I’m sorry, I can’t follow what you are saying. Can you repeat that please?
I can’t count the number of times I have to say that to my students. It is the number one consistent problem of comprehension for me during my training sessions with learners of English. Are they trying to say can or can’t? I always have to ask. Maybe I need to get my ears checked but somehow I don’t think I’m the problem. So what is the problem?
One main reason is that French learners of English are not accustomed to using stress when speaking English. They tend to give equal weight to each syllable. Consider the word comfortable:
A French person might say: com/for/ta/bul (4 syllables and each one is stressed equally)
A native English speaker probably says: יcomf/ta/bul (the word is reduced to 3 syllables and the first syllable [comf] is stressed – hence the symbol י just in front. (In a dictionary, this י symbol is always placed just in front of the stressed syllable). A native English speaker skips over the second syllable [for] because of the stress on the first [comf] and reduces a 4 syllable word to a 3 syllable word [comf/ta/bul].
In the same way photographer becomes [יftog/ra/pher]. We stress the second syllable [tog] and almost totally omit the first syllable [pho]. But for the word photograph, we stress the last syllable [יgraph]. This difference in stress tells native speakers if we are talking about the person or the image.
Stress doesn’t only occur in words. It also occurs in sentences. In general, the important words such as nouns, main verbs, adjectives and adverbs are stressed whereas the less important words such as pronouns, prepositions, auxiliaries and articles are rarely stressed and are often rolled together. Look at the following examples. The stressed words or syllables are in bold.
Where do you work? Is actually spoken like this: Where djou work? (where and work are stressed and the do and the you melt into one syllable).
I’d like to ask you a few questions. I’d like twaska few questions. (we stress like, ask and the first syllable of questions).
Stressing a word or syllable doesn’t mean that we say it louder. Rather, we take more time to say it. It creates a natural rhythm or beat (dum da dum da dum). Maybe that’s why English is such a good language to sing in.
Another thing that happens when speaking at normal speed is that we omit sounds such as the d or t at the ends of words to make them easier to say. For example:
Next spring becomes nek spring.
Old people becomes ol people.
I can’t see you now becomes I can see you now. (Yes, it looks affirmative, but we take longer to say the can than we would do if it was really in the affirmative).
A student card becomes a studen card.
I haven’t got a pen becomes I haven gotta pen.
A can of lemonade becomes a cana lemonade.
I suppose you are right becomes I spoze your right.
The third important point to know is the schwa [ǝ]. This is the most common vowel sound in the English language and most vowels can be reduced to the schwa. It sounds like the indefinite article a in this sentence: I’d like a coffee please.
So while we stress some syllables and words, we reduce other sounds to the schwa.
I asked a photographer to take some photographs.
I asked a ph/י tog /rǝ/fǝ to take some יpho/tǝ/graphs.
In winter, the trains often arrive late when there’s snow.
In יwin/tǝ, thǝ trains oftǝn ǝ/יrive late when there’s snow.
This can cause problems in oral comprehension for some learners because they don’t hear the words pronounced as they are written. That’s why you understand much more when you read than when you simply listen.
Can or Can’t?
So let’s return to the problem of can and can’t.
Basically, we don’t stress can when it’s in the affirmative. We put the stress on the verb which follows and which is more important to the meaning of the sentence.
I can see you next week. The verb see is the important word in this sentence. The vowel sound in can is therefore reduced to the schwa and sounds more like [kǝn].
However, when it’s negative, we stress both can’t and the verb. The vowel sound in can’t is longer but we often omit the t. So it’s the long vowel sound which actually tells us that it’s negative!
I can’t see you at 2pm but I can see you at 4.30pm.
Next time you are telling someone what you can or can’t do, take a moment to think about the stress. And as you progress in English, spend a little time thinking about the rhythm and stress of the language in general, not just the vocabulary and the grammar. Sometimes it can make all the difference to whether your interlocutor can or can’t understand you!
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Philippa Stacey a fondé Eureka en 2007. Elle vit et enseigne l’anglais aux professionnels en France depuis 1993.