Accessibility links


For VOA Learning English, this is Everyday Grammar.

Today we have a special guest host. Betty Azar is the most successful writer of grammar textbooks in the world. Generations of English learners will recognize her best-selling book Understanding and Using English Grammar. The famous blue grammar book, now in its fourth edition, is in use at language schools across the world. Ms. Azar also supports research and professional development in the English language teaching field. Today Ms. Azar will offer some advice on how to hear the sounds of grammar.

STUDENT: "English speakers talk too fast! I can't understand what they're saying."

BETTY AZAR: Does that sound familiar? It's a common complaint of English language learners, one I've heard often from my university-level ESL students through the years.

Normal contracted speech, especially in everyday conversational usage, can speed by like a bullet train. It can leave learners feeling a little dazed as they try to catch the meaning.

For most adult learners, reading is, of course, much easier to understand. When understanding English is just between you and the written page, you can go as slowly as you want. You can go back and read words again, perhaps break down the grammar. You can even leisurely look up the meaning of a word.

And at least in writing there are spaces between words. If only that were true in speaking! If only speakers paused briefly between words, it would be so much easier for learners.

Teachers in second language classes often speak slowly and distinctly, as I am doing now. But in the real world, well, it's not going to happen. Or, to say that in normal contracted speech,

Well, i'snotgonnahappen.

Speakers squeeze sounds together, or drop sounds, or say them so softly and quickly that a listener can barely hear them. When you listen to my sentence again, notice that the t is almost completely dropped from it's, and going to becomes gonna.

Well, i'snot gonna happen.

As a teacher, I've often heard students say things like

Bye. I leaving now. I see you tomorrow.

What's missing? The grammar sounds are missing, in this case the m and l sounds for am and will. Listen for them in the corrected sentences:

Bye. I'm leaving now. I'll see you tomorrow.

The m and l sounds are barely said aloud. But a native speaker hears them. Do you? Listen again.

Bye. I'm leaving now. I'll see you tomorrow.

And then, sometimes native speakers drop not only sounds but complete words. Listen to this:

Bye. ‘M leavin' now. See you tomorrow.

If you're saying "Not fair!," you're not the first English learner to feel that way!

Grammar students learn that am, is, are and helping verbs (for example, will, have, would) are often contracted with pronouns in both speaking and writing, as in I'm and I'll. But most students also find it helpful to know that in everyday spoken English these verbs are usually contracted with nouns and question words, too.

Here's a sentence about a man named Tom. Tom is a noun.

In writing, you will see

Don't worry. Tom will be here soon.

In speaking, you will hear

Don't worry. Tom'll be here soon.

Listen for Tom will again:

Don't worry. Tom'll be here soon.

Here's another example of a contraction with a noun:

My book is on the table.

becomes

My book's on the table.

And another example, this time with are:

In writing you will see

My books are on the table.

In speaking you will hear

My books're on the table.

Again:

My books're on the table.

The verb sounds are so quick that it's almost impossible to hear them unless you expect to hear them. Listen again:

My book's on the table.

My books're on the table.

Question words (such as where, when, why) are similarly contracted in speech.

In writing, each word is separate. For example:

Where are the students? Where have they gone?

In spoken English, the question word is contracted with the verb:

Where're the students? Where've they gone?

Again:

Where're the students? Where've they gone?

No wonder it's hard for learners to catch these grammar sounds! If you think English speakers talk really fast, you're right. They do!

Do and did are also often reduced. Listen for do you :

D'you know Mrs. Lee?

Again:

D'you know Mrs. Lee?

Did can be a quick d sound when it's combined with a question word. Listen for where did and what did:

Where'd she go? What'd she do?

Again:

Where'd she go? What'd she do?

Here's another example of shortened spoken English that my students usually enjoy. Two people are talking.

D'ja eat yet?

No, d'joo?

In other words, spoken slowly:

Did you eat yet?

No, did you?

Did is a good example of a function word. A function word gives grammar information. In the sentence Did you eat yet?, did tells us that the speaker is talking about the past and is asking a question. In contrast, eat is a content word. So are words such as Tom, yesterday, lunch. Content words have specific meanings. Function words are the ones that are the hardest to hear in speech. Content words are usually said more clearly and loudly.

Along with helping verbs, other common function words are and, to, the, and a. Let's look at and. And shows the relationship between two nouns: Bob and Tom tells us there are two people.

Like most function words, and is usually reduced:

I had lunch with Bob ‘n Tom yesterday.

A learner could easily think that "Bobbintom" is one word!

To is usually reduced to a slight t sound:

Let's ask Tom to come with us.

sounds like

Let's ask Tom t'come with us.

Again:

Let's ask Tom t'come with us.

The and a can be especially hard for learners to hear. Listen for the and a:

In class yesterday, I asked the teacher a question.

Even if you know the and a are supposed to be there, you have to listen hard to hear them. Listen again:

In class yesterday, I asked the teacher a question.

Native speakers can hear the softer sounds of function words, but it can be very difficult for second language learners to hear them. Knowing some grammar can help. For example, learners are more likely to hear and to say Bye. I'm leaving now. I'll see you later if they are familiar with the forms and meanings of verb tenses.

If learners don't know what grammar sounds they're supposed to hear, chances are they won't hear them. If they don't hear them, chances are they won't include them in their own speaking and writing. In other words, an awareness of grammar can prepare you to understand what you're hearing, and hearing the sounds of grammar can, in turn, help you use English more accurately.

I'm Betty Azar.

Betty Azar wrote this story as a contributor for VOA Learning English. Adam Brock was the producer. Jill Robbins was the editor.

You can visit Betty Azar's website at www.azargrammar.com.

Betty Azar would like to thank Stacy Hagen for sharing her expertise in the grammar-listening connection.

Learners can find many answers to grammar questions at the Azar Grammar Exchange.

_________________________________________________________________

Words in This Story

contractedparticipial adj. shortened

dazedparticipial adj. confused and surprised

squeezev. push close together

leisurely adv. in a slow, relaxed way

contraction gramm. two words combined into one word, e.g., I am = I'm

chances are (that) - idiomatic phrase. it is probable (that)

in turn - idiomatic phrase. as a result

Try this quiz on the article to test your understanding.

Now it's your turn. Do you have trouble understanding spoken English? What advice do you have for learners?

Show comments

XS
SM
MD
LG