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Book S7: Fluency and Pronunciation

Fluency and Pronunciation

Fluency and Pronunciation
By Prof. Kev Nair

"Fluency and Pronunciation helps you get a command of such of those elements of pronunciation as have to do with fluency."
The New Indian Express.

Please note: This book is not sold separately. It is available for sale only as part of Fluentzy: The English Fluency Encyclopedia.

Sample pages from this book

How to pronounce English like a native speaker of English

We’ve already dealt with the topic Flow Production Techniques in Lesson 2. There we saw several techniques that would help you speak English by making the end of one word flow into the beginning of the next word. While dealing with that topic, I told you that the sounds made by five of the letters in English (a, e, i, o and u) are called vowels and that the sounds made by the remaining twenty one letters are called consonants. Now, when you speak, words come together, and when words come together, four different types of junctions are formed. In Lesson 2, we saw that these junctions are:

• Consonant-consonant junctions.

• Consonant-vowel junctions.

• Vowel-vowel junctions.

• Vowel-consonant junctions.

And in Lesson 2, you learnt certain important techniques that would help you utter one word after another smoothly — without the junctions between every two of them causing problems and forcing you to falter. Now this is what I am going to do through the present Supplement: I’m going to deal with the Flow Production Techniques at an advanced level.

Connected speech and pronunciation
Let me explain. When you watch an English film, are you able to understand what the people in that film are saying? When you listen to native speakers of English having a conversation, are you able to understand what they are saying? Well, many people aren’t able to. And in this Supplement, I’m going to tell you what one of the chief reasons is.

Well, simply put, this is what happens: When you listen to them, you hear several clusters of sounds that are unintelligible to you. That is, you’re not able to make out what words these sound clusters represent. Although they actually stand for everyday words that you know very well, these sound clusters don’t sound to you to be like anything you know. For example, suppose that you hear a native speaker of English say something like this:


Note: As I’ve already told you in Lesson 3, ‘’ stands for the ‘schwa’. This is a vowel sound — but not a distinct one. It occurs in the unstressed syllables in words. This is the sound of ‘a’ in “above”, “about”, etc., that of ‘e’ in “water”, that of ‘i’ in “possible”, that of ‘o’ in “actor”, and that of ‘u’ in “suppose”. For all practical purposes, these sounds are one and the same.)

What do you think was he saying? Well, if he had written the same thing down (rather than uttered it aloud), this is how it would’ve looked:

He isn’t your sort of man.

Or suppose that you hear him say things like these:

• ’snochos. • ’so’right. • ’sipmatter? • ’kyou. • Praps.

If he had written these things down, they would’ve looked as follows:

• It’s not yours. • It’s all right. • What does it matter? • Thank you. • Perhaps.

A foreign learner finds spoken word groups like these difficult to understand (when a native speaker of English say them aloud). This is mainly because of two reasons:

1). He (the foreign learner) has had his training mainly in written English, and his eyes are used to seeing spaces between every two written words. And he gets confused and somewhat disoriented when he hears a group of words uttered as a single unit — without even the briefest possible pause corresponding to those spaces.

2). He has learnt to pronounce every word individually, and he expects that a particular word would sound the same whether it’s pronounced individually (in isolation) or as part of a word group (in connected speech).

As far as the first point is concerned, understand this: Blank spaces among the words in a written word group have no importance when you utter that word group in connected speech. In connected speech, there are no pauses corresponding to the spaces among written words. No. In connected speech, there are normally no pauses between two neighbouring words in a word group (except when you make use of a pause as a device in overcoming hesitation or as a device that helps you compose and speak at the same time). In general, there are only pauses between word groups, and not between words. And the words in a word group are spoken as a single, tight, well-knit unit, having no gaps among them. You can even say that, in speech, a group of words is treated as equivalent to a single word — and so the spaces you see among the words (when you write that word group down) have no relevance at all when you utter them in connected speech.

Now let’s take up the second point. In a way, this entire lesson is going to be a detailed study of this (second) point.

At the outset, there’s something you should understand firmly: Words in English don’t sound the same when they’re pronounced individually (in isolation) as when they’re pronounced as part of a word group in connected speech. No. A word is pronounced in one way when it’s uttered in isolation — that’s its ideal pronunciation. And it’s often pronounced in a different way when it’s uttered in combination with other words — that’s its pronunciation in practice.

Tongue movement and phonetic simplification
You see, when you utter a consonant or a vowel individually, your tongue gets into the ideal position that’s required to produce that sound. When you utter another consonant or vowel after that, the tongue will have to get back from that ideal position, and then get into the ideal position required to produce the new sound. This is only possible when you utter words individually in isolation, because then you’ll be uttering the sounds slowly, and your tongue will have enough time to move from ideal position to ideal position. But when words are combined (and uttered aloud) in speech, a cluster of consonants or a cluster of vowels come together. And your tongue will have to move from one position to another in quick succession. And in that process, the positions to which the tongue moves will not often be the ideal positions required to produce the various sounds. So the consonant sound and the vowel sound the tongue produces in connected speech will be different from the ideal sounds. (The quality of the sounds the tongue actually produces thus would depend on the nature of the neighbouring sounds.)

In English, stressed syllables are normally uttered slowly and clearly, and unstressed syllables are always uttered quickly and far less clearly. So when you utter stressed syllables in speech, there’ll be time enough for your tongue to get into the ideal positions required to produce the ideal consonant sounds and vowel sounds. But when you utter unstressed syllables, your tongue won’t have enough time to get into the ideal positions required to produce those syllables, because they’re uttered quickly. So when you utter a cluster of unstressed syllables, your tongue gets into such positions as it finds easier to get into from the preceding positions, and not into the ideal positions. As a result, a cluster of unstressed syllables often sounds different in speech from what it might sound if those syllables are pronounced slowly one after another.

As it’s difficult (and sometimes impossible) for the tongue to move from ideal position to ideal position in connected speech, it only moves from possible position to possible position, and each consonant and each vowel in a cluster will have to adjust to the sounds of the neighbouring consonants and vowels. In this process of mutual adjustment, this is what happens: The sounds of various consonant clusters, vowel clusters and consonant-vowel clusters become different from their ideal sounds — because the sounds that the tongue produces are those that it finds easier to produce rather than the ideal sounds. And that’s not all. Many consonants and vowels even get left out, and are not pronounced. In other words, in the process of mutual adjustment among neighbouring consonants and vowels, a lot of phonetic simplification (of consonant and vowel clusters) takes place.
Remember this: The tongue sometimes finds that it’s easier to utter a cluster of consonants or vowels if it modifies the sounds of some of them or leave them out altogether (without pronouncing them), and that’s when all these phonetic changes happen. So if you want to understand a native speaker of English, you must never expect him to pronounce words with the same precision as he would if he were asked to pronounce them individually. Expect that the shapes of most of the words would change in speech. And you should have a clear idea of the sort of changes that can be expected. And this Supplement, would help you here.

Phonetic simplification and fluency
Now as far as fluency development is concerned, how are these phonetic changes important? In Lesson 3, we noted the following points:

• English is a semi-musical language.

• You should speak English by uttering stressed syllables very clearly, and unstressed syllables far less clearly.

• This contrast between stressed syllables and unstressed syllables is the key to the rhythm of English speech.

• You should speak English in stress-units called “feet”.

• Each “foot” is made up of a stressed syllable which may (or may not) be followed by one or more unstressed syllables.

• The number of syllables a foot has varies from foot to foot within an idea unit. But you should only take approximately the same amount of time to utter each foot — no matter how many unstressed syllables a foot has.

• You should utter stressed syllables at fairly equal intervals of time.

Now, for example, in an idea unit that you utter, one foot may only have a single syllable (a stressed syllable), another may have two syllables (a stressed syllable and an unstressed syllable) and another may have four syllables (a stressed syllable and three unstressed syllables). How can you utter each of these feet by giving each the same amount of time? We’ve already seen in Lesson 3 that you can do this by doing two things:

1). You should utter the stressed syllables alone clearly, and you should play down the unstressed syllables by not uttering them clearly.

2). And you should utter the unstressed syllables (that follow a stressed syllable) as fast as is necessary to allow the next stressed syllable to come up at the next rhythmic beat. (See Lesson 3 for details and examples).

Now when you try to utter a foot containing, say, as many as four syllables within the same length of time as a foot containing, say, a single syllable, you can imagine what’s going to happen to the three unstressed syllables in that foot. Obviously, they’ll have to be pronounced so quickly that they run into one another. And then, it’s only natural that these two things happen:

1). Some of the consonants in those unstressed syllables undergo a change in sound (to suit the neighbouring consonants) or get dropped altogether from the utterance.

2). And some of the vowels in them get weakened or dropped from the utterance.

Phonetic changes like these are quite normal in all styles of speech in English — formal, informal (= casual) and neutral styles. You can notice them whenever a native speaker of English speaks. Yes, whenever — because all styles of speech in English are subject to the pressures of rhythm and stress, and it’s these pressures that make it difficult for the tongue to move into ideal positions during a long utterance and thus brings about the phonetic changes. These phonetic changes happen even when non-native speakers speak English, but many non-native speakers (wrongly) think that these changes are abnormal — and they try hard to deliberately avoid these changes. And this is what happens then:

1). The (unnecessary) effort they make to avoid the phonetic changes interrupts the natural flow of speech when they speak.

2). This effort takes away their concentration from what they are saying to how they are saying it, and their attention gets diverted away from the meaning of their message to the details of pronunciation. This stops them from concentrating on composing the content of their message, and they falter.

So if you want to be fluent in spoken English, remember this: You should never make a conscious effort to resist the natural tendency of unstressed syllables to undergo phonetic simplification. Instead, you should give in or yield to this phenomenon.


End of sample content




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