Flap! Flap! (Or maybe, tap?!)

Everybody flaps! Well, at least, native English speakers from North America do it. The funny thing about it is, many English speakers don’t realize that they are doing it. If someone asks us what sound the letter T makes, we probably respond by making the “tuh” sound. It’s the sound we make when we sound out the letter T in individual words. However, in actual speech, it isn’t so simple.

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In a previous post, I talked about the “fast D” sound. However, since it can be a source of confusion, I wanted to look at it in a little more detail. I think the easiest way to explain and teach this sound in an ESL context is to describe it as a D. The actual name for this is  alveolar flapping. The T or D changes to this sound in certain circumstances, mainly when the T or D comes between two vowel sounds with the second vowel being unstressed. This is true when the sound occurs within a word, and it’s also true when the sound occurs in connected words.

For example:
Butter is pronounced “budder.”

Get up! is pronounced “ged-up!”

For this reason, the words “feudal” and “futile” often sound the same, even though the spelling is quite different. If you have been speaking American English your whole life, chances are you don’t even notice. To make it a bit more confusing, oftentimes if a native speaker slows down and pays extra attention to an individual word, they revert back to pronouncing a clear T or D.

But I’m an ESL teacher! I speak clearly and enunciate every sound! Well, no. You don’t actually. And if you did, you would sound very weird. Like. A. Robot.

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In fact, the alveolar flap is a very natural sound. It’s not lazy or informal American English at all. It’s just how we speak.

If you are a VIPKID teacher and you don’t have an ESL background, you might have gotten confused when this topic popped up in the pronunciation courses. One reason might be confusion over the D sound. Most ESL textbooks (and the VIPKID curriculum) just use the letter D to describe the sound. However, that’s not accurate. It’s not the harsher, initial D sound that we produce when the D comes at the beginning of the word. It is a softer, faster D, the same sound we make when the D comes in the middle of a word. So, if you are making a harsh, strong “DUH” sound, then it is going to sound funny and incorrect.

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The second reason for confusion is our letter/sound association. We spent all our lives thinking that T makes a “tuh” sound. It can tricky to re-evaluate that association. The best way is to close your eyes and say the word without looking at it. Don’t think of the way it is spelled. Think only about the shape and movement of your mouth.

Say these words out loud at a normal speech rate: butter; wedding; party

If you pay careful attention, you can feel that your tongue is making the same movement in all three words. So much about how we speak, we do without thinking. It’s simply ingrained in us from a young age. However, if you are going to teach pronunciation, you have to start thinking about and feeling what’s going on in your mouth and throat. You also have to start listening for sounds, not thinking about letters or spelling.

Another reason for confusion is that the sound does not always occur between two vowels. It occurs when the second vowel sound is unstressed and reduced. That’s why you don’t hear it in a word like “retail,” for example. Also, we are talking about vowel sounds here, not letters. That’s why you do hear the sound in a word like “party.” Finally, it does not occur in foot-initial positions, such as in the word “Mediterranean.”

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Well, this is all very confusing! How do I teach this?!

Like I mentioned, most textbooks just use the letter D, and I think that really is the easiest approach. Certainly attempting to explain the alveolar flap via an online classroom to a beginner English speaker on the other side of the planet is not going to go well. If you want to make a distinction for a more advanced student, I think referring to it as a “medial D” or “fast D” is sufficient. The most effective way to teach it is simply to say the word correctly as you would in normal speech so the student can listen and re-produce the sound. You might have to pay a little extra attention to this when you are slowing down your speech rate for a more beginner student.

In the context of VIPKID, parents are paying for an American teacher for a reason: they want their child exposed to the American accent. If language is all about communication, then we have to teach the language as it is spoken and understood. For those of you who don’t have a background in teaching ESL, or even better…in linguistics or speech pathology, teaching these weird pronunciation elements might seem a little daunting. The good news is, you do know them. You just might not know that you know them! But if you take some time and really pay attention to your mouth and the sounds you make, you will hopefully find that teaching pronunciation is actually really fun and rewarding!

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