Dangerous Liaisons: How to Speak English Without Sounding Like a Robot

Dangerous Liaisons. No, I am not talking about the 1988 Glenn Close and John Malkovich movie about gossiping 17th century aristocrats. I am talking about the English pronunciation phenomenon of an otherwise absent consonant sound at the end of the first of two consecutive words, the second of which begins with a vowel sound and follows without pause. Or, to put it more plainly, how native English speakers connect their words when speaking, making listening comprehension for ESL students the most difficult of the receptive skills. You see, English isn’t spoken as it is written, therefore when spoken naturally and at full speed it bears little resemblance to the written version of the same sentence. For this reason, liaisons are an essential part of learning how to speak English and just as importantly, a part of understanding English.

There is game that I play with my more advanced students called Mad Gab.
It is a game of saying the words you see on a card and then trying to figure out what in fact you are actually saying. For example, one of the cards might read this, “Isle of View.” The student looking at the card then says this phrase and the other student holding the card can see the “answer” on the back of said card, the answer being “I Love You.” The student looking at the front of the card repeats this phrase over and over until he realizes what he is saying and when he does he has earned a point. It is actually very amusing because what is written on the front of the card is a quasi-phonetic spelling of the phrase, so to speak. When you say it, it sounds exactly like the correctly written phrase. The guesser, without seeing the correct spelling of the phrase, is at first oblivious to what the actual phrase is. It is only after repeating it several times and perhaps trying a variety of different stresses that they might actually be able to realize what they are saying. The game is actually for native English speakers and not meant as a tool for ESL but I find that it is very useful in teaching liaisons.

Most ESL learners, until they get fairly advanced, often sound a bit robotic when they speak as well as when they read aloud and why wouldn’t they? Most beginning ESL learners learn through the written word in their textbooks and by repeating these written words over and over. Many often feel it is imperative to pronounce every single letter and syllable as to “perfect” their English when actually, as stated before, the written word usually sounds nothing like the spoken word. So learning through listening to natives speak, and understanding how they connect their words, is the best way to start to understand them.

Here is another, more difficult example: “Woodchuck Air Ford Us Hurt.”
Say it a few more times and try to blend the words together. It is a pretty common expression. You hear it a lot in restaurants. Got it yet?
The answer is “Would you care for dessert?” Mad Gab and other exercises like it are techniques in learning how to connect your words so they sound fluid and not so robotic.

Liaisons, just like everything in English, have their own set of rules that most natives don’t even realize, unless of course you are an ESL teacher. The rules are as follows:

1. When a consonant sound precedes a vowel sound

The two sounds link together and are pronounced without a pause in between the words.

Example: My name is Aimee. The m in name and the i in is will join together and be pronounced like “naymiz.” The s in is and the A in Aimee will also liaise. All together it sounds like “MynaymizAimee.”

2. When a consonant sound precedes another consonant sound

Words are connected when a word ends in a consonant sound and the next word also starts with a consonant sound that is in a similar position of the tongue during pronunciation.

Example: Get the dog, kick her. The t of get and the th of the will join together. This makes the t sound a little softer. The K and h sounds are both made in the back roof of the mouth, so they join together to sound like “kicker.”

3. When a vowel sound precedes another vowel sound

A glide, or a soft y or w sound, is added between the two sounds and it is all pronounced together. Whether a y or w sound is used will depend on the lip position. When the vowels require rounded lips, it will naturally become a w sound. Otherwise, it should be y.

Example: Go out, I am. The two o letters of go out get separated by a w glide so that it sounds like “gowout.” Likewise, I am becomes “Iyam.”

4. T, D, S or Z + Y combinations

When the letter or sound of T, D, S or Z is followed by a word that starts with Y, or its sound, both sounds are connected. They form a combination that changes the pronunciation.

T + Y = CH

Example: What’s your name? sounds like [Whacher name?]


D + Y = J

Example: What did you do? sounds like [Whajoo do?]


S + Y = SH

Example: insurance sounds like [inshurance]


Z + Y = ZH

Example: How’s your family? sounds like [howzher family?]

In conclusion, liaisons are yet another example of why native North Americans sound as they do. Do not confuse North American English with British English or Australian English or English from the other countries. They have their own set of rules and that is why they sound completely different from people from the United States. For more information on learning British English, you can read Nick Thomas’s article about it here.
The liaisons in this article are specifically for American English. If you really want to sound like someone from America, then liaisons are going to have to be part of your learning curriculum, but it’s not all that bad. It is actually fun and training your mouth to do things that it has never done before can be challenging and amusing at the same time. So, good luck and unlike the movie Dangerous Liaisons, English language liaisons really aren’t that dangerous, just a little frustrating.