It’s the hardest accent to master, hands down! The romance languages are pretty straightforward. They have rules about which syllable you put the emphasis on. And if there’s any diversion from the rule they’ll give you an accent mark.
But what’s the deal with English? Why is it so hard to pronounce? That makes it difficult for people to understand you. The trouble is if people don’t understand you it can stall your career.
You’ve mastered English writing and grammar.
You’ve got a mastery of American English grammar and writing. You understand the language perfectly.
But what’s with the American accent? Why is American English so hard to pronounce? It doesn’t seem to make any sense. Is there no rhyme or reason?
I’ll tell you: English is spelled wrong. Why are there five vowel letters and 16 vowel sounds? How are you to know what vowel sound to produce? Why can one consonant sound be pronounced by many different letters and letter combinations?
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?
Not being understood isn’t only frustrating.
It can hurt your career as well as your personal life.
If your accent is making it so people don’t understand some of your messages, or if it makes it too hard to process, you’re going to have a hard time getting that promotion.
It’s hard to tell people that their accent is standing in the way of their success because of political correctness.
But if you aren’t understood by colleagues, clients, and bosses, then you aren’t getting your job done as efficiently as you can.
You can speak with 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. Not here on this site, Convey is the place to be!
There is no rhyme to the American accent but there is reason and I’m going to explain what that is in the following text.
The stakes of a situation.
It doesn’t matter if you’re speaking in your first, second, or third language! The stakes have a huge impact on how your words come out!
Did you ever notice you perform better in low-stakes scenarios? If you’re ordering a cup of coffee or chatting with the doorman on our way into the building there are no or low stakes. So there’s no stammering or garbling up your words. You’re as smooth as silk!
But when you speak to your boss that’s a completely different story. The stakes can be quite high and now you’re as rough as burlap!
Succeeding in virtual meetings can be quite a challenge as well.
But don’t worry, we’ll take this into consideration with your training and we’ll make sure you are cool as a cucumber during the crucial moments of your life.
How to speak with an American accent.
Try these techniques first on your own and then start using them during your daily life.
- 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 co-articulation–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. Your speaking voice can become American sounding.
- 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 and assess relentlessly. Recording yourself and assessing your specific skills is the magic trick. Don’t forget to look for and eliminate your filler words.
Or you can let us help you. We can walk you through your options. Which course is right for you? Just scroll down to the blue box at the bottom of the page to schedule a free consultation. We’ll get your accent sorted in no time!
Let’s delve a little deeper into speaking with an American accent:
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.
Listen for sounds, intonation, rhythm & resonance differences. Don’t beat yourself up at this point! Just know that you are taking a baseline. Any change we want to make we always have to start with a baseline. 🙂
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 only at the slash. In other words, keep your “voice on” between the words.
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!)
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.
Let's look at the Spanish language.
Intonation in Spanish and the other Romance languages is consistent. Rules for rhythm are very specific. And if there is any change they give you an accent mark. That’s why Spanish is so easy to pronounce.
In English, the rhythm and intonation depend on the content. And that’s why it’s so hard to learn how to pronounce American English!
No matter what language you’re learning, you always want to feel weird at first. So when you hear Americans speaking Spanish with an American accent, they’re doing the same thing. They’re using American intonation, rhythm & resonance.
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.
You’ll never close someone you’ve confused.
Remember that English is essentially spelled wrong.
Look at the words in English. There’s no “sound to symbol” consistency like you’ll see in the romance languages. In the Spanish language there are 5 vowel letters and they are always pronounced the same way.
In English, we have the same 5 vowels and there are 16 different vowel sounds! Hear at the difference between the pronunciation of the letter A in “cat” and “father”.
Forget about the consonants! The letter T has 4 different productions depending on where it is in the word and what the rhythm of the word is.
Say these words out loud, for giggles:
“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.”
To speak with an American accent don't work on your pronunciation!
Since the pronunciation of the American accent depends on the intonation, and your intonation depends on the content of the words, we need a different strategy.
So try to change your mindset about pronouncing American speech. It’s not about popping your t’s, making hard consonant sounds.
To get people to really understand you, make sure you speak in “breath groups.” In other words, glue your words together.
Make sure you master your intonation. Make sure you’re using a varied intonation, by making the important syllables (like the root of the word) in a word longer and louder, and making the unimportant syllables (prefixes & suffixes) shorter and quieter.
If you’re serious about being crystal clear and speaking with an American accent, take The Perfect Accent course.