"Correct" pronunciation is not always right.

A funny story

Back when I was a middle school English teacher in Japan, one day there was a big standardized English test. All of the Grade 3 students had to take it. I was asked to sit in on the test and help administer it by passing out papers and making sure that no one was cheating.

After a writing section, it was time for the listening test. The students were supposed to listen to a recorded conversation between two people and then answer multiple choice questions about it. The recordings would be played over the school intercom, so all the students taking the test in the whole building heard the same thing at the same time.

When the first conversation started to play, I almost laughed out loud. The. People. On. The. Recording. Were. Speaking. Like. This. They spoke slowly and pronounced every single syllable of every word. It sounded very strange. The strangest thing was that I couldn't follow what the speakers were saying! It was too hard to concentrate on the meaning when the pronunciation was so wrong. I looked over the shoulders of some students to read the test questions, and I had trouble picking the correct answers. (This made me wonder what the purpose of the test was, if native English speakers had more trouble with it than Japanese middle school students.)

Connected Speech

To speak and understand natural English, you have to know the difference between "correct" pronunciation and what's called "connected speech". Connected speech is the way that people talk when they're speaking normally in sentences. For example, listen to this sentence:

Did you see what happened?


What do you hear? Listen to the word "did": does it end with a clear "d" sound? No! The words "did" and "you" combine to form a "j" sound: "Diju". How about the word "what"? Can you hear the "t" sound at the end of the word? Not really. You can also hear that the "d" at the end of "happened" sounds almost like a "t" sound. Listen again:


Almost none of the speaker's individual words match the "correct" pronunciation for those words. Even so, the sentence sounds completely correct. He's not mispronouncing anything. He doesn't have a strange accent. To someone who speaks English well, he sounds perfectly clear and natural. 

If you ask the speaker to slow down and repeat what he said, he won't just speak more slowly. He'll also pronounce each word more carefully. It's normal to do this. In fact, it's almost impossible to speak slowly without also speaking more carefully. 

The right kind of listening practice

English teachers, and the actors on most audio recordings for learners, slow their speech down to make it easier for learners to understand. That can be helpful. But while they're making it slower, they're also changing how the words sound. This is one reason that English learners sometimes complain, "I've been studying English for so long, but when I hear real native English speakers talking to each other, I can't understand them!" It's because they've been listening to careful and correct speech. They haven't gotten used to hearing connected speech.

Instead of listening to slowed-down, careful English, I suggest listening to normal-speed English, but broken into pieces that are short enough for you to understand. For example, you can watch a YouTube video and hit "pause" after every sentence to stop and think about what the speakers are saying. That will get you used to hearing English the way that it's really spoken.

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