If you are a Spanish speaker, this article is going to be a real eye-opener. You will learn the difference in sound between can and can’t (in British English). Besides that, you also will learn about weak and strong forms in English, which are crucial to achieving decent English pronunciation.
This is especially useful for Spanish speakers because:
It is hard for you to tell one word from the other in fast speech.
You are often misunderstood by natives when pronouncing these two words.
You have never been taught about weak and strong forms.
First, I will explain what weak and strong forms are and you will hear some examples. Then, I will show you how to listen to and pronounce can and can’t effectively.
In English, some words have a weak and a strong form.
Strong forms are words that we pronounce in its full form, and the sound is loud and clear. We only use the strong form when:
The word is stressed in a sentence.
We pronounce the words alone, in isolation.
Weak forms are words that are not stressed. Therefore, they are pronounced quickly, and often not clearly. Weak forms are very often pronounced with a schwa (/ə/), the most common sound in English.
Weak forms are often little words like articles (“a” or “an”), prepositions (“to,” “for”), conjunctions (“and”, “that”), auxiliary and modal verbs.
The weak form is the usual pronunciation in normal speech. Native speakers use weak forms all the time, and students have difficulty recognizing them.
Spanish is not a stress-timed language like English and many other languages (Swedish, Russian, Arabic, European Portuguese...) and that makes it hard for Spanish speakers to recognise and use weak and strong forms.
From my experience, Spanish speakers are not used to hearing them (in many cases they do not even know that they exist). Therefore, they only use strong forms when speaking, and that makes them sound unnatural.
Here are some common examples:
Click on the words to hear the weak and strong form of the words (British and American English). Pay attention to the vowel sounds, you should be able to hear the difference between them.
Now, let’s talk about can and can’t.
First, let’s see and hear the weak and strong form of can:
Can: strong /kæn/ weak /kən/
Remember, the most common sound of can is the weak form /kən/, which has a very short vowel sound and it is pronounced with your mouth relaxed and only slightly open. If you open it too much, you will make a different sound (most probably the Spanish vowel sound /a/).
Play the weak and strong form in the online dictionary as many times as you need until you are able to tell one from the other. You need to get used to hearing and using the weak form if you want to understand and be understood.
Can't: strong /kɑːnt/ (can’t doesn’t have a weak form as it is always stressed)
This is a tricky word because the final T is not always pronounced. Have you ever noticed that native speakers tend to drop the final /t/ sound? Contrary to what you think or have been taught, here the important sound is not the final consonant sound.What you need to learn to hear and pronounce well is the vowel sound.
Go back to the online dictionary, play both words and pay attention to the vowel sounds. Are they different?
They are very different. In order to pronounce “can’t” correctly your mouth must be wide open and your tongue low.
Also, can’t is always stressed, so make sure that when you say it you do it loud and clear!
Alright, time for review.
What are the main differences in sound between can and can’t?
a) The final T and the vowel sound.
b) The vowel sound and the stress.
c) I am not sure.
If you have chosen a) or c) you will need to read the article again!
A final reminder about can’t: do not get me wrong, you should try to pronounce the final T, especially if you are a beginner. However, it’s not a problem if you don’t do it as long as you pronounce the vowel correctly and stress the word in the sentence.
It is true that other non-native speakers struggle with this issue, but in this article I have tried to address the specific problems that Spanish speakers face and how to overcome them. If you enjoyed the article and are interested in learning more about English pronunciation, think about getting professional help from a teacher who speaks your language and knows how to fix your mistakes and improve your accent.
Hero image by David Monje on Unsplash