You’ve got a mastery of American English grammar and writing. You understand the language. But what the heck is the deal with the American accent?
I’ll tell you: English is spelled wrong. Why are there five vowel letters and 16 vowel sounds? How are you to know what sound to produce?
Why is the letter O in “computer” pronounced like a schwa sound (I’ll explain later) and the letter O in “doctor” pronounced like the sound the doctor makes you say when she sticks the tongue depressor in your mouth?
You can acquire a Standard American English accent.
The good news is that you can acquire a standard American English accent if you desire & have some willpower. The bad news is there’s a lot of wrong information out there.
- You have to feel weird. Producing American English is very different from other languages. You have to use a lot of air, and you need a back resonance, limited face movements, etc. All of this is going to make you feel weird as you’re talking. But when you hear the recording of yourself, you’ll say, “Who’s that gorgeous American speaker?!”
- Learn to hear the differences between your speech and American speech. This may be the most challenging part. But it’s all downhill from here.
- Glue your phrases together. Most people are out there teaching you to pop every consonant, resulting in very choppy speech.
- Don’t over-articulate. Over-articulation is when you spend too much time on a consonant and don’t allow for coarticulation–how one sound impacts the ones around it.
- Use a back resonance. Most languages have a front resonance pattern. You’ll need to get used to speaking with the air’s vibration over the back of the tongue.
- Master Standard American English intonation. The pronunciation of sounds in American depends on intonation. Intonation depends on information. The most important words in your sentence are more prolonged than non-essential words.
- Contrary to popular belief, don’t move your face. All over YouTube, you’ll find folks telling you to stick out your tongue, and purse your lips, and smile broadly, all for different sounds. Nope. Since American resonance is in the back, you’ll want to reserve facial movement for facial expressions that supplement your message.
- Master the flap sound. “Butter, water, letter, Ita” In American, when a /t/ is between two vowels, it’s lightly flapped on the roof of your mouth behind your teeth.
- Listen to American television & movies. I’d go so far as to say play your favorite lines many times and transcribe what you hear into the IPA or create your own alphabet as long as it’s consistent.
- Record yourself speaking relentlessly. Recording yourself and assessing your specific skills is the magic trick.
How to Speak with an American Accent
Let’s delve a little deeper into what I mean by the steps above. Don’t be afraid to sound weird when you practice. If it doesn’t feel weird, you’re not doing it right. It’s got to feel strange to be different from your usual.
(If you have questions, comment below, or reach out to me through the link at the bottom of this page.)
Learn to Hear the Difference
Listen carefully to short recordings of Standard American English (SAE) speakers. Choose someone you admire and find them on YouTube. Play a single sentence or two a few times and write down what you hear.
Then do the same with your speech. Record the same sentence that your fav star said and relisten to yourself a few times. Try to hear the differences for each of these steps in the process that I describe here.
Glue Your Phrases together
Most people are out there teaching you to pop every consonant, resulting in very choppy speech. Instead, use “breath groups.” Link together phrases & clauses.
For example, “We had a meeting on Zoom / to discuss our latest project.”
Say that sentence aloud, stopping at the slash.
Practice these four steps to using an American accent.
Use Coarticulation, Not Over-Articulation
Each sound in American English impacts the sounds surrounding it.
We talked about the flap sound, how vowels affect the /t/. You’ll want to practice flaps; they’re everywhere in American speech!
Here’s some practice with the three most common pronunciation mistakes.
Also, in SAE if a /t/ follows an /n/ the /t/ becomes a glottal stop sound, as in “mountain” and “sentence.”
Don’t get me started with the TH sound. People are all over asking you to stick your tongue out. Please don’t do that! Let’s say you’re placing your order at a restaurant, and you say, “I’ll have the salmon.” Make the TH sound by lightly touching the back of your front top teeth, so your tongue is in place to make the /s/ sound.
Back Resonance vs. Front Resonance
Most languages place the vibration of air in the front of the mouth. So it stands to reason that you’ll apply the same technique when you learn a 2nd or 3rd language. But refrain from doing so!
Practice making the sound /u/ as in “roof” in the back of your mouth. Try it with the /o/ sound as well. (Run away from anyone who tells you to make /o/ by rounding your lips!)
How to use resonance so your voice sounds full and standard American.
Then pretend you’ve been to the dentist and gotten novocaine around your lips. Make sure they’re not moving.
The Intonation of the American Accent
Your intonation determines how well people understand you and to what extent they follow your call-to-action.
Intonation is when essential parts of a word or sentence become elongated (among other things), and the least important become shortened.
You can practice your intonation here.
Crystal Clear Speech Gets You Where You Need To Go
It’s not about reducing your accent. It’s about being able to speak in a way that grabs people’s attention and gets them to follow your call to action easily.
It’s also something people don’t want to tell you or they don’t know themselves. Only the best recruiters will tell you to improve your communication skills. All great communicators have worked on their speech, and they consider it an advantage they don’t want to share with others.
Why the Heck is it Spelled Like that?!
“common” is pronounced /kaaamin/ while “computer” is pronounced /kmpyuder/ What?
“camera” is a two-syllable word. Mmmhmm. So is “chocolate.”
How about “focus.”
Focus on that a bit 😀
As promised: The schwa sound is the vowel sound in “cut” or “must.”