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The 50 sounds that make English impossible to understand

Most people think that native speakers are hard to understand because they speak fast. This is true, but it’s not the whole story. Natives do often speak fast, but they also speak with relaxed pronunciation.

Relaxed pronunciation is a language learner’s worst nightmare. It’s what makes English speakers pronounce “want to” as “wanna” and “have to” as “hafta”, and is especially common when speaking quickly and casually. Most language learners are never explicitly taught the rules of relaxed pronunciation, which can make understanding native speech nearly impossible. Imagine you’re learning English and someone said to you, “dijoo wanna goda the showda morrow?” Try looking up any one of those words in the dictionary—you won’t find them.

Today we’re going to go over 50 of the most common relaxed pronunciations in English, broken down into 8 groups, so that you can recognize them the next time you hear an unintelligible native speaker. Note that all of the pronunciations that we review here are American English pronunciations.

But first….

Why listening comprehension doesn’t just get better with exposure

Well, it can, but it will be a very long and slow process. Saying “My listening comprehension will just improve with time and exposure,” is like a musician saying “My ability to recognize notes and chords will just improve with time and exposure”. Any serious musician who heard that would respond by saying, “You mean you’ve never done ear training?”

In language learning, we put so little emphasis on ear training that most people don’t even know that it’s possible to do ear training for another language! Check out my article on audio dissection, one of the best exercises for ear training in a foreign language.

Learning about relaxed pronunciation is a very important for ear training, because by explicitly learning how words and sounds change, your brain will recognize them more easily the next time you encounter them.

Check out the videos at the end of the article to see some of these relaxed pronunciations in action and to test your skills!

1. The word “to”

The word “to” changes a lot when we speak quickly. First, the ending “oooo” sound changes to a “uh” or “ə” sound: to --> tuh. So instead of saying “go to school”, we would say “go tuh school” (go to͞o school --> go tə school). Here’s the crazy part. When we speak even faster, the “t” sound of “to” changes to a “d” sound. So “go to” becomes “go tuh” which becomes “go duh” or “goda”. I will use the –uh and –a endings interchangeably throughout this article to represent the “ə” sound. Here are some other common changes with the word “to”:

  • to --> tuh (tə) --> duh (də)

  • go to --> go tuh --> goda (godə)

  • how to --> how tuh --> howda