How To Learn American English And Master The American Accent
If you travel across the United States, you’ll encounter dozens of regional accents. The US is a vast country with many different speech patterns. However, one American accent stands out. We often refer to this accent as “newscaster English” or “standard American English.”
This American accent serves as the default. You can hear this accent in classrooms, movie theatres, and radio announcements. While regional accents can vary, most Americans recognize this accent. They find it easy to understand, and they may use it in some parts of their life.
Last Updated June 2020
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As you work to master the American English language, you may want to master this accent too. Learning to speak American English like a pro can help you in dozens of ways. Mastering the American accent may open new career opportunities and boost your social life.
Why learn American English?
Unfortunately, native speakers may have trouble understanding accented English. An accent can sometimes cause confusion or social difficulties. Employers may hesitate to hire a worker who struggles to communicate with clients and customers. Mastering American English can open doors in your professional life. By mastering it, you can enter competitive work environments and work toward promotions.
Many ESL speakers also find that mastering American English builds their self-confidence. They become more outgoing, make new friends, and join new activities. Rather than staying silent in group settings, they look for opportunities to speak. Over time, this change can transform their lives.
Remember that achieving fluency builds trust and credibility. Many people won’t trust someone they haven’t spoken to. If you hesitate to speak English because you’re self-conscious about your accent, you might struggle to make friends or secure a job. Improving your pronunciation can build new relationships with friends and coworkers.
British vs American accents
The default American accent is older than the modern British accent. English colonists arrived in North American in the 1600s. They brought their accent and speech patterns with them. After the US declared independence in 1776, the transplanted accent remained. But the British accent changed over the centuries. The default American accent remained largely intact.
If you’re familiar with British English, you already know that it differs from American English quite a bit. Let’s take a look at some key features of American English.
Americans pronounce most vowels with soft, unrounded lips. Think of the word “rod.” Americans usually pronounce this word as “rahd.”
While British English uses many long vowels, Americans often use the short “a” in their speech. Think of the word “cat” or ” ask.” Pay attention to how Americans shorten these vowel sounds.
British English often inserts a “y” sound into words like “chew” (“chyoo”). American English drops the “y” sound, so “chew” becomes “chu.”
How to learn American English
Ready to master the American accent? Review these helpful tips.
1. Practice using a rhotic accent
Many languages drop or slur the “r” sound. Think of “winter,” “father,” or “matter.” In other English-speaking countries, speakers may drop the “r”: “father” becomes “fathah.” But American English keeps the “r.” If you want to master the American accent, learning to pronounce this sound is vital.
Learning this sound can be tricky, depending on your native language or accent. You may need a lot of practice before you master this sound! Don’t give up: you can master the “r” sound in time.
To pronounce the “r,” place the tongue in the middle of your mouth, not quite touching the roof of your mouth. Keep your lips rounded. Practice several times a day until this sound becomes second nature.
2. Compare Ts and Ds
In the American accent, “t” sounds can be quirky. The American tendency to shift pronunciation of the “t” sound puzzles many ESL speakers. Here’s a quick tip: when a “t” comes between two vowels, Americans usually use a “d” sound.
Think of words like “water” or “computer” and listen to how Americans pronounce these words. They often use a “d” sound: “wader” or “compuder.” Try to adopt this habit. Adjusting your “t” can help you sound like a native speaker.
3. Review verb use
It’s no secret that Americans often use nouns as verbs. In American English, speakers often use this trick with household appliances. Take a look at the following examples:
- I vacuumed the living room.
- I blended up a smoothie.
- I refrigerated the lunch meat.
Americans might also use brand names as verbs:
- Can you Xerox this for me?
- Let’s Windex that mirror.
- Our client FedExed the package.
These phrases can be confusing for English learners. They can also puzzle recent immigrants. If you’re new to the US, you might be unfamiliar with popular American brands. If you don’t recognize a word or phrase, ask the speaker for more information. Your conversational partner can provide greater clarity.
You might find it helpful to research popular US companies. Many brand names have slipped into casual American speech. Recognizing these brand names can help you speak like a native.
4. Check your vocabulary
English words can vary between different countries. Common phrases in Britain may be unknown in America, and vice versa. If you’re new to the US, make sure you’re using American terminology. Americans may not recognize terms like “flat” or “lift.” Instead, they use “apartment” or “elevator.”
Brush up on the terms for common objects. When studying American English vocabulary, make sure to look at regional speak lists. Some English-language resources are targeted toward the UK or Australia. These English-speaking countries have their own terminology and slang. Americans seldom recognize these terms.
5. Speak slowly
Each language has a unique average speed. In some languages, native speakers talk rapidly. They cram many syllables into a single second. Other languages have slower speech.
English is a comparatively slow language. If you’re an ESL speaker, keep this fact in mind. Languages like Spanish or Japanese move faster than English. You might need to slow down your speech rate in the US. Make sure to pause between phrases and sentences.
If you sometimes struggle to remember the English terms, don’t worry. There’s no need to rush your speech. Slowing down can mimic Americans’ natural speech patterns. It also ensures that your conversational partner understands you.
6. Use thought groups
Americans tend to speak in thought groups. Native speakers often break long sentences into separate phrases. By using thought groups, you can match American speech patterns. Thought groups also help you organize your speech. They also make it easier for your conversational partner to understand complex sentences.
Consider the following phrase:
The only thing I care about is getting a good grade on the project.
Most Americans will pause briefly after the word “about.” This pause lets their conversational partner digest the first part of the sentences.
Remember that each thought group contains a focus word. Native speakers stress this word to emphasize their point or clarify their meaning.
Here are the focus words a native speaker might choose:
The only thing I care about is getting a good grade on the project.
In this sentence, the speaker emphasizes that they care deeply about their grades.
You can mimic the American speech pattern by pausing after each thought group. When you reach a focus word, raise the pitch of your voice. Hold the sound for slightly longer than usual.
Keep in mind that you can alter the meaning of a phrase by emphasizing certain words. Take a look at the following sentence.
I never said she took my money.
Try saying this sentence aloud, and emphasize each word. Think about how changing your emphasis creates different meanings:
|I never said she took my money.||The speaker implies that the woman took the money. However, the speaker denies making the accusation.|
|I never said she took my money.||The speaker passionately denies that the woman took the money.|
|I never said she took my money.||The speaker denies making an outright accusation but implies that the woman stole money.|
|I never said she took my money.||The speaker implies that someone took the money, but it might not have been the woman.|
|I never said she took my money.||The speaker implies that the money wasn’t stolen. The woman may have done something with the money, but the speaker doesn’t accuse her of stealing it.|
|I never said she took my money.||The speaker implies that the woman might have taken someone else’s money.|
|I never said she took my money.||The speaker implies that the woman took something, but it wasn’t money.|
It may seem confusing at first, but it’s a great lesson for English learners. If you want to direct attention toward a certain part of your statement, make sure to emphasize that word.
7. Stress the correct syllable
English students are often unsure which syllables to stress. Dictionaries can be a great resource, but here are a few simple tricks to keep in mind.
In American English:
- Stress the first part of compound nouns: parking
- Stress the second part of phrase verbs: sign out
- Stress the second part of compound verbs: overdone
In American English, some words do double duty. Think of the word “record.” This word can serve as a verb or a noun.
Noun: I kept a record of my job duties.
Verb: I plan to record my daughter’s school play.
If you’re using the word as a noun, stress the first syllable. If it’s a verb, stress the second syllable.
8. Study the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)
The IPA uses a set of symbols to represent each spoken sound. Dictionaries and reference materials use the IPA to help English learners figure out the right pronunciation. Make sure to study the IPA and learn to recognize each symbol. Learning the IPA lets you quickly check your pronunciation.
9. Use contractions
Americans use a lot of contractions in casual speech. Often, they combine nouns and pronouns with verbs to create short phrases:
- She is = she’s
- I will = I’ll
- You would not = You wouldn’t
Today, most Americans use contractions, even in business communications. Some workplaces may have exceptions to this rule. But you’re generally safer using contractions than skipping them. Omitting contractions can make your speech sound too formal. Don’t be afraid to include contractions in your text messages, emails, and daily conversations.
Need a few more tips for mastering American English? Check out these eight bonus tips:
- Practice: Learning a new language or accent takes a lot of practice. Look for opportunities to chat with native speakers, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
- Use a dictionary: Get in the habit of checking your dictionary to learn the pronunciation of new words. Dictionaries are an excellent resource for your daily life.
- Study idioms: Americans use a lot of idioms, and some can be confusing to ESL speakers. Look up common idioms and use them in casual conversation. Incorporating idioms into your speech can make you sound like a native speaker.
- Use figurative language: Metaphors and similes can add life to your speech. Learn more about the different types of figurative language.
- Watch videos: YouTube and television are great resources for ESL speakers. Watching videos provides plenty of exposure to the American accent. Take notes as you watch, and pay close attention to how Americans pronounce everyday words.
- Sing songs: Music offers another opportunity to learn common words, phrases, and slang terms. Try singing along with your favorite English songs.
- Read aloud: As you read a newspaper or study a textbook, read the words out loud. Practice your pronunciation and mark words that are difficult for you. You can go back and practice these words again later.
- Record yourself: You might feel a bit silly, but try starting a vlog or audio diary. After a few days, replay the recording and listen for errors. This trick helps you spot problems and improve your pronunciation.
Ready to learn more? Udemy offers a variety of English language courses and blog tutorials for beginners and advanced learners. If you need more help with American accent training, browse our course catalog or take a look at our 12-step guide to speaking English fluently.
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