Sounds Good! Learning to Use Connected Speech to Speak More Fluently
BRL board member Aaron and BRL learner Olivier from Burundi
Remember that awkwardness you had when you were first learning to read out loud or when you practice reading a script? You take long breaths just so you can slowly sound out each mouthful. Trying to pronounce each letter of a word one at a time that it gives you mouth cramps and it never sounds right. Why is it the when you learn how to read out loud, the way the words are written barely sound like how they’re pronounced?
This little detail in speaking is one of the greatest sources of frustration because it’s less about accent and pronunciation skills and more about HOW you’re saying it. This detail is called ‘connected speech’ and even though it sounds simple it’s a very complicated process for new learners. You create ‘connected speech’ by removing the awkward pauses between words and making how you speak more ‘natural’ by focusing on the way your words sounds together as you say them.
So how do you sound more natural in a new language?
Connected Speech vs Accent Reduction
Connected speech can make you sound more natural but it won’t make you lose your accent, or at least not completely. It will help with the stalling in your speech and the uneasy-ness when pronouncing hard consonants and mixed sounds like “ch-“ and “dr-“. Connected speech helps develop the native speaking habits like slurring and linking words together and using common phrases in everyday speech.
Five modes of Connected Speech:
We could spend years deconstructing stress patterns and tone flections to explain connected speech but you really wouldn’t understand anything better if we did that. It’s always best just to spell out the most common speech habits in connected speech in order to KNOW what it is. Connected Speech is really five simple habits that you don’t normally notice but happen regularly in every day speech:
The common speech habit when one word blends into another without a space in-between. This isn’t like a conjunction where you turn “is not” into “isn’t”, but blending two separate words in one breath.
Ex: What are you talking about: What’re you talkin’bout?
This happens when the end of one word is a consonant and the beginning letter of the next is a vowel, or vice versa. It’s very easy to link these words together quickly and have them sound natural. Most common English phrases use this linking to create a fast response that takes little to know energy to say in two mouthfuls.
When an additional sound intrudes in between two different words and connects them together. This is a very common habit in modern speech and you’ve probably noticed it multiple times throughout the day:
Ex: Just do it: Just dewit.
The sounds /j/, /w/ and /r/ are the most common sounds and variations that force a sudden vowel to intrude. These invisible letters help blend two words together smoothly and serve to make sentences shorter, even more local. If you live in the south you’ll notice a lot of long vowels are because it’s a local dialectic habit.
When a sound disappears and connects two words together. This happens usually when words end in the /t/ or /d/ sounds which have a shard accent and can make full sentences awkward.
Ex: Don’t do that: Don’do that.
This is a funny little habit where we can accidentally blend two sounds together between two words and make a new sound.
Ex: Did you?: Didja?
You find this happens a lot when a word ends in a hard consonant and the next one begins with a soft consonant. This is very common in the southern states where our accents have a more ‘loose’ sound with vowels and shortening.
This is when two completely different words are combined together to save pronouncing the same sound. We do this when the two words are in relation to each other and it wouldn’t make much of a difference to distinguish them apart.
Ex: Pet Turtle: Peturtle.
In this case, the ending of one word also matched the beginning of the next and sounded natural when they were put together. This can also sound like a casual mistake in everyday language which we all can catch ourselves doing when we’re talking too fast or trying to end a conversation quickly.
Taking all of these little habits into consideration, ‘proper’ speech naturally turns into an informal ‘slang’ when you’re speaking normally. When we relax into our speaking habits, our words and sentences shorten and we start to sound more ‘local’ with word and stress patterns. We want everything to be shorter and sound better. How?
BRL advanced learner, Maira-Kasakhstan and BRL volunteer Jennie Sue
Pronunciation Principles: Make everything short and simple.
‘Proper English’ is a funny statement because we rarely speak English in the same way we read and write in it. We shorten vowels and cut words short because it sounds more natural to say things like “What’cha thinkin’bout” and “What’re ya’ doin’?” Or “how’s it goin’” instead of pronouncing every single letter in it’s ‘proper’ place.
We all do funny things when we speak, in English we like to make everything shorter.
Have your learner focus on the sound of the entire sentence instead of each individual word. Most second language speakers are self conscious of making a mistake and overthink their responses by focusing on each individual word.
Mouthful: Make English Shorter
If you compared English to something like German or French, the first thing you’ll notice is that we don’t like moving our mouths as much. French’s halting accept and German’s buoyant and choppy speech patterns are unnatural to us because they aren’t as distinct or clear. English phrases and accents are meant to be short and fast, something that’s easy recognize quickly and respond to even quicker.
Think about any long conversation you’ve ever had before: You probably didn’t do that much talking. You were summarizing and simplifying long stories into easy to digest soundbites, and you were editing your speech so that you weren’t actually talking for too long. We use connected speech to make our language sound more natural and we do it by following three distinct skills: speed, pronunciation and accent.
Keep the tempo: Speaking Quick and Clear
Reading speed is one skill but speaking speed is hardly ever talked about. We’re told to speak slow and clear in public speaking but it sounds unnatural in everyday speech, where we’re often rushing to the end before we’ve even gotten a sentence started. Normal speaking time is a bit quicker and more concise, like the difference between how an announcer speaks on “60 Minutes” vs how Monica (Courtney Cox) speaks on “Friends”.
In real life we don’t have a 20minute time frame to say everything in but we do speak to rhythm. Connected speech makes you focus on HOW something sounds together in a whole sentence instead of how each word sounds one by one. Think of how you speak like keeping the beat, you want a steady rhythm without long, unnecessary pauses. The means you have to shorten some words or blend them together, just like in sheet music.
BRL learner, Shamim from Afghanistan with BRL volunteer, Diane
1. Slow - Fast - Faster
For helping learners how to pronounce new words we ask them to sound them out slowly first and then work on saying the whole word faster later. This is the same principle except you’re not focusing on a single word, you’re focusing on a whole sentence.
Pick one sentence or response you want your learner to focus on pronouncing like “How’s it going?” Or “What’re you looking for?”. Have them read the words out slowly, then have them try to say it again faster. And say it again faster.
You make this like a game to help review workbook exercises or tongue twisters to improve pronunciation skills. If you really want to push them for connected speech skills, and maybe make your learner hate you, download a metronome app on your phone and practice having them speak along to a beat. They can practice repeating back to you while listening to the beat of the metronome which will train them to speak in a steady rhythm.
2. Sound Building Sentence (cat -> cata -> catastrophe)
Sounding out the letters of a word can help with beginning to pronounce unknown vocabulary, but it also forces them to think of conversations as word-by-word and not sentence-by-sentence. To improve this, you can play sentence building games instead of word building games.
Start off easy with a simple five word sentence and five scraps of paper. Write one word on each piece and have them read out each word, trying to guess what the sentence will be. Your learner will read back from the first word to each new word, practicing building the rhythm and connected speech skills while guessing what the sentence will be.
“What’s the weather”
“What’s the weather like”
“What’s the weather like today?”
The Telephone Game is fun with a group of people learn how weird new words can be. When you’re practicing alone with your learner, try focusing on combining two words together in short bursts through repetition. You start off with a simple word like:
And they repeat:
Start with short conjugations and build up to phrases like:
“I got it.” “I got it.” Then get even more specific:
As you keep playing, make sure your learner is speaking at the same pace as you or at least close to it. If your learner is nervous, that’s alright. The point of this exercise is to focus on listening and quick recall, not perfect pronunciation. The more they practice this with you, the more confident they’ll become as you go.
Sounding natural in a second or third language is incredibly difficult and takes a long time to develop. When you’re working with your learner, help them learn how to be patient with themselves. Learning how to speak naturally and sound native will take a long time because they’ll be forming little habits that makes a big difference over the long run.
If you want to work on developing connected speech traits and teaching skills, reach out to other BRL tutors and assistants for advice and language sharing sessions. Having two tutors and two learners working on this skill set together can be just as helpful and more fun when you aren’t putting all of the pressure on yourself. To make it even more fun, find someone who knows how to play guitar or piano or the drums and work on building that rhythm together with your learner! Half of sounding natural is getting into a rhythm, and learning with music can be just the thing you need to help your learner relax and enjoy working on their language skills together with others.