Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Speaking of elision

By Karen Stanley - Charlotte, North Carolina, USA

I work with students teaching them elision on a regular basis right from the very beginning. Most listening-speaking books and pronunciation books include lessons on at least recognizing elided sounds starting with the lowest levels. It is possible to introduce it in an organized way, focusing on different parts of the whole system of elision. With the exercises I do, I often end up commenting on a mix of different aspects of pronunciation even though the specific lesson itself may have focused on just one or two.

One important aspect is that stress and intonation on both a sentence and word level are very important in English to being comprehensible, and if students elide their words just as ALL native speakers do ALL the time, we understand them better. Elided speech is not "slang" - it is a *regular* feature of all spoken English, although I've had native speakers tell me "I don't do that" just before doing it in their own speech.

I have found that students who have difficulty with final consonants, often because of coming from a language with a CV (consonant-vowel) syllable structure, become much more comprehensible when they use elided speech because much of English, when it is spoken, actually moves into a CV structure. That is, final consonants are often pronounced with the beginnings of the next word.

Something very important for Chinese speakers, though, is to recognize a couple of things about the length of vowel sounds; this is related to some degree to elision:

(1) vowel sounds in stressed syllables get more time than those in unstressed syllables - Chinese speakers generally want to give all vowel sounds the same amount of time, rendering their speech *much* less comprehensible, and

(2) a voiced consonant lengthens the time given to the vowel before it. Often, in fact, we don't pronounce the final consonant (it's an "unreleased" consonant, similar to a glottal stop, especially before a word that starts with a consonant), and our knowledge of whether someone said "had" or "hat" comes not from /t/ or /d/ but from how much time the 'a' gets.

One book (now out in a new edition, which I haven't seen) which presents the sounds from at least a recognition aspect is "Whaddaya say" by Nina Weinstein. However, in the first edition, although she has students learn elided forms for recognition, she tells students (more or less) to use citation (dictionary) pronunciation, which I disagree with. None of us actually pronounce one word separately from the next when we are speaking (try really doing that some time if you disagree). So, I think telling students to use citation form actually *decreases* students' comprehensibility. However, I agree that elision needs to be explained in an organized way, because getting it wrong is just as bad as getting any other aspect of pronunciation wrong.

Blurb from the book:
"Whaddya gonna git? I dunno. Wanna go fer a soda? Is this English? You bet it is--this is what English often sounds like in everyday life--and now students can understand it, too through this user-friendly listening program! The 30 humorously illustrated, workbook-size units tackle the most common reduced forms such as wanna, gonna, and gotta. Each chapter opens with a conversation (dialogue) on a "hip" topic from the Internet to bungee jumping. Students listen to the conversation spoken with careful, slow pronunciation. They contrast this pronunciation with the same segment spoken with relaxed, fast speech that uses target reduced forms. All scripts are in the book for optional "following along." After the conversation, students complete comprehension questions and a translation exercise. They then expand their practice by listening to a continued segment of the conversation, doing a fill-in-the-blanks exercise, and working in small groups to discuss final questions. Ten review tests appear at the back of the book and at the end of the audio program."

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