Connected Speech In English: What It Is And How To Learn It

Published on
May 5, 2021
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Updated on
May 26, 2021
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7
min read
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Written by
Ramsay Lewis

Speaking English is hard because we often don’t say words like we should. Here’s how to understand connected speech and how to speak naturally yourself.

Connected Speech In English: What It Is And How To Learn It

Maybe you’ve been studying English for a while now and gotten pretty good. 

Perhaps you’ve learned all those pesky irregular verbs, you feel comfortable using the past perfect continuous tense in context, and maybe you even know the difference between “who” and “whom”.

But even with all your actual knowledge of English and your ability to use it correctly, you may not sound natural when you speak. 

Natural spoken English comes down to more than just pronunciation and speaking fluently. It requires using connected speech. 

I consider connected speech to be a fairly advanced language learning topic. If you’re still at the intermediate level, I wouldn't focus on this; I’d leave it for later. And if you’re a beginner, it’s definitely not the right lesson for you right now. 

But if you’ve got quite a good grasp of the language and you’re really now trying to polish up your speaking skills, you might be at the right level to try to think about connected speech. 

In this article, I’ll explain what connected speech is along with some real-world examples of it. Then I’ll suggest some activities that you can do to work on and practise your connected speech. 

What is connected speech in English?

The first thing to understand about speaking English naturally is that it is very different from speaking English clearly. 

In English, words bump into each other. We reduce words when we’re speaking, contract them, and then mash them together.

That’s what connected speech is: it’s continuous spoken language like you’d hear in a normal conversation. It’s called connected speech because the words are all connected, with sounds from one running into the next. 

Examples of connected speech

Here are some common types and examples of connected speech.

1. Catenation or linking

Catenation happens when a consonant sound at the end of one word gets attached to the first vowel sound at the beginning of the following word.

For example, when native speakers say “an apple” you’ll usually hear them say, “anapple”. The “n” in “an” gets joined with the “a” sound in “apple” and it becomes almost like a single word. 

In some cases, the sound of the consonant sound changes when it’s linked. For example, if I were to say “that orange” you would probably hear me change the final consonant “t” sound to a “d” sound as in “thadorange”.

Here are some other examples: 

  • “trip over” often sounds like “tripover”
  • “hang out” often sounds like “hangout”
  • “clean up” often sounds like “cleanup”

2. Intrusion

Intrusion happens when an extra sound squishes in between two words. The intruding sound is often a “j”, “w”, or “r”. 

For example, we often say:

  • “he asked” more like “heyasked”
  • “do it” more like “dewit”
  • “there is” more like “therris”

3. Elision

Elision happens when the last sound of a word disappears. This often happens with “t” and “d” sounds. For example:

  • “next door” often gets shortened to “nexdoor”
  • “most common” often gets shortened to “moscommon”

4. Assimilation

Assimilation happens when sounds blend together to make an entirely new sound. Some examples include:

  • “don’t you” getting blended into “don-chu”
  • “meet you” getting blended into “mee-chu”
  • “did you” getting blended into “di-djew”

5. Geminates

Geminates are a doubled or long consonant sound. In connected speech, when a first word ends with the same consonant sound that the next word begins with, we often put the sounds together and elongate them. For example:

  • “single ladies” turns into “single-adies”
  • “social life” turns into “social-ife”

Notice that in none of these cases does the spelling actually change. It’s just the sounds that change when we say them. 

Is connected speech important?

Yes and no. 

I actually like to think of learning connected speech in two halves: understanding it when you hear it, and recreating it when you’re speaking yourself. 

Understanding connected speech when it’s used is extremely important. This is how native English speakers really talk. If you can’t understand English as it’s really spoken, you’re not really able to use the language. 

So listening to connected speech and being able to parse it into meaning is very important. 

Producing connected speech isn’t very important. Native speakers don’t need you to use connected speech to understand you. If you speak English clearly, carefully enunciating each syllable, you may sound a bit unnatural, but you’ll certainly be understood. 

So being able to use connected speech yourself doesn’t have to be a priority.

How can you improve your connected speech?

You can get better both at understanding connected speech when it’s spoken by others and using it yourself. Here are some ways you can train yourself on it.

Listen as frequently as possible

The way that we get better at understanding native speakers is by listening to them. So listen to native speakers as frequently as possible. 

At higher levels, listen to different accents: American, British, Australian, and others. This will help you understand people using a range of different accents.

You can also use music to help you learn English. Music and songs are very helpful for connected speech. 

Use transcripts or subtitles as you listen

One of the most difficult things to do when we’re new to a language is figure out where one word ends and another starts.

A great exercise for this is listening to a native speaker while you also read what they’re saying. 

There are a few ways you can do this. You could listen to someone read an audiobook while you read the book itself. You could watch a show on Netflix or a YouTube video with the subtitles on.

And, of course, you could listen to an English podcast while reading the transcript of that podcast. (Leonardo English conveniently provides transcripts to members for the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast for exactly this reason.)

Shadowing and recording yourself

Those are great for listening, but what about speaking?

Shadowing is the ideal exercise for practising connected speech. In shadowing, you mimic or imitate the sounds that you hear as you hear them. So you practise saying full sentences exactly like a native speaker.

This helps you see how native speakers really pronounce sentences—connected speech included. 

Recording yourself speaking is another activity that has similar benefits. It lets you listen and see how the way you say a sentence might be different from a native speaker so you can correct yourself or make changes. 

Have conversations

Speaking naturally is really only a skill you can develop through practice. 

So practise speaking! 

Find an online English conversation partner, join an English community, or find other ways of speaking English regularly. That’s how you’ll get better at speaking in general and also at using connected speech in particular. 

How to use podcasts to improve your connected speech

Here’s how you can make the best use of English podcasts like English Learning for Curious Minds to work on understanding and using connected speech. 

  1. First, listen for understanding. The first time you listen to an episode, just try to grasp what’s going on. Try to pick out the general story or the main ideas. You can slow the episode to 0.75x or 0.5x if you need to.
  2. Next, listen for pronunciation. Choose a part of the episode (or the whole episode if you like) and notice places where the speaker uses connected speech. Reading while you listen may help you identify particular instances of connected speech. 
  3. Finally, shadow part of the episode. Now work on your speaking skills by shadowing part of the episode. It doesn’t have to be long—just a couple of minutes. Try to imitate the person speaking as closely as possible. Here’s our guide on Shadowing in English—you can find detailed instructions there.
  4. Challenge yourself by getting faster. If that feels easy or comfortable, make it harder by doing all that on a faster speed setting, or turn it back to 1x if you were doing it more slowly beforehand. 

This process will help you understand spoken English even when the words are mashed together. It will also help you get used to speaking more naturally in English yourself. 

Speaking naturally will come with time

To wrap up this article, I want to stress that connected speech is about practice, not memorisation

Earlier, I gave some names for different groups of connected speech sound changes—catenation, assimilation, and so on. I did that for your interest, but I don’t recommend trying to memorise them or learn those names by heart unless you’re a linguist. 

You certainly don’t need to know what “elision” means to speak naturally. Most native speakers wouldn’t have any idea what that word means.

Instead of learning that linguistic theory, just practise using English. Listen to it and speak it. Connected speech will come naturally to you as you use English more. 

Indeed, let’s remember that the reason connected speech happens is that it’s an easier way to speak. 

When you are singing Beyonce’s Single Ladies, it would feel really weird to clearly pronounce “single” separately from “ladies”. It’s much more natural to jam the words together into “Singl-adies”

Similarly, it’s much harder to say “that orange” than it is to say “thadorange”. As soon as you’re saying those words together, you’ll probably find your mouth making the connected speech sounds automatically. 

That’s important to remember: connected speech doesn’t happen randomly. It happens because it’s actually easier to say the words in that way. 

So yes, learn what connected speech is. Practise listening to native speakers so you can understand them even when they speak at a normal pace and words jam together. Do your regular speaking activities.

But then relax. Natural, connected speech will come.