In all my years as an English learner, I thought using the flap t (the d-like sound found e.g. in letter) in American English was simple. When some dictionary publishers started using a special symbol in phonetic transcriptions to represent the flap t, I thought it was a useless gimmick.
That was what I had believed until last week, when I decided to write a FAQ about the flap t. It turns out I hadn’t realized a flap t is pronounced not just between a stressed vowel and an unstressed vowel (e.g. water, betting). There are a lot of other cases where /t/ is flapped. In fact, there are 12 to 15 different positions where that happens. And even this complicated system of rules has exceptions.
Now, when I say I hadn’t realized the flap t was pronounced in so many different positions, I don’t mean I had been pronouncing words incorrectly all those years. Quite the opposite — as I examined the different examples that I found in phonetic sources, I kept finding that my intuition matched the correct pronunciation almost perfectly. For example, I hadn’t known the rule that you pronounce a flap t before a stressed vowel if that vowel begins a word, as in not over. Yet, if you had asked me to say not over, I would have pronounced it with a flap t.
Once again, I realized that input had made me almost a native speaker of English. I can look at a word or phrase and tell you whether it has the flap t or not, without checking any rules. Heck, I could write pretty good rules for using the flap t just by thinking up some examples and checking my own pronunciation. All this is not because I can fly, stop accidents and eat planets. It’s because I’ve listened to thousands of hours of spoken English. Folks, Tom Cruise is not the answer — input is the answer.
So, if you’re going to read my Flap t FAQ, don’t pay too much attention to the rules. Focus on the examples (it has a lot of really good ones). Try to pronounce them. Add them to your collection in SuperMemo, Anki, Mnemosyne, etc. Good luck!