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Sound Waves

When I am teaching English and Listening to my international students at UCT English Language Centre (in the heart of Cape Town), they often tell me that English Speakers seem to ‘swallow’ their words.  In a way, this is correct. This blog explains three reasons why fast why fast speech is difficult to understand and how you can use this information to improve your listening.

THE FIRST REASON is because the individual sounds change so English speakers can speak faster. This usually happens at:

  • word boundaries (where two words meet);
  • mainly to consonants (e.g. t, d and n ->> p, b, m)

The reason why this change happens is because of WHERE the sounds are produced in the mouth.  It is too difficult to pronounce the two words sounds, so the two sounds change. To learners, it sounds like ‘lazy English’.

For example:

Pronounce the following two words slowly and ‘perfectly’: Good.  Boy. Now, say it really fast: the /d/ becomes a /b/ in fast, natural speech. /Gubboy/. 

It is not very helpful to study the rules.  This is more important for your listening than for your pronunciation. 

THE SECOND REASON is because the /t/ and /d/ often DISAPPEAR completely in the fast, natural speech of English speakers.  This happens mainly when they are between two other consonants.

For example, say each word slowly and precisely:  I. can’t. swim.  Now say it REALLY fast: I canswim. The /t/ disappears!  Icanswim.

THE THIRD REASON  is beCAUSE ENglish has STRESS.  Certain WORDS in a SENtence are STRESSed.  ALL the LIttle WORDS in the SENtence are ‘SWAllowed’ by the SPEAker and THEREfore, to the LEARNers EAR, the LIttle WORDS DISappear.  All the capitals in the previous three sentences show the STRESS.

These little words:

  • occur very often but are limited in number (about 50);
  • are function words (they don’t give you content);
  • have only one syllable.

These are examples of these little words: and, the, does, you.

For example, I‘ve BOOKED a TABLE for ME and YOU.  The CAPITAL LETTERS show the stress. The words that are in italic font disappear or get swallowed.


  • Listen to a short extract from Ted talk, or a youtube video (without subtitles!)- maybe 10 seconds;
  • and write down every word that you hear.
  • Listen to it again and again until you’re satisfied that you have every word.
  • Then look at the transcript and compare. Which letters have changed or disappeared or become weak?
  • Listen again and again until you can see and hear which letters have changed or disappeared.

Happy listening!

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