Welcome to Daily tips on Learning English. Today's tip is on distinguishing “can” and “cannot” in spoken American English.
“Cannot” is usually contracted to “can't”. So many learners of English assume that in order to distinguish between “can” and “can't”, one must listen for the final “t” sound /t/. And when speaking, one must pronounce final ‘t’ sound /t/ clearly. However, this is not in fact how native speakers distinguish “can” and “can't”. People do not say ‘I `can drive a car, but I can’t drive a motorcycle.’ People say ‘I can `drive a car', but I `can't drive a motorcycle.’ The difference between “can” and “can't” is in stress. “Can” is not stressed, the verb after it is. “Can't” is stressed. The verb after it is not.
Also since ‘can’ is not stressed, the vowel is reduced to /a/, so “can” is actually pronounced “can”. Listen to another example. “I `can't go on Saturday, but I can `go on Sunday.” Did you hear the 't' sound? Did you notice the difference words being stressed? Listening again. “I `can't go on Saturday, but I can `go on Sunday.” If you want to understand whether someone is saying he can or can't do something, you have to be listening for a stressed “can't” or a verb stressed after “can”. What does this mean? “I can `speak Japanese, but I `can't speak Taiwanese.” That's right, I can speak Japanese, but I cannot speak Taiwanese. When you are speaking it is very important that you follow this rule too. When learners of English say I `can help you, native speakers often unsure what is meant because of improper stress. So remember, you can stress “can't”, but you `can't stress “can”.
This has been today's tip on learning English. Tune in tomorrow for another tip.