Learn American English and Sound Like a Native English Speaker

learnamericanenglishEnglish. It’s a hard language, a lot harder than say learning Spanish or French. It’s complex in ways that people who are raised speaking the language don’t even understand. We’ve got a lot of confusing words, like effect and affect, and the spelling of English words aren’t always intuitive. We’ve also got a lot of sounds we make when speaking that are probably not familiar to you and your native tongue. My hopes are through this blog you can pick up on a few tips that will help make this well-worth-it learning process a bit easier.  Since you want to learn how to speak like an American, check out this course. It’ll be a great visual aid

The Basics

So, you want to learn American English. That’s great! First, let’s talk a little bit about the origins of this global language. English is a West Germanic language. You’ll notice that we actually do use a lot of words from the German language, like radio and Kindergarten. English was first spoken in medieval England, but has risen to be the most popularly spoken language worldwide. While it’s only the third most common native language, many people, like yourself, are learning English as a Second Language (ESL). English is the first language in several countries, like, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, the UK and some Caribbean nations. Obviously, it’s the first language for the United States of America. There are different accents, dialects and written variations on this diverse language as you experience it from country to country, and even from state to state in the U.S.

American Dialects

We Americans are the definition of a breadbasket. We are incredibly diverse and as a result, have many different “versions” of English within our country’s borders. If you’re planning on studying abroad at Alabama State University, you’ll probably realize, and rather quickly, that people are keen to say things like “ya’ll”. This, by definition, is a slang term, however in the Deep South this is the most common way of saying the phrase “you all”, inferring direction of the statement to a group of people. In New York City, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb if you ask your new group of friends “ya’ll want to go grab dinner?”

In the mid-west people have their own vernacular that elsewhere, may seem a bit strange to use. Someone from Minnesota may say something like “It’s time for supper, folks.” Supper, being synonymous with dinner, but one that most people outside the mid-west don’t use. Folks, well, folks is used country-wide and it refers to a group of people, but more popularly, to family. “My folks are coming to visit me at college this weekend.” Read: “My family is coming to visit me at college this weekend.”

Then of course we have accents. Within the U.S. we have too many distinct accents to count. As you become more familiar with American culture you will realize that people from the southeast have a hard time understanding the people in the northeast because they talk so fast, and the people in the south tend to draw out their words which is why it’s been dubbed the “southern drawl”.  In New England (Northeast proper), people don’t use their r’s. There’s a fun sentence that blatantly mocks the New England accent:

“I parked the car in Harvard yard.”

If you’re from New England that might sound something like this:

“I paaked the caa in Havad Yad”.

Weird, right? This kind of thing will happen all over the U.S., in almost every different way possible. Don’t let this discourage you – it can be fun!

Okay, so you’re probably thinking, what did I get myself into!? Don’t fret just yet. These things will come naturally as you begin to emerge yourself in the language. For now, check out this handy map that can break down the most popular American dialects by region. There are plenty of online courses that can teach you English, from the beginner level, to intermediate English courses all the way to advanced levels.

Grammar

Where to start! English grammar is nothing short of confusing. We have a zillion tenses (okay, just 10, but still!), certain conditions to use certain words or phrases, subtle ordering rules, stress words, crazy idioms and so on. The best part I’d say, is we are virtually a caseless language (there are some exceptions), so no need to learn the gender of every noun in our dictionary. Thank goodness!

Let’s go over a few tips to get you on the right track.

Sentences:

Sentences are made up of two parts. The subject and the predicate. The subject is the person or thing that acts or is described, and the predicate is the action or descriptive word.

Example: That tree is tall. Tree is the subject and tall is the predicate. You must have both a subject and predicate to have a full sentence.

Clauses:

You can break a sentence down into clauses. This sentence is made up of two clauses. They can be two different complete sentences, but we’ve connected them with the word “and”.

Example: That tree is tall, and it’s only a year old.

Phrases:

A phrase is a group of two or more grammatically linked words that do not have a subject or predicate. It’s a part of speech inside of a clause. The clause being “That tree is tall”

Example: That tree

Parts of Speech:

In most languages you have parts of speech that make up your verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and nouns. Each one of these could have their own tutorial, so we’ll stick with the basics.

Nouns: describe a person place or thing. Tree, is a noun. There are proper, common, concrete, abstract, countable, non-countable and collective nouns. Oh my. Check out this noun tutorial to learn more.

Pronouns: replace nouns with sentences to help make them sound more natural. There are indefinite, personal possessive and reflexive pronouns. He, She and It are pronouns. More on pronouns.

Verbs: describe an action. Swim is a verb. There are action, auxiliary, main, modal, mood, phrasal, irregular, finite and non-finite verbs. An overview on verbs, here.

Adjectives: descriptive words. Purple, tall and furry are adjectives. There are rules to consider about the order of an adjective in sentences. There are comparative, superlative and possessive adjectives.

There is so much more to learn about the structure, components and rules of writing in English. Here is a great advanced English grammar course to really give you a leg up (there’s an idiom!) in becoming an English pro.

Spelling

Alright, if you’re still with me, you’re going to do great. Spelling is one of those things that some of us are good at, and some of us just aren’t. Unfortunately, English spelling is not intuitive and you can’t always (rarely) sound out a word phonetically and get an accurate spelling. This is one of those things you are just going to have to study, a lot, to get right. Consider this your challenging replacement to learning gender cases. There’s a really cool study of word origin called etymology. Sometimes understanding where the word came from can help you understand, and remember, how to spell it. I’m not advocating that you become an etymology guru, because that would be very time-consuming, frustrating and more of a career path than an ESL avenue. I am asking, however, that you take note when you a read a word, like stadium, and recognize its foreign origin (comes from the French word stade)  it may just help you to get it right next time you try spelling it out.

Vocabulary

In any language, the vocabulary is the fundamental element in effectively communicating your ideas, feelings, or thoughts with someone. It also will take the most effort as you begin to build your own personal dictionary. One of the most frustrating things for me, even as a native English speaker, is trying to find the right word for the right feeling. There are just so many words! Sometimes, I want to describe something that may be commonly thought, but the word escapes me. One of my favorite examples of this is the word apricity. For the longest time I’d been seeking a word to sum up the feeling of warmth from the sun in dead middle of winter. After reading, Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Words, I learned some obscure words not heard in day-to-day conversation.   Just so happens, apricity, was one of those words and can be defined as “the warmth from the sun in the winter”. Perfect. My suggestion: read as much as you can. It’s the best way to add impressive words to your vocabulary. Subscribe to dictionary.com and receive a daily word in your email inbox!

Confusing words

Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present. What? The word present, presents itself three separate times in that sentence. The same word, despite the same spelling and pronunciation, means three different things. Let’s assess.

Since there is no time like the present.

This use of the word present means “now”.

He thought it was time to present.

Here, present means to give, or make appear.

The present.

This present means, gift.

So let’s look at a sentence using synonyms for the three different types of present in this sentence.

Since there is no time like now, he thought it was time to give the gift.

How’s that for confusing!? There are a ton of words in the English language that present this same challenge. Here are a few more examples:

1. They were too close to the door to close it.

These words are pronounced slightly different than one another, the first close means they were too near to the door. The second close means to shut.

They were too near to the door to shut it.

2. To, Too

In a sentence, these words sound interchangeable. They aren’t. To can be used as a preposition (to connect words). It can be defined as toward, reaching as far as, and until. This list is not exhaustive. The word too is an adverb. It can be defined as additionally, excessively, very or extremely.

I am going to work.

He ran to the library.

I miss you, too.

The water was too cold to swim.

3. They’re, Their and There

This one is something that everyone I know (yes, they are all American!) gets wrong, every day. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a status update on Facebook saying something like, “I am so excited their going to visit this weekend!” This is grammatically incorrect.

Their, is a possessive term for them.

Their car broke down yesterday.

There, refers to a place.

I can’t wait until we get there!

They’re, is a contraction for they are.

My friend told me they’re really nice.

To practice your their, there and they’re, go to this worksheet.

I could go on, but instead I will leave you with a list of the most common mistakes that ESL students make when learning the English language.

What’s next?

I hope that you are not more confused than you were when you started reading. If you are, it probably means your internalizing a lot of this information and thinking ahead at the obstacles you may face. It’s okay. Don’t be deterred. There is a lot that will come naturally as you dive into this exciting new adventure. The best tips of advice I can offer is: practice, practice, practice. As you learn different words, or rules, use them in a sentence, find a conversation partner and practice. Watch tutorials that offer an introduction to English pronunciation so you learn the sounds correctly.  I know from experience (learning German was really hard for me!) that if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. So stay positive and be proud of yourself for taking on such a challenge!