more depth!
No, this is about the way the letter ‘t’ is pronounced. It is a complicated little consonant, but broadly speaking, it can be pronounced 3 different ways.
Variation 1: ‘t’
Let’s start with the easy one, that everyone knows: the way it is pronounced with a word beginning with ‘t’.
table… time… take… two
The list is endless. It is the soft sound t…t…t… that most languages have.
Variation 2: ‘d’
The next type has a bit more of an American flavour, but is heard in the UK as well (and interchangeable with Variation 1, above). It is the sound that is a bit closer to a ‘d’, found between syllables.
butter… waiter… matter… kettle
Variation 3: ‘ʔ’
This one is usually the most unfamiliar to learners of English, but it is very common across all varieties of spoken English. The technical word for this sound is a glottal stop. Symbol: ʔ
However, other languages actually have their own version of this sound.
In parts of Andalusian Spanish, for example, the word “esta” in “esta tarde” includes an aspiration of the ‘s’ which gets converted to a glottal like sound.
Feel the tightening around your voice box as you produce this restricted sound.
Now for English: it can’t be pronounced with a word beginning with ‘t’, but in any other place (middle or end of a word), it’s possible.
Most beginner-level textbooks will have audios with just Variation 1 and 2, but rarely 3.
“Where have you put my hat?”
You can usually hear the nice crisp ‘t’ ‘t’ sounds twice in this question. But in reality, many speakers will say…
“Where have you puʔ my haʔ ?”
They will have replaced Variation 1 with this new variation.
Without any visual clues, or obvious context (though usually available to the listener, thankfully), the task of understanding this simple question suddenly becomes more difficult.
This is the reality of real spoken English that you have to get used to.
Know your stress
No, this is not about stress levels at work, though that’s important too!
No, this is about stress placement in words and phrases – sometimes also referred to as accent.
Japanese, for example, has differences in pitch, but largely speaking, each syllable of each word has an equal stress. This is completely untrue of English, and any pronunciation errors in this area are likely to be the main source of misunderstandings.
Perhaps to your surprise, the following 2 sentences [A and B], when said at the same speed, have roughly the same length – about 2 seconds.
A: “Young boys like toys.” [4 words; 4 syllables = 2 seconds]
B: “What should you be doing at the moment?” [8 words; 10 syllables = 2 seconds]
You can probably pronounce sentence A without much difficulty and hit the target of 2 seconds. Each word has only one syllable and each word has equal stress.
A: DA DA DA DA [4 syllables]
But sentence A is quite unusual. It’s unusual to have a sentence with each word carrying equal stress.
If your pronunciation of sentence B lasts more than 2 seconds, then you are pronouncing it incorrectly and probably placing stress on words that are not required for stressing. Your English will sound robotic to a native speaker and it may be difficult for the question to be deciphered.
It should feel more like:
B: DA dadadaDAda dada DAda [10 syllables]
Why are some words stressed and others not?
Broadly speaking, all words fall under 2 groups: content words and function words.
Content words carry key information and meaning. They are typically nouns, main verbs, adjectives and adverbs.
Function words are the grammatical glue around the key content words. Function words are typically prepositions, auxiliary verbs, pronouns and determiners. They are still important and do of course carry their own meaning, but if they are omitted, the basic message can still be communicated.
That’s why sentence A has stress on each word. There are no function words.
Sentence B has several function words which are unstressed and get swiftly glided over as the speaker ‘rushes’ to get to the next content word.
The content words “doing” and “moment” both have 2 syllables. So the stress is only placed on the first syllable of these words. The second syllables are unstressed. By doing so, it provides the natural rhythm of English, like a varying drum beat.
‘Young ‘boys ‘like ‘toys
‘What should you be ‘doing at the ‘moment?
Stand out and be prominent
And finally…no, this is not about being more assertive, though, that’s sometimes good too.
If a word is prominent, it means it is pronounced with a higher pitch and spoken with a very slight increase in volume.
Why prominent? This is the key word in your phrase that you want to emphasise to your listener. So you make it stand out.
The final step to your English pronunciation sounding like a true native is therefore to remove the flat tone. You’ve mastered the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables. But you’re hitting these syllables with the same tone. Think of professional singers who warm up their voices with scales going from low notes to high notes. Speaking with pitch variation is just a less exaggerated form of this vocal practice.
A: ‘Young ‘boys ‘like ‘toys
Which word is prominent (in capital letters)? That depends on what you want to emphasise.
A1: ‘YOUNG ‘boys ‘like ‘toys
In A1, you want to emphasize that YOUNG – rather than older – boys like toys. Your voice starts high and then lowers on the second word.
A2: ‘Young ‘BOYS ‘like ‘toys
In A2, you want to emphasize that BOYS – rather than girls – like toys. Your voice starts low, raises up for the second word, then falls back down on the third word.
A3: ‘Young ‘boys ‘like ‘TOYS
In A3, you want to emphasize that TOYS – rather than, say, books – are preferred by boys. Your voice stays low until the final word.
These are linguistic examples, not commentaries on boys’ true preferences!
B: ‘What should you be ‘DOING at the ‘moment?
In sentence B, any of the content words could be prominent, but in most scenarios, it’s likely that “doing” is made prominent.
It should be noted that function words can also be stressed and made prominent, but these cases are rarer and beyond the scope of this explanation.
So there you have it.
How are your t’s now? Are you stressing properly? Are you being prominent?
So much of good natural English pronunciation comes from study and practice of both the individual sounds but also – importantly – of the intonation across an utterance.
We hope you find this article useful.