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Saturday November 1st, 2008
English Pronunciation Podcast 8-
How Americans Pronounce "Can" vs. "Can't":
This podcast teaches you how to pronounce "can" and "can't" just like an American. It's not as easy as you'd think. This lesson explains how you can hear and say the difference correctly.

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In today's podcast, we're going to learn how to correctly pronounce the difference between can and can't, applying the vowels /I/ and /æ / from past lessons.

Some of my students in New York often tell me they have trouble understanding if a native speaker said "can", (affirmative) or "can't", ( negative). It can also be difficult for students to communicate that distinction when speaking to native speakers.
The reason for this, is that native speakers often don't use the sound /t/ when saying "can't". So the first thing I tell my private students, is to not depend on hearing a /t/ sound in order to distinguish between "can" and "can't".
Native speakers do two things to distinguish between can and can't:

In full sentences, the two major differences between can and can't :

  • the vowel
  • word stress

Using the correct Vowel:
For "can", (affirmative), a native speaker uses the the vowel /I/: can = /kIn/

example: I can swim= I /kIn/ swim. (see podcast #2 for vowel /I/)

In the negative case, the vowel is /æ /: can't=/kænt/

example: I can't swim =I /kænt/ swim. (see podcast #6)

Exercise : Listen and Repeat:

Affirmative: I can swim= I /kIn/ swim.

Negative : I can't swim= I /kænt/ swim.

Stressing the Right Word :

In the affirmative : stress the main verb

Yes, I can swim.

In the negative case :stress the modal verb, can't, as well

No, I can't swim.

American Pronunciation of <t> in "can't" : Americans usually don't pronounce the< t> in can't . In American English, if <t> comes before a consonant or a pause, Americans often replace /t/ with a glottal stop. /?/

Example: what = /wha/

It's a hot place = It's a /ha?pleIs/

In a glottal stop /?/, we don't release the air of <t>. We stop the air in our throats at the glottis (vocal folds).

In future lessons, the glottal stop /?/ will be taught in greater detail.

*It's not necessary to use the glottal stop. It's perfectly okay for you to use a regular aspirated /t/.
However, you should be aware that Americans often substitue this sound for a normal aspirated /t/.

Example: can't =/kæn?/

*Because Americans often don't pronounce the <t> in "can't", it's important to listen for other signals to indicate affirmative or negative.

Listen for these signals:

affirmative : vowel is /I/: /kIn/

negative: vowel is /æ/: /kænt/

affirmative: stress the main verb

negative: stress the modal verb "can't "

Exercise: Listen and repeat the following sentences which contain can and can't . Pay careful attention to vowel quality and word stress.

can (affirmative)             can't (negative)

I can  meet you.             I can't meet you.

You can call me.           You can't call me.    

He can come.              He can't come.

She can afford it.            She can't afford it.   

It can work.                     It can't work.

We can have lunch.          We can't have lunch.

They can go to the meeting.          They can't go to the meeting.

Exercise: Listen to the following sentences which contain can and can't . Write down whether they are in the affirmative, "can" or the negative "can't . <t> will not be aspirated, so pay attention to vowel quality and words stress.

Learning the American pronunciation of "can" and "can't" often takes time, especially if your teachers have not been native speakers . But with practice and repetition, you will get it!

Looking for more practice? Try  Best Accent Training mp3s!

Any questions, comments or suggestions ? Contact us at:  contact@englishpronunciationpod.com

Thank you and see you next time!

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