By Colm Boyd

31 Jan 2020 - 15:10

Use pop songs to learn connected speech and sound more fluent in English

What is connected speech?

When people are learning English, they often pronounce words as they appear in print:

  • Where do you live? → /wɛr/ /du/ /ju/ /lɪv/

An English speaker who is very fluent will pronounce the sentence differently. This is mainly because of connected speech:

  • Where do you live? → /wɛrʤə’lɪv/

Both forms are valid. When it comes to pronunciation, the most important thing is to be clear rather than to sound like a native speaker. It is also understandable that many learners want to sound as natural as possible when speaking. Connected speech is an effective way to do this, and pop music is a great resource for practice.

What does connected speech have to do with pop music?

Pop songs are a fun way to improve your connected speech. Because they are repetitive, songs provide a great opportunity to notice links between words. They also give you the chance to practice connected speech as you sing along.

Here are five features of connected speech with pop songs to illustrate each point.

1. Elision – disappearing sounds 

Here are some examples. The strong syllable, or the syllable with emphasis, is the one after the apostrophe.

A. He walked down the street > walked down > 'walkˈdown' > /wɔkˈdaʊn/

B. We should eat less sugar > less sugar > 'leˈsugar' > /lɛˈʃʊgər/

When does it happen?

When the end of one word has a similar consonant sound to the next word, fluent speakers of English usually do not pronounce the first consonant. The two consonants might be the same, as in example A above. Other times, the two consonant sounds are similar, as in example B.

Pop songs where you can hear elision

Beyoncé’s 2008 song Single Ladies is dedicated to the benefits of not having a partner. She sings her advice to 'all the single ladies'.

  • singe' ladies → /sɪŋgəˈleɪdiz/

Katy Perry’s 2017 song Chained To The Rhythm is about being trapped in the routine of modern life, where 'we’re all chained to the rhythm'.

  • 'chainto → /ˈʧeɪntə/

2. Catenation – linking consonant sounds to vowel sounds

Some examples:

A. It’s a big opportunity > big opportunity > 'bigoppor'tunity' > /bɪgɑpərˈtunəti/
B. I woke up at 7.00 > woke up > 'wokˈup' > /woʊˈkʌp/

When does it happen?

When one word ends with a consonant sound and the next word begins with a vowel sound, the two words merge together with the consonant sound flowing directly into the vowel sound. You can notice this with phrasal verbs, as in example B.

Pop songs where you can hear catenation

In the 2017 song Shape Of You, Ed Sheeran sings about being in love with his girlfriend’s shapely figure as he tells her 'I’m in love with the shape of you'.

  • shapof →  /ˈʃeɪpəv/

Little Mix’s 2016 hit Shout Out To My Ex is a song in which a woman ironically thanks her ex-boyfriend (a 'shout out to my ex') who treated her badly but allowed her to learn some important life lessons.

  • shou‘dout → /ʃaʊˈdaʊt/

Note that in connected speech, the letter 't' often converts to a soft 'd' sound when it appears between vowels.

3. Intrusion – inserting sounds 

Some examples:

A. You go ahead and I’ll follow > go ahead > 'gowaˈhead' > /goʊwəˈhɛd/

B. I ate a sandwich > I ate > 'iˈyate' > /aɪˈjeɪt/

When does it happen?

When one word ends with a vowel sound and the next word begins with a vowel sound, fluent speakers often insert a mild consonant sound to make the sentence flow more easily.

How do you know which consonant sound to insert?

The consonant sound is a natural continuation of the preceding vowel sound.

  • After a word ending with the sounds /oʊ/ or /uː/, we often insert a /w/ sound (see example A).
  • After a word ending in /aɪ/, /iː/, or /ɛ/, we often insert a /j/ sound (see example B).

Pop songs where you can hear intrusion

Take Me Out was a 2004 hit for Franz Ferdinand, in which the singer meets a stranger at a party and wants them to go on a date. He asks the other person to 'take me out'.

  • me’yout → /miːˈjaʊt/

You may remember Michael Jackson’s 1995 song You Are Not Alone about losing a loved one but still feeling their presence. They are telling you that 'You are not alone, I am here with you'.

  • ‘youwə → /ˈjuːwə/

4. Assimilation – consonant combinations that change the sound of the word

Some examples:

A. You live near here, don’t you? > don’t you' > ˈdonchyou' > /ˈdoʊnʧu/

B. Did you finish the plan? > did you > 'dijou' > /ˈdɪʤu/ 

C. How’s your meal? > how’s your > 'howjyour' > /ˈhaʊʒjʊər/

When does it happen?

Due to connected speech, many words that start with the letter 'y' (or simply with a /j/ sound) can cause confusion for English learners. This is because the initial sound of the word often combines with the final consonant sound of the previous word, creating an entirely new consonant sound.

As in the examples above, the resulting new sound depends on the combination:

  • t + y = ch
  • d + y = 'hard' j
  • 'hard' s + y = 'soft' j

Pop songs where you can hear assimilation

In her 2001 song Can’t Get You Out of My Head, Kylie Minogue sings about thinking continuously about someone, telling them that 'I just can’t get you out of my head'.

  • ‘gechou out → /ˈgɛʧuː/

In the 1980 song Could You Be Loved?, Bob Marley wonders if people can learn to love freely and allow themselves to be loved by others. He asks 'Could you be loved and be loved?'.

  • ‘coujou → /ˈkʊʤuː/

5. The schwa – small words that are barely pronounced 

Some examples:

A. He’s visiting from France > from > frəm

B. I’m going to visit my aunt > going to > ˈgənə 

C. You should have studied more > have > əv

  • When does it happen?

The schwa plays a huge role in connected speech. It is a very short vowel sound, somewhere between an 'a' and an 'e'.

In individual words, we find it in syllables that don’t contain the stress. For example, in the word 'amazing' the emphasis is on the second syllable. So, in the first syllable the letter 'a' becomes very small:

  • əˈmazing  → /əˈmeɪzɪŋ/

In connected speech, the schwa becomes the unique vowel sound of many smaller words. These words might be prepositions (from, to, of), auxiliary verbs (have, are) or pronouns (it, us). These smaller words don’t contain a lot of information and so in connected speech, they are difficult to hear.

Pop songs where you can hear the schwa

In 1987, Roxette released the song It Must Have Been Love. In it, the singer remembers life with her ex and now decides that their relationship 'must have been love'.

  • mustə’been → /mʌstəˈbɪn/

Set Fire To The Rain was a huge song for Adele in 2011. She sings about the contradictions of a past relationship, saying that when she was with her ex, she 'set fire to the rain, watched it pour …'.

təthə’rain → /təðəˈreɪn/

The next time you turn on the radio, keep your ear sharply tuned to the way the words are connected to each other. Soon you may be conversing faster than Eminem, chatting up a storm like Adele, or even preparing for a pitch-perfect Mariah rendition.