Houbo Ren writes to ask about “/n/ and /l/ in linking speech”.
He refers to the advice given on this website (and elsewhere),
When a word ends in a consonant sound, move the consonant sound to the beginning of the next word if it starts with a vowel sound.
Houbo comments, “I can hear that most of the linking consonants can go with this rule but I am not sure about the /n/ and /l/. For turn out, I don’t hear ‘tur nout’: what I hear is ‘turn nout’, which has two /n/s in it. The same thing applies to /l/, as in ‘handle it’, I hear ‘handl lit’ rather than ‘hand lit’. Some teachers in schools here even teach that when handle becomes handling, it should sound like ‘handl ling’, i.e. retain the /l/ in handle and add a new /l/ to be followed by ing.”
With some exaggeration, no doubt, he adds, “I still dwell on (dwel lon? dwe lon?) this question every single second and I really do need a professional opinion.”
I think we need to make a distinction between what native speakers perceive and what non-native learners, in this case Chinese people, perceive. We must also distinguish the linguistic facts, as demonstrated by such matters as minimal pairs and the rules governing the choice of allophones, from pedagogical advice suitable for beginners or intermediate-level learners.
Let us take the linguistic facts first. Phoneticians pointed out long ago that a word-final n sounds different from a word-initial n in an identical phonetic environment. The phrase an aim ən ˈeɪm sounds subtly different from a name ə ˈneɪm. Impressionistically, we can say that the n of an is weaker and more quickly articulated than the n of name. Turn out is tɜːn aʊt, not tɜː naʊt and not tɜːn naʊt (for the last, compare turn nasty).
Similarly, the word-final l of all eight ɔːl ˈeɪt is different from the word-initial l of (soon) or late ɔː ˈleɪt.
This type of difference is more obvious in the case of plosives such as /t/. There is a clear difference in pronunciation between Is the ship at anchor? … ət ˈæŋkə and Is the ship a tanker? …ə ˈtæŋkə. The word-final t of at is not strongly aspirated (and may also change to a glottal stop in some kinds of BrE, while in AmE it regularly becomes a voiced tap); the word-initial t of tanker is voiceless, alveolar, and strongly aspirated.
So from the NS’s point of view the advice given above is wrong. We cannot state as a general rule that a word-final consonant is moved to the beginning of the next word if that word begins with a vowel sound.
In phonology terms, the principle of maximizing syllabic onsets at the expense of codas does not apply across the board in English, at least when we consider minimal pairs and articulatory detail.
For hundreds of further examples, see here.
(Footnote: this is not to deny that it may sometimes be difficult to hear differences of the kind we find here. Indeed, there are several well-known cases where what was originally a word-initial n has come to be reinterpreted by speakers as a word-final n or vice versa. The kind of snake now called an adder was originally (etymologically) a nadder, Old English nǣdre. What we now call a newt was once an ewt or an eft.)
Nevertheless… In standard Chinese, words and syllables do not end with consonant sounds other than n and ŋ. Chinese people learning English are accordingly tempted simply to omit final consonants. As a reminder that these consonants must not be omitted, the advice to transfer them to the next syllable where possible may obviously be useful.
The word handle that Houbo asks about is a special case, because in this word the final l is syllabic. More on syllabic consonants tomorrow.