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English language students can improve their pronunciation and listening skills by understanding and practicing the music of English and the way native English speakers transform the language.
Let’s analyze two simple sentences as spoken by a native (U.S.) English speaker.
“You need to push the baby stroller. Don’t pull it.” (2x)
In English, we emphasize or stress the words that carry meaning in a sentence (called content words) such as verbs, nouns and adjectives, etc. Accordingly, we also de-stress the words that provide the structure and grammar of a sentence (called function words). This is because the listener doesn’t need to hear function words clearly in order to understand the sentence.
Therefore, we can start the sentence by transforming the pronoun:
- “you” –> “ya” [yə]
We also stress the verb “need”, because it carries meaning in the sentence.
- “you need” –> [yə NIYD]
- “to” –> [tə]
“Push” is a main verb that carries meaning in the sentence, so we say it nice and clearly.
- “to push” –> [tə Pʊʃ]
Did you hear how that “to” became a very quick [tə]?
- “to push” –> [tə Pʊʃ]
Since we are contrasting opposite verbs — “push” and “pull” — in these two sentences, we want the listener to specifically focus on those two opposite meanings. Therefore, I emphasized those two verbs with my voice.
Here, I did not stop in between words to take a breath. Instead, I connected the words in the sentences.
For example, to say “need to”, I start saying the [d] sound in “need“, but I don’t finish it. I go straight into the [t] sound in “to” or [tə] and say:
- “need to” [niydtuw]
“the baby stroller”
The article “the” is a function word and de-stressed, because it doesn’t carry much meaning in the sentence. The listener doesn’t need to hear it clearly, so I said it as a quick “the”.
Be sure to place the tip of your tongue between your teeth to create the “th” [ð] sound in “the”, or else it will sound like a [d] or a [z].
“Baby stroller” is a compound noun, meaning that it’s two words we put together to create a new word. We say compound nouns with the musical pattern of up-down. –_
The compound noun “baby stroller” carries meaning in the sentence, so we will say it nice and clearly:
- “baby stroller”
To pronounce that vowel sound in “baby”, be sure to pull your lips back, so that you include the [y] sound in [ey]:
- “baby” [BeY biy]
The word “stroller” has the consonant cluster “s – t – r”. When the [t] hits the [r] in English, many times it becomes the “ch” [tʃ] consonant sound. This ensures that you do not roll your tongue and say the [r] sound as you would in Spanish, Arabic, Farsi and so many other languages as [r]. So here, “stroller” can be said with the consonant sound “ch”[tʃ]:
- “stroller” [stʃrow lɚr]
Remember to round your lips to include the [w] sound in the [ow] vowel sound.
- “stroller” [stʃrow lɚr]
Japanese and some other Asian students should be sure to place the tip of their tongues just behind their top teeth to create the [l] consonant sound.
In sentence #2, “don’t” is a verb with a negative. Negatives carry meaning in a sentence, so we stress it.
To pronounce the [ow] vowel sound in “don’t”, round your lips to insert the [w] at the end of [ow].
- “Don’t” [downt]
Because we are contrasting the verbs “push” and “pull”, we add extra emphasis to “pull”. This way, the listener will really hear that we are calling attention to the difference between “push” and “pull”.
When we have a [t] at the end of a sentence in U.S. English, we do not release or finish the [t] sound. Instead, just hold your tongue at the top of our mouth without finishing the sound.
- “it” (U.S. English)
Note that British English speakers are more likely to aspirate that [t] sound and fully say it at the end sentences.
- “it” (U.K. English)
Remember that because native English speakers connect speech in sentences, we need to clearly hear the [l] sound in “pull” at the beginning of “it”.
- “pull it” [pʊ lɪt]
The pattern of the musical notes of your voice — your intonation — will go down at the end of each sentence to indicate to the listener that you have finished your statements. And perhaps they can start speaking in return.
Let’s practice all of these pronunciation rules in these two sentences to improve your pronunciation and your listening skills.
Listen and repeat
“You need to push the baby stroller. Don’t pull it.” (3x)
Remember, don’t focus on trying to sound like a perfect native English speaker. In fact, speaking English with an accent can be attractive and make you unique! Instead, practice pronunciation rules so that you can speak clearly and confidently and so that you can understand native English speakers with ease.
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