When I was in the UK over Xmas I came out of the cinema after seeing The Imitation Game (nothing to do with pronunciation, but still brilliant) and was confronted with this store sign (also nothing to do with pronunciation and only three-quarters brilliant).
It could be that the ‘t’ had simply failed to light up, though I like to think that staff from the international language school that is just round the corner had sabotaged the ‘t’ as a visual reminder to their students that in colloquial English the citation forms of words are subject to all sorts of modifications.
Interestingly, most of these suprasegmental features of English are too often perceived of as only being suitable for advanced learners, and it’s true that even in native-speaker speech they don’t really come into their own until the speaker gets up to around 350 words a minute, which most beginners don’t get vaguely near.
However, despite this, I’d argue that there are good reasons for teaching even beginners about simple elisions, such as those of /t/ and /d/ when they are wedged between other consonants. Take a look at the following, for example:
They’re all examples of beginner’s vocabulary, but for learners from some L1 backgrounds they are the very devil to pronounce if they try to get their mouths around all of the consonants in the clusters highlighted in bold. So why don’t we make our learners’ burden a bit lighter by telling them the truth – that a /t/ or /d/ between two or more consonants is frequently not pronounced.
If your first language background is Polish, or any other language that has multiple and varied consonant clusters like those above, this information about /t, d/ elision may be of limited value or even irrelevant. But if your L1 is Spanish (or any other language with limited consonant clusters) or Japanese (or any other language with a strong underlying consonant-vowel syllable structure), then the option of legitimately leaving out a consonant from an already challenging cluster surely has to come as good news.
It’s interesting how with the arrival of communicative approaches in the 80s, pronunciation teaching veered quite violently away from the teaching of individual sounds with the argument that ‘… in the absence of complete mutilation of the phonemes by the non-native speaker, the suprasegmentals will carry the day because they bear the meaning of the message‘ (Strevens, 1989: 13). This dramatic shift of focus was not followed through to its logical conclusion, however, and only quite limited attention was given to elision, as if it was something ‘not quite nice’ – a bit like the sessions on the facts of life that we used to get as teenagers in the sixties. ‘We know they do it, dear, but you shouldn’t try to imitate’ was the message they seemed to be giving us.
Well, quite apart from the fact that I’m not so convinced by the arguments in favour of suprasegmentals as I used to be, I’d argue that elisions of the sort detailed above need building into our teaching of pronunciation from the start. In other words, we need to include all the elements that facilitate things for our learners when they speak, regardless of whether they were once regarded by experts as part of pronunciation for advanced learners or not.
Pronunciation is a multi-tool that our learners need. OK, they can’t learn to use all of the different features at once. But let’s be sure that the ones we give them are the ones they need, and not the ones we think they need.
Strevens, S. 1989. A ‘dramatic’ approach to improving the intelligibility of ITAs’. English for Specific Purposes 8: 181–194.