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We spend a lot of time in this blog discussing vocabulary, grammar, and culture – all very important topics for people learning English. But, to be honest, I don’t think we’ve given sufficient attention to the problems associated with actually speaking the language. Of course, it’s difficult to do this properly without audio tools. This is a blog, after all. We cover this better in our English in Context lessons. Still, let’s take a look at some of the most common problems people have when speaking English.
Just last night, on the local news, I saw a picture of a person wanted by police for a home invasion. Beside his picture were the words: “Considered Armed In Dangerous.” Now, aside from the very real problem of a dangerous criminal on the loose, the other thing bothering me was the phrasing of the warning. Clearly, the warning should read “Considered Armed and Dangerous.” A simple mistake, right? Maybe not.
Even native English speakers have problems enunciating properly. Enunciation is the skill of speaking clearly. It is also known as articulation, or making yourself understood. Typically, in normal conversation, English speakers talk very fast. As the saying goes, words run together. In a phrase like “Armed and Dangerous”, the d on the end of and, and at the beginning of dangerous tend to merge. Poorly articulated, the phrase sounds more like “Armed an’ Dangerous.” Or, to someone listening to the phrase, it may sound like, “Armed in Dangerous.” I will bet you a dollar that the person who wrote that cautionary note beside the criminal’s picture thought he heard the phrase, “Armed In Dangerous.”
Another common enunciation failure among native English speakers is the habit of dropping the final g in a word. I am going becomes I am goin’. If you are learning English, and you regularly listen to native speakers, you could certainly be excused for thinking that many words end in a silent g sound. And running words together makes it even worse. Many Americans will speak the phrase, “I am going to” as “I am gonna.”
Failing to enunciate properly is very frustrating for language learners. If you try to learn phonetically, just through the way words sound, English will drive you crazy. It’s bad enough that the a in basic doesn’t sound anything like the a in ball. Try listening to a conversation when people don’t pronounce every syllable!
Learning to enunciate and articulate your words requires practice and discipline. Start by recording yourself in everyday conversation, then listen carefully, and critically, to yourself. Did you run words together? Did you drop letters? Letters like b,d,p, and t, especially in the middle of words, tend to get slurred or dropped. Did you articulate them, or did you swallow them as you spoke? It’s important to be honest with yourself as you hear those recordings.
Tongue twisters are a fun but very practical way to master enunciation. Here are some that I particularly like. They are often used by actors as vocal warm-ups before performances. Record yourself speaking them. Begin slowly with each new tongue twister, then speed up. Keep practicing these on a daily basis. Remember to articulate each word, not just the alliterative, or similar sounding words.
Many mumbling mice make merry music in the moonlight.
A big black bug bit a big black bear and made the big black bear bleed blood.
You know New York, you need New York, you know you need unique New York.
Old bones groan when wind moans.
Of all the smells I have ever smelt, I never smelled a smell that smelt like that smell smellled.
Finally, it helps to listen to someone who really speaks well. Great actors, with great voices and diction, are both a joy to listen to and also help to reinforce the need for clear enunciation. Take a few minutes now to listen to one of America’s finest voices speak eloquently about baseball from the movie Field of Dreams. Enjoy.
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