3 Segmentals: Consonant Clusters

This next group of sounds can be quite challenging for certain L1 backgrounds. The simple explanation is that not every language “allows” consonant clusters like English does. Take, for example, the word strengths. The syllable structure for this word looks like CCCVCCCC (/strɛŋkθs/). Now take a Japanese learner of English, who comes from a language that only allows syllables to be either V or CV. You can immediately notice the trouble this learner is going to have. The learner, unaccustomed to producing such syllables, is undoubtedly going to either add or delete certain sounds from the word strengths so that it fits with the rules of their L1.

Four Types of Segmental Pronunciation Errors

There are some who have tried to pin which of these errors causes the most problems to intelligibility, though it is highly understudied and the results are inconclusive. Preliminary findings suggest that segmental errors in stressed syllables cause more damage to intelligibility than those in unstressed, and that word-initial errors can also cause more damage, as it leads the listener on a wild goose chase for a word that was not intended.

Don’t fret! There are plenty of common rules to these consonant clusters.

Rules for Consonant Clusters

Syllable-initial clusters can come in clusters of two or three, and there are certain conditions that must be met for them to occur.

Clusters of Two

One of two conditions must be met:

  • Either the first sound is /s/, or,
  • The second sound is an approximant (/l, r, w, y/)

Sometimes, however, both conditions can hold true, like in the word “swift” /swɪft/.

Clusters of Three

While more challenging than its counterpart, the conditions are much more strict:

  • The first sound must be /s/
  • The second sound must be a voiceless stop (/p, t, k/)
  • The third sound must be an approximant (/l, r, w, y/)

Syllable-final clusters are a bit tougher to categorize. However, many clusters of two or three, and pretty much all clusters of four, are formed by adding a plural (/s, z/) or past tense (/t, d/) inflection to a word.


Initial and Final Consonant Clusters





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Oral Communication for Non-Native Speakers of English Copyright © 2020 by Timothy Kochem, Monica Ghosh, Lily Compton, and Elena Cotos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.