Connected speech is challenging for English language learners, both in producing and processing it. At an advanced level, it is often the stumbling block to understanding native speakers, watching videos and movies in English. On being shown the transcript or subtitles, learners are sometimes stunned at how unrecognisable the text can become when spoken.
In a connected speech, the boundaries between the words get blurred and shifted. This happens in all languages due to the natural tendency of speakers to minimise articulatory efforts. For this reason, words and sounds get linked, blended and adapted to each other so as to reduce the movement of the active organs of speech, that is the tongue and the lips.
Learners can be encouraged by the mondegreen concept representing mishearing and misunderstanding of a phrase, which is also common for the native speakers of the language. Introducing features of connected speech in English lessons and showing tendencies and regularities may enable learners to process spoken discourse easier.
Personally, I can’t think of a better way to acquaint learners with the most common phonetic features of spoken discourse than through a TV show/movie conversation. I’ll give an example from “The Big Bang Theory”, my all-time-favourite (in the bunch of articles here you’ll find a number of ways to use these conversations in your lessons) For today’s specific purpose I’ve picked a conversation between Howard Wolowitz, a fictional MIT engineer with experience on a space mission, and an actual Elon Musk, who has become even more iconic since the release of the episode in 2015 (and compared to what he says in this dialogue, they are “already there”). This context makes the fragment pretty relevant and meaningful per se, it may trigger a discussion once the phonetic work is done at the lesson.
This dialogue is beneficial for introducing connected speech features as Elon Musk, playing himself in the episode, speaks the way the actual natives do, his articulation is not affected by speech classes that actors might have taken.
The lesson procedure and the material is for Upper-Intermediate learners, they can be used both in group and one-to-one lessons.
In the lead-in, I would bring up the Perseverance mission news and Elon Musk persona, introduce the context for the fragment (Howard meets Elon Musk in the kitchen of a homeless shelter, where both are volunteering to help out with Thanksgiving dinner) and ask to predict what the main point of this sink conversation might be (key: it’s Wolowitz fishing for a job offer).
After the first viewing and the prediction check, I would ask the learner(s) to share if it’s more difficult to understand Howard or Elon and introduce the notion of connected speech the way I’ve done at the beginning of this article.
The main part of the lesson starts with a gap-filling activity. In the handouts with the material (the script of the dialogue) the phrases with the connected speech features are left out. We’ll be watching the video, stopping to fill in each gap. Upon filling in each phrase, I would briefly introduce each phenomenon, allowing time for replaying and practising each piece. In the script below you can see the features colour-coded as per their type (the outline for each type comes after the script), in bold type are the letters representing the sounds involved.
The first part of the conversation is discussed and practised at the lesson, the second part can go for homework.
The Big Bang Theory – Elon Musk on BBT, homeless shelter kitchen sink conversation with Howard Wolowitz on Thanksgiving (Season 09, Episode 09, fragment)
Elon: Well, you’re here on Thanksgiving, so you’re probably a good person.
Howard: Oh. I made my wife come down, too.
Elon: You think you might ever get back out to space?
Howard: Is that a job offer? ‘Cause I really want to go to Mars. Assuming I can bring my wife. She hardly takes up any room. She’s basically a carry-on.
Elon: Well, we’re not quite there yet, but we’re always looking for engineers. So let me give you my e-mail. We can stay in touch.
Howard: Thank you.
Elon: Oh, look. Someone hardly touched their pumpkin pie. Want to share it with me?
Howard: A partially eaten piece of pumpkin pie from a homeless shelter? With Elon Musk, you bet I do.
There is a great variety of phonetic phenomena in connected speech, the most common of them can be boiled down to the following types.
The most common feature affecting the consonants in connected speech. It occurs when a sound in one word causes a change in a sound in an adjacent word.
kidding me — /ŋ/ turns into /n/, it’s easier to pronounce an alveolar sound before a bilabial /m/, as it’s closer to lips than /ŋ/, which is made at the back part of the mouth.
meet you — /t/ becomes /tʃ/ due to the influence of /j/. It’s worth noting that Musk in his following line pronounces the same phrase without assimilation. It’s a good chance to comment on the arbitrary and individual nature of assimilation. These are neither dogmas nor rules, but a bunch of features that may be there, and knowing that helps to understand connected speech in its variety.
come down — /m/ turns into /n/, it’s easier to say another alveolar sound before the alveolar /d/, than to first press the lips together for /m/ and then put the tongue tip to the alveolars behind the teeth.
You’ll notice that the last sound of the first word changes in each case. The /n/ sound becomes /m/, /t/ becomes /tʃ/ and /d/ becomes /b/.
want you — same as meet you
Elision / loss of plosion
Elision is the loss of a sound, most commonly the last one of a word. It most commonly happens to the plosives consonants (also called “stops”, where the vocal tract stops all airflow for a moment and it’s then released with some plosion), such as /t/, /d/, /p/, /b/,/k/, /g/, specifically when they occur before another stop. What happens is that the effort for pronouncing two plosives in a row would be too great, so the first one (the last sound of the word preceding the word with another plosive) is dropped to minimise the time and effort.
got demoted /gɒdɪˈməʊtɪd/
and help /ənhelp/ — final /d/ is often dropped in the conjunction “and”, especially if the next word begins with any consonant, not necessarily a plosive.
It is technically a variation of the loss of plosion, the only difference being that the adjacent consonants are identical. So what we get is a “prolonged” plosive with one plosion after the second ound. There is also a very short pause before this “prolonged” sound.
got to be /gɒtəbɪ/
great to /greɪtʊ/
spent two /spentu:/
This is what gives the speech most of its fluency. Two processes can be singled out here, catenation and linking sound intrusion.
In catenation the last consonant of the first word is joined to the vowel sound at the beginning of the next word. These cases are represented with the joining parenthesis in the script above. Mind that /j/ is not a vowel, so no catenation appears in “All your [companies]”, for example.
Linking /r/ can be regarded a specific instance of linked pronunciation. In non-rhotic variants of English, like British English, when a word ends in an /r/, it’s not heard unless the following word begins with a vowel sound. In this case, it’s pronounced to help to link the two words together.
you’re Elon /jərˈi:lən/
where I /weəraɪ/
In intrusion, an extra sound appears (“intrudes”) at the junction of two words to sort of “glide” one word into the other.
Intrusive /r/ occurs between a word that ends in a back vowel and a word beginning with a vowel.
Intrusive /w/occurs between a word that ends in a back vowel and a word beginning with a back vowel.
to adopt /tʊwəˈdɒpt/
Intrusive /j/occurs between a word that ends in a front vowel and a word beginning with a vowel. In some sources it’s also called “linking j”, the reasons for the difference in terminology are so subtle that they can well be regarded negligible from where we stand.
I am. /aɪjæm/
the International /ðɪjɪntəˈnæʃn/
gravy on /ˈgreɪvɪjɒn/
Note: The phrases on this list are those that should be left out in the handouts for the gap-filling activity.
As you can see there is a certain leeway in defining some features, which is pretty okay for practical purposes. I have taught practical phonetics at the university for around ten years, and I can assure you that terminological accuracy, important as it is, helps little in mastering the accuracy in articulation. You just need some conventional concepts to label the features so as to quickly refer to them when needed. The main thing is to expose the learners to those features on a regular basis, to train processing and producing connected speech.
For primary delving into the matter, I’d recommend the book by Mark Hancock, as well as his site with loads of useful information on Phonetics, practical teaching tips and materials. Should you have any questions or comments, please, write them in the comments below, I’ll be happy to respond and to get to know your opinion and ideas.