#164 Consonant clusters in English

/br/, /pr/, /gr/, /kr/, and /skr/ at the beginning of a word

Transcript

Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 164th episode.

Consonant sounds that commonly occur together are known as "consonant clusters." English has quite a few consonant clusters, like the common b-l combination in the words black and blue, or the longer 3-sound s-p-r cluster of the words spray and spring.

When working with pronunciation, consonant clusters can present special challenges for learners because even if your first language has the same two or three consonant sounds as English, those sounds might not occur directly next to each other in words. Or it might not have those sounds next to each other at the beginning of a word, or the end of a word.

Since the r sound is such a difficult sound for many non-native English speakers, today we're going to focus on five of the twelve consonant clusters that include the r sound: b-r, k-r, g-r, p-r, and s-k-r. All of these clusters include a transition from a stop sound into the r sound.

If you want to practice more than these 5 clusters, we've just added 3 new free lessons about consonant clusters. One lesson focuses on consonant+r, another lesson focuses on consonant+l, and the final lesson focuses on s+consonant. I'll link to those three lessons from this episode's transcript page. I would recommend reading the transcript along with listening to this episode because this episode includes a number of difficult concepts. As always, you can find the transcripts for all of our podcasts by going to www.pronuncian.com/podcast. Then simply click the episode you're looking for.

Now, back to our clusters with the r sound. Remember, I said we were going to practice clusters that transition from a stop sound into an r sound. Stops are produced when the vocal tract is briefly closed, then opened with a small puff of air. When an r sound follows a stop, the r sound begins as the air is released. Let's use the b-r cluster as an example.

To create the b sound, my lips press together, then release. In the b-r cluster, the r sound begins at the same time as the lips open. This creates the following sound: /br/. The b-r cluster is at the beginning of the following words:

break
bring
brother

If we compare the b-r cluster to the p-r cluster--that's /br/ compared to /pr/--we'll notice that the puff of air that happens with the r sound is bigger for the p-r cluster than the puff of air for the b-r cluster. This is one of the main differences in voiced/unvoiced stops: the unvoiced stop (in this case the p sound) has more aspiration (or puff) than the voiced sound (in this case the b sound).

Listen to the words that begin with the p-r cluster:

price
practice
private

If we compare the k-r cluster to the g-r cluster, the same thing happens. The r sound begins at the same time as the air is released, and the puff of air is bigger for the unvoiced k sound than for the voiced g sound.

Be careful. Don't let the k confuse you; even though these words all begin with the letter c, they are pronounced with the k sound.

Listen to the following k-r cluster words:

cry
create
crazy

Now listen to the g-r cluster words:

great
green
grow

Finally today, we're going to practice a 3-sound cluster, the s-k-r cluster. The beginning of the s-k-r cluster is obviously the s-k part of it. When blending from an s sound into any other sound, it helps to think of it as the s sound getting interrupted by the next sound. This is because the s sound is a continuous consonant. I can hold the s sound for a long time if I want to (held s sound). So when I transition from an s sound into another sound, in this case a k sound, the s sound continues until the k sound interrupts it: /sk/, /sk/.

Another detail of the s-k cluster is that both the s sound and the k sound are unvoiced. Some languages, like Japanese, tend to add a tiny vowel sound between clusters, so ski sounds like suki. Adding that vowel also adds a syllable, which makes the word difficult to understand. Another problem with the s-k cluster at the beginning of a word is that some languages, like Spanish, for instance, add a tiny vowel before the s sound. This causes a word like ski to be pronounced eski.

One of the free lessons we just created highlights clusters that begin with the s sound, so if you have trouble with this sound at the beginning of a word, you should probably check that lesson out!

Now let's work on adding the r sound to the s-k cluster. The idea of transitioning from the k sound into the r sound is the same as it was above for the words cry, create, and crazy: the r sound begins with the release of air for the k sound. Listen to the following s-k-r cluster words:

scratch
scream
screen

Are you ready to practice? I'm going to say all of the examples from these five clusters again, and I'll leave time for you to repeat after me:

b-r cluster

break
bring
brother

p-r cluster

price
practice
private

g-r cluster

great
green
grow

k-r cluster

cry
create
crazy

s-k-r cluster

scratch
scream
screen

I hope that was helpful for you!

That's all for today, everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy Digital publication. Seattle Learning Academy is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.


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About the ESL/ELL Teacher

Mandy has been teaching ESL, pronunciation and accent reduction since 2005 at Seattle Learning Academy, an English language school in Seattle, Washington, USA. She uses her experience with intermediate to advanced students to create the topics that most affect students living and working in the United States and can help them communicate better and more clearly.

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