219: /g+n/ as in "signal" and "ignore"

"Coarticulating" the /g/ and /n/ is the trick to fluent pronunciation of these two sounds. Don't release the /g/ before starting the /n/.

Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy’s American English Pronunciation podcast. My name is Amanda, and this is our 219th episode.

Today I’m going to explain a sequence of consonant sounds that can be tricky to pronounce, the /g+n/ together, as in the word “signal.”

What makes a word like “signal” so hard to say? Well, in that word we’re going from a stop sound, the /g/, into an /n/, which is a nasal sound. Stops are sounds in which we totally block the air for a tiny fraction of a second, and then release the sound with a little puff. Say the /g/ and notice how the air is blocked, then released: (g sound, g sound). Besides the /g/, there are five other stop sounds in English. They are the /t/ (t sound), /d/ (d sound), /p/ (p sound), /b/ (b sound) and /k/ (k sound).

Learn more:

/t/: pronunciation, spelling, practice
/d/: pronunciation, spelling, practice
/b/: pronunciation, spelling, practice
/p/: pronunciation, spelling, practice
/k/: pronunciation, spelling, practice
/g/: pronunciation, spelling, practice

Nasal sounds, those are the /n/ (sound), /m/ (m sound), and "ng" /ŋ/ (ng sound), are created when a tiny flap where the nasal passage meets the throat opens and allows air to flow through the nose instead of the mouth. Yes, it’s kind of weird, but it can be easily demonstrated with the /m/. Say the /m/ for a moment (m sound). Now take your fingers and hold your nose shut while saying the /m/. You can’t do it, right? That’s because your lips are blocking the air from coming out your mouth. If the nasal passage is also closed, no air—or sound—can come out. The /n/ and "ng" /ŋ/ are created similarly, but the tongue is used to block the air instead of the lips.

Learn more:

/m/ pronunciation, spelling, practice
/n/ pronunciation, spelling, practice
/
ŋ/ pronunciation, spelling, practice
Now that you hopefully understand the /g/ alone and the /n/ alone, let’s get back to the /g+n/ combination and what makes it difficult. It’s hard because instead of saying the /g/ fully and releasing it with that little puff, the release is coarticulated with the start of the /n/. What does that mean? Coarticulation means that for a little bit of time, two sounds are occurring at the same time, and it’s kind of common with the the /n/ in particular.

To coarticulate the /g/ and /n/, first notice how the /g/ is pronounced. Say the sound with me a few times: (g sound, g sound, g sound). Do you feel how the back of the tongue lifts and presses into the soft, mushy area at the back of the mouth?

Now say the /n/ and hold it for a few seconds: (n sound).

To coarticulate these two sounds you use the back of the tongue to stop the air for the first part of the /g/, just like normal. But before you lower the tongue and release the air, you also use the tip of the tongue to start the /n/. You are “coarticulating” at that exact point. You’re creating both the /g/ and the /n/ at the same time. Then, once the /n/ is in place, you lower the back of the tongue to complete the /g/ and only the /n/ remains. This is really hard to do by itself, so we’ll practice it within words.

Let’s start with the word “signal, signal, sig-nal.” The key to pronouncing that word is in the coarticulation. Without coarticulating, the word is pronounced “sig-u-nal,” with three syllable. Can you hear the difference? I’ll say it again, both ways. I’ll say the correct coarticulation first, then the way I often hear from students, where the /g/ is released before the /n/ is started: “signal, sig-u-nal.”

Again, those were “signal” and “sig-u-nal.” Because both the /g/ and the /n/ are voiced, the release of the /g/ ends up being pronounced as the vowel sound “uh.” When a vowel sound is added to a word, so is a syllable. The correct pronunciation of “signal” is two syllables. The incorrect pronunciation, “sig-u-nal,” has three syllables.

Say the word “signal” with me very slowly. I want you to feel the tongue making the g-part of the sound and the n-part of the sound at the same time, “signal.” One more time, a little more quickly, “signal.”

Great! Let’s practice “signal” and a few more 2-syllable /g+n/ words. I’ll say a word and then leave time for you to repeat after me:

signal
ignore
ignite
magnet
pregnant

And here are some 3-syllable words. Make sure they stay three syllables in your pronunciation of them:

dignity
recognize
diagnose
ignorant
signature

And, just for fun, here are two words that are four syllables long that include the /g+n/ sound combination: 

magnificent
significant

How does that sound and feel to you? Can you do it?

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That’s all for today, everyone. If you enjoyed this /g+n/ episode of the American English Pronunciation podcast, let me know by sending an email to podcast@pronuncian.com, or by leaving a review on iTunes. We appreciate any form of support you can give us to help keep this podcast coming to you.

Thanks for listening. Bye-bye.