The challenge of consonant clusters

Changed. Desks. World. Boxed. These words are tongue twisters for many English language learners, because they end in consonant clusters.

What Are Consonant Clusters?

In English, pronunciation goes by sounds, and not by spelling. Clusters are made of two or more consonant sounds together, not letters. For example, the word box ends in one consonant letter but two consonant sounds /ks/.

Where do consonant clusters occur?

Consonant clusters can occur in any syllable. Consonant clusters that are at the beginning of a word are usually easier for most speakers than those at the end of a word. In English, the longest possible cluster at the start of a word has 3 sounds, as in split. The longest possible end cluster is 4 sounds, as in twelfths, bursts and glimpsed.

What types are the most difficult and for whom?

Most speakers will have different levels of difficulty depending on the length, position, and type of consonant cluster. They are easier to pronounce for speakers who have them in their native language. German and Russian contain consonant clusters while Japanese does not. Spanish  only has them in certain places, with no word initial /s/ consonant clusters, nor word final consonant clusters.

These first language patterns transfer when speaking English.  A Japanese speaker may unconsciously add an extra vowel as in desk-u, or change-ee.  A Spanish speaker may add a vowel to word initial /s/ clusters (e-spring) or drop consonants in word final clusters.

For almost all English language learners, combinations of r, l, and w are also difficult, such as world, rarely, and swirl

Words that end in –ed have 2 possible cluster endings. These words will end with either /d/ or /t/.

Spelling          Final Consonant Cluster

bounced          /nst/

boxed              /kst/

grasped           /spt/

asked               /skt/

blinked           /nkt/

crunched         /ncht/

splurged          /rgd/

changed           /ngd/

arranged          /ngd/

formed             /rmd/

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4 Responses to The challenge of consonant clusters

  1. bigoutreach says:

    Nice article about Consonant clusters and it’s uses.

  2. Horu says:

    Spanish doesn’t have consonant clusters? That’s such an ignorant statement.

    Spanish and English are both Indoeuropean languages and have similar features.

    Comprensión – (mpr and ns) Aren’t those sound clusters?
    Instigar – (nst) Isn’t it a consinant cluster?
    Istmo – (stm) Another consonant cluster.
    Anécdota – (cd) See?
    Desfibrilador – (sf and br)
    Escrutinio – (scr)
    Extra – (xtr)
    Etc.

  3. admin says:

    Hi Horu. You’re right! I should have been more clear. What I meant was that there are no /s/ word initial consonant clusters, nor word final consonant clusters. I’ll go back and edit that. Thanks.

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