Shortcuts to Natural English Pronunciation

To sound like a native English speaker, we have to pronounce each word clearly, right?

Actually, no! There are many cases where native speakers take shortcuts.

This usually happens with small words like ‘the, and, to, in, for, that.’ To communicate our meaning well, we emphasise nouns, adjectives and verbs, and all the other words are said quicker. This is how you can develop a natural rhythm when speaking English.

Full wordReduced sound
thetha (not ‘thee’)
andn
tota (not ‘too’)
inn
forfa / fuh
thatthuh

‘And’ usually sounds like ‘n’ in fast, informal speech. In fact, it’s sometimes written as ‘n’ in classic pairs, for example: fish ‘n’ chips, Guns N’ Roses, rock ‘n’ roll. In early text speech, where each letter you sent in a text message cost you a few pennies, people used to leave out vowels and shorten words. ‘See you later‘ would become: ‘c u l8r.

We also take shortcuts with common words. I can’t remember the last time I said ‘Goodbye’, because it’s always shortened to ‘Bye’! We tend to shorten common words when they either have near-linking sounds, or multiple syllables. If you listen closely to a native speaker, they likely won’t say the word ‘probably’ with 3 syllables. We often shorten it to ‘problee’. In a grammatical pattern like ‘have been’ (I’ve been, you’ve been, they’ve been), the V and B sounds are both made using the lips. It’s not a linking sound because V and B are different letters, but it is very near. Because of this, ‘have been’ often sounds like ‘habeen’ (I been, you been, they been) in fast, colloquial speech.

The general rule is, if it’s difficult for you to pronounce, it’s probably difficult for native speakers to pronounce too. In a word like ‘clothes’, the TH and S sounds are made using the same part of our mouth. It’s hard to say them together in one word. This is why native speakers often take a shortcut and skip a letter. Here are a few examples:

Full wordUsual pronunciation
clothescloze
monthsmunts
askedast
libraryli-bree
FebruaryFeb-yoo-ree

Another way in which native English speakers take shortcuts is by choosing a simpler word. When learning English we often use the term ‘auxiliary verb’ (og-zi-la-ree) to refer to words like be, do, and have. In the sentence ‘Are you eating?‘, ‘are‘ is the auxiliary verb. But this is a mouthful. We can also call this the ‘helping verb’. It’s quicker and easier, so let’s do it! It’s brilliant to have advanced vocabulary, and the amazing variety of English adjectives enriches the language, but we don’t have to make things hard for ourselves. It’s common to shorten difficult words, like laboratory into ‘lab’ or ‘dissertation’ into ‘diss.’

Because English uses the alphabet system, it’s easy to use acronyms. Why say ‘deoxyribonucleic acid’ when you could say ‘DNA’? I’m a keen knitter, and find that knitting uses a lot of acronyms and abbreviations (by the way, the word ‘abbreviation is so long, we sometimes abbreviate it to ‘abbr.’!) Here are a few stitches: K, P, SSK, K2tog, Sl, YO, psso, Ktbl, Ptbl. Actually, this is not to do with pronunciation, but to save on printing costs. There are many benefits to taking shortcuts!

Tones and Stress

Last week, I came down with a terrible virus and lost my voice, so I had to cancel classes for the first time. While resting, I came across this funny video: If English had CHINESE tones… It starts with a student studying Chinese, frustrated with the difficulty of Chinese tones.

Occasionally people say to me, “You speak Japanese, right? You should learn Chinese, it’ll be easy for you.” Easy!? I completely disagree! Sure, there are similar characters – but it’s the tones that scare me. It’s what makes the language sound so beautiful, but it’s what makes it difficult. For example, the word ‘ma’ can mean either mother, horse, hemp, or scold in Chinese, depending on the intonation you use. I lived with some of my Chinese classmates when I was studying in Japan, and I remember them sitting in the kitchen, trying to teach me. She said “mā, má, mǎ, mà”, but all I heard was “mamamama”. At that time, I couldn’t hear the difference at all. So I have sympathy for my students who can’t distinguish between L and R sounds. We CAN get the hang of these things… but it takes time.

This YouTuber is a Canadian man called Jared, who spent time in Haikou, China as a young child. Ten years after moving back to Canada he reconnected with Chinese culture and taught himself Chinese through TV shows, movies, and music. The example sentence in the video: “There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti” is from a rap song by Eminem called ‘Lose Yourself’. It came out when I was around 9 years old and I thought it was the most annoying song I had ever heard. It turns out, I still hate it!

It’s a joke video, because English isn’t a “tonal language” like Chinese, Thai, or Vietnamese. We do use tones in English, such as raising our pitch at the end of a sentence to denote a question. We also use tone to add emotion, such as a high tone for joy, shock, and fear, and a low tone for anger, seriousness, or boredom. Tone is especially important when using sarcasm. Let’s say you want to go for a picnic and you check the weather forecast. It’s sunny, so you say “That’s great!” But what if the forecast says rain? Well, if you’re English, you’ll probably say “That’s great.” Or even, “Fantastic. Perfect.” But we use a low pitch to show that we mean the opposite of what we said.

Rather than tone, stress is important in English (learning it is certainly stressful, haha). This is sometimes called emphasis. In sentences, we tend to emphasise the nouns and verbs, and all the other little words like ‘a, an, and, the, to, for, in, at, of, with’ become reduced. In 2-syllable words, we tend to emphasise the first syllable. Sometimes, the same word can be a noun or a verb, depending on the stress. For example:

NounVerb
REbelreBEL
PROjectproJECT
CONflictconFLICT
INcreaseinCREASE

This reminded me of another funny video from Dogen, called Japanese is flat.

I taught myself Japanese for many years, so when I went to university and my teachers told me Japanese was flat, I was really shocked!

Spring Flowers

Mother’s Day Tulips

Spring is finally arriving in the UK! In March, it is usually around 5-10 degrees Celsius in the morning (in the south of England). This week was unusual because we had a heatwave. I’ve been taking pictures of some flowers around my area. I’ve put the name of each plant in the caption. You can click on each picture to see a bigger version.

One is called “Pieris Japonica” or “Japanese Andromeda”. I bought it last year when it only had leaves, but this year it grew white flowers!

Daffodils are a big symbol of spring in the UK. They are planted in public flowerbeds along the street, and they are sold cheaply in the shops. It is the national flower of Wales. Some people wear daffodils on St David’s Day on 1st March, and to support the Marie Curie charity.

N.? V.? Understand your teachers’ notes with this abbreviation list (+和訳)

We often use abbreviations and symbols in English, such as in dictionaries. As a teacher, I use abbreviations so that I can send notes to my students quickly. An abbreviation is a shortened form of a word or phrase. Here are some of the common abbreviations and symbols we see a lot when studying English. I’ve put in the Japanese translation too.

English AbbreviationMeaningJapanese
&and
(called an ampersand)
abbr.abbreviation略語
adj.adjective形容詞
adv.adverb副詞
colloq.colloquial俗語
conj.conjunction接続詞
contr.contraction収縮、短縮形
e.g.for example
(from Latin, exempli gratia)
例えば、例
i.e.that is
(from Latin, id est)
即ち
n.noun名詞
NB, n.b.note
(from Latin, nota bene)
メモ:
pl.plural複数形
P.S.final note, postscript追伸
prep.preposition前置詞
ref.reference参考
sing.singular単数形
sl.slang俗語
SPspellingスペル
SPaG, SPAGspelling and grammarスペルと文法
T/FTrue/Falseマル・バツ
v.verb動詞
w.with
, ✔a tick
(denotes a correct answer)
マル、◯
Xa cross
(denotes a wrong answer)
バツ、✖️
★, ☆a star
(shows an excellent answer)
二重丸、◎
Y/NYes/Noはい・いいえ

When writing a letter or postcard, we can use P.S. at the end to put in something we forgot. If we want to add another note after that, we can write P.P.S. (post post script) and then P.P.P.S. But after that, it’ll start to look silly! Nowadays, we use computers, so we can rewrite things easily.

Soon, I’ll write about common abbreviations we use in texting!

Just a Minute (Game)

A stopwatch

Today’s recommendation is the BBC Radio 4 comedy programme, Just a Minute. It’s a game that has been running since December 1967! The presenter, Nicholas Parsons, hosted the programme for 50 years until he sadly passed away last year. The programme is 30 minutes long and has four players, who are usually famous comedians or actors.

Just a Minute is a language game where you must speak for one minute about a topic with no hesitation, repetition, or deviation. It’s very difficult!

  1. No hesitation: the speaker can’t stop, or pause. They can’t say “er…” or “um…”.
  2. No repetition: the speaker can’t repeat a word, or a letter. They can’t even say “BBC”, because it means saying “B” twice! Nor can they mention the film “La La Land”. But of course they can repeat common words like “and, a, the, of, in” etc.
  3. No deviation: the speaker can’t change the topic.

When the speaker makes a mistake, the other players “buzz in” to challenge it. Sometimes the challenges are silly – for example they accuse the speaker of “deviation from common sense” or “deviation from correct pronunciation”. When someone makes a correct challenge, they become the speaker. The person who is speaking as the minute finishes gets a point. In one round, the same topic can be passed back and forth between all the players.

It’s a fun programme with many regular contestants, such as Kenneth Williams, Paul Merton, Gyles Brandreth, Sheila Hancock, Josie Lawrence, Stephen Fry, and Jenny Eclair. Even though they are fantastic speakers and public broadcasters, it’s rare that they can speak for a whole minute without making a mistake!

Playing Just a Minute is a great challenge for students of English. Try and see if you can do it! Pick an easy topic, like “self-introduction” or “my pet”. On the radio programme, the contestants prepare a speech beforehand. It’s a great way to test your English skills. Let’s have a look at some ways to get better at this game:

  1. No hesitation: I used to get very scared during speaking exams! I hesitated too much, and forgot what to say. The way to improve is through practice. We have to build confidence and believe in ourselves. Sit up straight, speak loudly, and speak clearly. In this game, it helps to speak a little slowly.
  2. No repetition: There’s no problem with repeating words in normal English conversation. But this game makes us think of synonyms. Instead of brilliant we can say fantastic, excellent, exciting, fabulous, superb, outstanding, magnificent, marvellous! We can say mother, mum, mummy, mama, parent, guardian, relative. We can say phone, telephone, smartphone, cellphone, communication device. Maybe we don’t say “mama” or “communication device” in daily life, but this game helps us to think of other ways to express things. For example, we can say “an artist” or “a person who paints pictures for a living”.
  3. No deviation: We have to remain focused and stay on the topic. This is good practice for taking English tests. If the question asks for, e.g. 2 reasons, or 2 advantages, we have to give them in our answer. This shows that you understood the question properly. It’s difficult, but sometimes we have to talk, even when we don’t know anything about the subject.

This is a fun, challenging game to test your language skills. You can listen to Just a Minute on the BBC website, and some clips are available on YouTube. My favourite contestant is Paul Merton. He interrupts people for silly reasons and often makes jokes about the presenter, Nicholas.

NGシーン

Oops!

変なんですけど、暗い気持ちになるたびに、ユーチューブでNGシーンを見ます。NGシーンとは、俳優が失敗した場面だということです。例えば、俳優が笑いすぎたのでシーンがカットされました。番組は見たことがなくても、NGシーンが楽しめます。

NGシーンは英語で「bloopers」、「outtakes」や「gag reel」と言います。実は、イギリス人は「NG」を使いません。アルファベットなのに、それを使うとイギリス人は「へぇ?NGって何?」と返事します。

このシーンは「サルも木から落ちる」という概念を表示しています。完全無欠な人はいません。完璧な発音を使いたいのに、自分の舌は協力しない日もあります。大学で日本語を勉強した時、「現れている」や「しなければならない」などが特に言い難かったです。「あわわ…あららわ…違う、あらわり…」と一緒に練習しました。カタカナ語も大変です。同級生は「レストラン」より、英語の「レストラント」を毎回言いました。

失敗するは誰にでもあります。仕方がないんですが、どうしますか?笑う方がいいと思います!笑って頑張ってください。失敗しても大丈夫です。

イギリスもアメリカの映画やテレビ番組からのNGシーンを下に置きます。楽しんでください!

This Morning Bloopers (UK)

この番組は笑っているプレゼンターで有名です。

Harry Potter bloopers (UK)

F.R.I.E.N.D.S. bloopers (US)

Horrible Histories outtakes (UK)

Learning Japanese (and English!) Grammar with Maggie-sensei

When I studied Japanese at university, we learnt grammar from our textbooks and grammar dictionaries in the library. However, there are also great online resources to learn about grammar. One such resource is Maggie-sensei’s website.

Maggie is a French bulldog who teaches Japanese, with help from her human assistant Yukari.

Her grammar lessons are great because she writes examples using real Japanese, the kind you use in daily life. Textbooks tend to be focused on business, studying abroad, or social issues like politics and global warming. At the end of the course we can write a formal essay, but we don’t know how to talk to our friends! That’s why I like Maggie-sensei’s examples.

Also, the lessons are very easy to read. She uses many different colours and symbols. There are so many examples, and detail about WHEN to use each grammar, not only the meaning. I feel like I can completely understand the nuance.

Although this brilliant website is for studying Japanese, each example is given in English, too. I was surprised at how natural the English translations are. Let’s have a look at the latest lesson.

The Japanese grammar 「たびに」always comes in the middle of the sentence, after the plain verb. She has put it in red so we can see it clearly. But Maggie-sensei understands that in English, we can say this grammar in different ways: “Every time” or “Whenever”. We can put it at the beginning or the middle of the sentence.

面接のたびに、緊張する。
Every time I have an interview, I get nervous.
or:
I get nervous every time I have an interview.

In other words, Japanese puts the situation before the result. In English, for this grammar, we can put the result before the situation.

I recommend this website for Japanese people who want to express themselves in English. You can search for the grammar you want to use, and see the many ways it can be translated. There are many categories like Daily Life, Business, and Slang. It’s fantastic, I’m so grateful to Maggie – I don’t think I could have passed my Japanese exams without her!

Bonkers for Conkers

File:Aesculus hippocastanum fruit.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Conkers are large brown seeds that come from chestnut trees. They come in spiky green shells.

I live in the countryside, and there was a big conker tree by the river. I remember crouching on the ground with other children after school, hunting for the biggest, shiniest conkers. I would fill my pockets with them and take them home. Hundreds fall from a single tree, so you can visit every day and find more.

Conkers is also the name of a game: you make a hole in the conker and thread string through it. Each child stands up, holding the string with the conker dangling from it. Then they smash the conkers into each other. If the conker breaks, you lose. Some people make the conkers harder by boiling them in vinegar – but some people think that’s cheating!

A Horse Chestnut tree in Singleton Park © Rod Allday cc-by-sa/2.0 ::  Geograph Britain and Ireland
A Horse Chestnut Tree

I didn’t play conkers, because I was worried about getting hit in the face. Also, I didn’t want to put a hole in my beautiful conker! But, there’s not much you can do with them, so I had to throw them away eventually.

The World Conker Championships

In the above video, you can see the World Conker Championships, held in Northamptonshire, England. It’s bonkers! Everyone is dressed up in costumes, and one man is even wearing a necklace made of conkers. The announcer is reading out the names of the winners. People came from all over the world to compete. At the end, the winner is wearing a conker made of crowns.

In England, children often play games using things from nature. For example, we compete to find the biggest acorns and conkers, we count the spots on ladybirds, and skim stones. We picked dandelion clocks and blew the seeds away. When I was a child, we would pick buttercups, a common yellow flower. You held the flower under their chin, and asked “do you like butter?” If their chin turned yellow, it meant they like butter. Of course, it’s only a trick of the light, and a buttercup has nothing to do with butter!

Buttercup - Simple English Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

We also made daisy chains. You split the stem of a daisy with a fingernail, and thread another flower through it. Girls would pick petals off, saying “he loves me, he loves me not” each time. It’s like a fortune. If the last petal is “he loves me”, then it must be true. I wonder if people play this game in every country?

File:Leucanthemum vulgare 'Filigran' Flower 2200px.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

One more game was playing with sycamore seeds. These fall from the trees and flutter down, spinning. We called them “helicopters” or “helicopter seeds.” Children often picked them up from the ground and tried to make them fly again.

In England, nature is everywhere. Hedges grow wild and weeds pop up in every nook and cranny. Even in the capital city, London, there are huge parks with old, giant trees. I’m grateful to live in a place with a lot of nature, and there is a lot of wildlife too: squirrels, badgers, hedgehogs, and deer. It’s only 10 degrees right now, so I’m looking forward to spring!

The Spelling Poem (+ Video)

The English language has inconsistent spelling rules. Two words can have similar spellings, but different pronunciation. A man called Gerard Nolst Trenité wrote a clever poem called The Chaos that uses words with irregular spellings. The full version is available from The Spelling Society here. At the end, the poet advises the reader to give up learning English spelling! Below is an excerpt. I have included a video of the poem read aloud.

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, laugh, and through.

And cork and work and card and ward
And font and front and word and sword
Well done! And now if you wish, perhaps
To learn of less familiar traps,

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead–
For goodness sakes don’t call it deed.

Watch out for meat and great and threat,
They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.

And here is not a match for there,
And dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose–
Just look them up–and goose and choose,

And do and go, then thwart and cart.
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five.

Tongue Twisters (早口言葉)

Tongue twisters are what we call funny phrases that are hard to say, because the same sound appears a lot. They are popular with kids. They’re also a great language learning tool to practice pronunciation.

My job as a teacher involves a lot of speaking, so every morning I drink a lot of water and warm up my voice. Sometimes I sing along to fast songs, or slow lullabies, and sometimes I do tongue twisters!

My current favourites are the ones compiled by musician David Gordon, which you can read here. Here are some other popular tongue twisters that I liked as a child.

S/SH

She sells seashells by the seashore.

R/L

Red lorry, yellow lorry.
Red lolly, yellow lolly.

CH/K

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
(If a woodchuck could chuck wood, a woodchuck would chuck as much wood as a woodchuck could.)

P

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked.
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?

F/P

I’m not the pheasant plucker,
I’m the pheasant plucker’s son,
And I’m only plucking pheasants till the pheasant pluckers come.

This one is very rude if you reverse the “ph” and “p” sounds! I definitely didn’t practice this when I was young.

Practicing tongue twisters will improve your pronunciation, because your mouth will get used to making different shapes. Just like a dancer memorises a dance through habit and muscle memory, we can learn new languages the same way. But remember, native speakers don’t always say tongue twisters correctly on the first try! It’s a fun challenge for everyone.