T Is for Trouble: Consonants Lead to Dissonance for an English Learner
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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: a pronunciation question from Quebec, Canada.
RS: Nam-Thien Khuu writes by e-mail, "I have heard [that the letter 't' is silent when it comes after a stressed syllable]. Am I right? Or have I just heard incorrectly."
AA: He gives three examples: important, mountain and cosmetic. For the answer, we turn to English teacher Lida Baker in Los Angeles.
LIDA BAKER: "Your listener is partly right. The words important and mountain, what your listener is referring to is the fact -- it's not that the t is silent in those words, it's that it's unreleased. Now what does that mean. If you say a word like -- say pop."
LIDA BAKER: "OK, now what did you feel at the end of the word, what were your lips doing -- were they together, or were they apart?"
AA: "Let me try that again. Pop. Well, they end apart."
LIDA BAKER: "That's right. Now say cat."
LIDA BAKER: "When you pronounce that t, did you feel that your tongue was touching the top or behind your teeth and then it was released?"
AA: "Cat. Yeah! It touches the top, then it releases."
LIDA BAKER: "One of the things that happens to a lot of consonants in English is that the consonants get released, which is to say the tongue touches some part of the mouth, and then it releases. OK? Now what happens in some dialects of English, and there are a lot of North American dialects where this happens -- what happens is that the t doesn't get released.
"So let's take the word -- and this happens generally after a stressed syllable. So if we take a word like important, what's happening there? Try saying it. What I want you to do is say -- after the second syllable, I want you to freeze. So we're going to go impor -- "
RS: "Impor -- "
LIDA BAKER: "'ant. Now don't release the t. In other words, when your tongue touches the roof of your mouth, or wherever it is that your tongue touches when you say a t, don't release it. And instead, you just say nnn -- you know, that nasal sound? So it's impor'ant."
LIDA BAKER: "Yeah."
LIDA BAKER: "Now journalists -- "
RS: "Uh-oh, I said a t. I know I said a t."
LIDA BAKER: "Because -- OK, because journalists. you're in the habit of speaking, articulating things very clearly. So this is something that the person who asked the question needs to know, that this is not a standard feature of English pronunciation. It's something that some people do some of the time, particularly in casual conversation.
"And it's the same thing with the word mountain. Now 'cosmetic' is a different rule. What's happening in the word cosmetic, the t in that case is being pronounced as -- it's almost like a 'd.' And that happens in North American English when you have a t between two vowels."
AA: "Cosmetic -- yeah, it does, it sounds more like a d than a T."
LIDA BAKER: "That's not an unreleased t. That's an adjustment that happens because that t happens to be sitting between two vowels. And that also is something that we do in North America that is not a feature of British English."
RS: "Give us another example of that."
LIDA BAKER: "Here's an example: I mean, any verb that ends in a t and then you say it in the past tense, that's going to happen -- like wanted, rented, right? So that's an example."
AA: "What about a word like water? I mean, that's like a d sound."
LIDA BAKER: "Yeah, sure. You know, I was asking myself on the way over here, why did he include the word cosmetic together with important and mountain. And you know, it really is a tribute to this listener's good listening skills that he's picking up on these modifications that are happening to the t in North American English.
"Noticing is actually something that -- there's a lot of literature that has come out in my field in recent years about noticing. We're being told, we teachers are being told that we should incorporate noticing exercises into our lesson plans. So that for instance, at the beginning, when you're presenting a new language feature, we should design some kind of an activity where we're not immediately expecting the students to produce the language, but rather we're giving them the opportunity to notice it first."
RS: Lida Baker teaches English and writes textbooks in Los Angeles, California. Her new English as a Second Language listening and speaking series, "Real Talk," published by Longman, will be out early next year.
AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and our segments are online at voanews.com/wordmaster. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.