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My students often tell me that Americans speak too fast, and that makes us difficult to understand.
But actually, it’s not so much our speed that can make us difficult to understand; it’s how we de-stress our function words and transform sounds with connected speech.
This change in sound is the major difference between written English and spoken English.
We would not say:
- “I went to the store” [ɑIY WɛNT TUW ðʌ STOWR].
But we stress our content words and de-stress our function words to say:
- [ɑiy WɛNT təðə STOWR]
- “to the” –> [təðə]
The music of English comes from stressing and de-stressing syllables and words.
- We stress content words, which carry the meaning of the sentence; and
- We de-stress function words, which provide the sentence’s grammar and structure, but do not carry much meaning.
To de-stress means we say function words weaker and shorter, many times with a schwa, an [ə].
The five types of functions words that we de-stress are:
- articles (a, an, the)
- conjunctions (and, but, so)
- auxiliary verbs (can, am, is)
- pronouns (he, she, one)
- prepositions (to, for)
Commonly de-stressed function words include the following:
- “to” –> [tə]
- “for” –> [fər]
- “at” –> [ət]
- “and” –> [ən]
- “or” –> [ər]
- “you” –> [yə]
- “him” –> [əm] (Also see the lesson on h-deletion).
- “have” –> [əv]
- “can” –> [kɪn]
- “do” –> [də]
Notice how I lengthen my content words–such as nouns and verbs–and say my function words quickly.
Listen and Repeat
- “I’m going to the store. Do you want anything? ” [təðə] [dəyə]
- “Do you want to drive to the game?” [wɑwnə] [təðə]
- “I’ll get a watch for him.” [fərɪm]
- “She has to meet us there.” [hæstə]
- “I can completely understand what you’re saying.” [ɑiykɪn] [yɚr]
- Note that sometimes the [t] + [y] in “what your” causes [t] + [y] –> “ch” [tʃ]
Remember, you do not need to speak exactly like this to be understood. However, de-stressing function words, in addition to stressing content words, is an important part of creating the music of English in your speech.