The top-down approach: American English pronunciation - Quick Reference

People learn pronunciation best in whole fixed phrases, like the lyrics of a song.  Learning the whole phrase rather than the individual words imprints the rhythm, melody, and linking of a phrase.

Judy B. Gilbert
Ations by Shel Silverstein

You can study English reading, writing and grammar for many years, but when you begin to talk with English speakers from other countries, especially fluent speakers talking together informally, you may be surprised to find that spoken English is very different from written English.

Here are some important features of spoken English that make it easier to say and understand:

Word Stress
Thought Groups
Intonation (Pitch Pattern)
Rhythm
Reduction
Connected Speech

Word Stress

Every word has one most important syllable that is "stressed" more than the others.

imPORtant
communiCAtion
YESterday
toMORrow
PHOtograph
phoTOGraphy

Thought Groups

Sentences are divided into groups of words that "go together."  We pause (stop for a short time) between groups.  The pitch stays up between thought groups (to show that more is coming), and usually goes down to show the end of a sentence (except Yes/No questions).

English words are difficult / because the pronunciation / is sometimes different from the spelling.

Intonation (The "music" of English)

A "pitch" change, and a long, clear vowel tell us which is the most important ("focus") word in a Thought Group. These signals happen in the stressed syllable of the focus word.

English words are DIFFICULT / because the PRONUNCIATION / is sometimes different from the SPELLING.

Rhythm

English has an alternating rhythm, and stressed syllables are the "beats."

If we underSTAND each other, that's communiCAtion. What DIFFerence does it make?

Reduction

We make the important syllables and words more important by reducing the others, and making them less important.

In the less important syllables the vowel sound is usually a "schwa" /ǝ/ as in "uh-oh!"  /ǝ-oh/

pizza  /piz-zǝ/   another /ǝn-other/   tomato /tǝ-ma-to/   above /ǝ-bove/

Contractions are another example of reduction. Two syllables are reduced to one syllable: 

I am I'm
I have I've
I would I'd
you are you're
she is she's
we are we're

Connected Speech

In English we do not say each word separately like they are written, we "link" words together so they are smoother and easier to pronounce in a phrase or sentence.

This is Anna. ThisssizzAnna.
The books are on the table. The booksssare on the table.
Have a good time. Havvvuh goodtime.
What's his address? Whatsiz address.
much of a chance muchuva chance
once in a while one-sinnuh while


Mark the  /thought groups/ and then the focus word in each thought group.

Mark the intonation (where the pitch goes up) by putting an arrow pointing up on the stressed syllable in each focus word.

  1. I'll wait in his office until he gets back from lunch.
  2. She rang the bell twice, but no one answered the door.
  3. It is the job of a good speaker to tell his listener what is important.
  4. I can't open the door because I lost my key this morning.

Adapted from:
Chun, Dorothy M. (2002) Discourse Intonation in L2.
Gilbert, Judy B. (2005) Clear Speech.
Goodwin, Janet (2001) "Teaching Pronunciation." Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language, Third Edition. Marianne Celce-Murcia, Ed.