The American accent can mystify many non-native English speakers. Even for those who have learned English for a long time, the American accent has specific linguistic features that make it tricky for those who have learned English outside of the United States, or who have learned the British pronunciation.In this article, we will focus on the essential sounds and speech patterns that make up the General American accent, which is the most neutral and widely accepted accent in the US.
Clear pronunciation of the American English accent will not only put you at ease in your day-to-day interactions and boost your confidence, but it will also have positive effects on your career. It's not about erasing your cultural identity, but ensuring that you can communicate effectively in the global marketplace.
Mastering this accent can be a long journey, but it doesn’t have to be daunting! We’ll cover the essentials of how to learn the American accent, from pronunciation to vocabulary to speech patterns. You'll be improving in no time.
We'll start with one of the most prominent aspects of American English pronunciation: rhoticity, or what's often referred to as the "hard R."
Rhoticity refers to the full pronunciation of the R sound at the end of words and syllables. This differs from non-rhotic accents like British English, where the R sound is often softened or completely omitted.
Notice how British Keira Knightley and American Jimmy Fallon pronounce their Rs differently, particularly with the words “unicorn” and “year.”
While Fallon fully pronounces the R in both words, Knightley drops the R to pronounce them more like “unicahn” and “yee-ah.”
Actors and learners aiming to do accent work and master correct pronunciation of the American accent should pay special attention to the written R in their scripts and texts. Every R should be pronounced. It's a good practice to circle all the Rs to remind yourself to articulate them clearly.
It’s also important to avoid adding an R where it isn't written. A British accent usually inserts R sounds after words ending in vowels, when the following word begins with a vowel. For example, instead of “Anna always smiles,” they might say “Anner always smiles.” However, this is not part of the Standard American accent.
To produce the American R sound, focus on the mechanics of moving your tongue and mouth - it can be helpful to practice in front of a mirror. Start with the tip of your tongue close to the roof of your mouth and slightly retract it, allowing the sound to flow freely. With practice, you'll build up enough muscle memory so that the correct pronunciation becomes automatic.
Another vital characteristic of the Standard American accent is the pronounced L sound, sometimes referred to as the "dark L." Understanding this feature is key to achieving authenticity in this accent.
In the American accent, the L sound is consistently pronounced as the "dark L." This means that you'll distinctly hear it in words like "full" or "bell." To reinforce this rule, circling the L letters in your script can be a helpful reminder.
Listen to how Jason Bateman pronounces his “L” sounds in words like “people,” “world,” and “all.”
To produce an American L sound, position your tongue against the roof of your mouth at the back. Allow the sound to flow from the back of your throat.
In contrast, British English employs a combination of the "light L" and "dark L." The "light L" is a softer and less pronounced L sound, often heard in words like "life." The "dark L," on the other hand, is closer to the General American L and is found in words like "full."
To illustrate the difference, consider how Americans pronounce "trouble" with a clear L sound, while some British accents may sound like "troub-w," with a softer and less distinct L.
The flap T is a defining sound of the American accent, setting it apart from various other English accents. Understanding and mastering this sound is pivotal for achieving an authentic American pronunciation.
The flap T is a quick, light, and nearly imperceptible T sound that occurs when the letter "t" appears between vowels or at the beginning of words. It's particularly prevalent in General American speech and contributes to the accent's distinct rhythm. For example, in words like "bottle," the "t" is pronounced as a rapid flap T and sounds almost like a soft D.
In contrast, a British accent often employs different variations of the T sound. For instance in the word "bottle," the T is pronounced without airflow, which makes it sound like a little cough.
In some cases, the American accent drops the T sound in specific words or phrases. For instance, "not now" may be pronounced as "noh now." This omission is a characteristic feature of the General American accent.
To produce the flap T, touch the tip of your tongue lightly against the roof of your mouth just behind your front teeth. This creates a brief, soft, flap-like sound.
In other languages, the W and V consonant sounds, like in “wary” and “victory,” are considered the same sound and used interchangeably. In American English, however, they’re 2 very different consonants and you might say the wrong word if you’re not careful.
To make the W sound, round your lips and push sound through. Keep your tongue relaxed and toward the back of your mouth.
To make the V sound, gently place your top front teeth against your bottom lip and push out sound. Keep your tongue relaxed.
Vowel sounds play a crucial role in distinguishing the American accent from other accents in the English language. Americans typically have different mouth shapes for their vowels compared to British English speakers, with a more relaxed and wider jaw stance. Additionally, Standard American vowels tend to be longer in duration, contributing to the distinct rhythm of the accent.
To illustrate these differences, consider words like "cot" and "caught." In the American accent, these vowels sound different due to a wider mouth shape for the word “caught,” resulting in a longer and more pronounced vowel sound.
Let’s take a look at some common vowel sounds within the American accent, and how to create them. You might recognize the symbols after the name of each sound as transcriptions from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).
It can take some practice to get used to saying “EY,” because it actually requires combining 2 vowel sounds, “EH” and “EE.” To pronounce it correctly, start with a long "A" sound and glide into a long "EE" sound. Your tongue will be positioned high and close to the roof of your mouth, with your lips a bit rounded.
To produce the EE sound, position your tongue high and close to the roof of your mouth while keeping your lips unrounded.
For the IH sound, keep your tongue relaxed and the jaw slightly open, with lips unrounded.
Creating the OO sound involves rounding your lips and keeping the tongue positioned towards the back of the mouth.
The OH sound is produced with a relaxed jaw and slightly rounded lips.
For the AA sound, drop your jaw and keep the tip of the tongue forward, touching the back of the bottom front teeth while the back of the tongue stretches up.
The uh, or Schwa sound, is the most common vowel in American English. It's also a neutral vowel sound. To pronounce it, keep your mouth mostly closed and your tongue relaxed.
Creating the AH sound involves keeping your mouth open with a relaxed tongue and jaw. This can often be confused with the “EH” sound, so it’s important to make a clear distinction.
Your native language will heavily influence the American sounds which will be tricky for you. For instance, Spanish native speakers might have particular trouble with the American R sound, Portuguese native speakers may struggle with the "th" sound, and Russian native speakers usually find the "L" sound uniquely challenging in American English.
Practice listening to American celebrities and try to mimic the sounds they make, with a particular focus on vowel pronunciation. Using celebrities like those mentioned in this article, or known American newscasters and broadcasters who are very intentional in the way that they speak is the most effective, and practicing in front of a mirror can be helpful in achieving the correct mouth positioning.
When attempting to master the Standard American accent, it's important to be aware of common mispronunciations that can arise from preconceived assumptions or habits transferred from other accents.
One common mispronunciation involves words ending in "-ing." Some learners assume that the "g" is dropped, leading to pronunciations like "walkin'" instead of "walking." In the General American accent, the “ng” sound is pronounced as a unique sound, which is not simply the “n” sound, but also not “n” + a hard “g” sound.
To pronounce the "ng" sound correctly, position the back of your tongue against the soft back of your mouth, creating a resonant, humming sound. Practice repeating these words as they’re spoken in General American speeches and interviews, such as Michelle Obama’s pronunciation of words like “outstanding” and “amazing.”
Another common mispronunciation is the assumption that the th sound is pronounced like a hard T. For American English pronunciation, the th sound should be pronounced with your tongue gently touching your upper front teeth, creating a soft, continuous sound.
This is distinct from some British English pronunciations, where th is replaced with more of a T sound, such as when referring to the River Thames:
Some non-native speakers incorrectly assume that all American accents incorporate a twang in their speech, which is a nasal, resonant quality in the voice. However, it's important to note that the General American accent does not have this particular vocal quality. Twang is more associated with certain regional accents, like the Southern or Western accents.
Compare the pronunciation of country singer Tyler Hubbard, who exhibits a Southern accent, with that of the General American interviewer.
In the General American accent, the focus is on clear articulation, standard pronunciation, and the characteristics we've discussed earlier, such as rhoticity, vowel sounds, and stress patterns. Understanding and avoiding these common mispronunciations is essential for achieving an authentic General American accent.
Another element of learning the American accent is understanding that some words are distinctively American. The English language has many versions, and some words are uniquely British. That's why it’s important to nail down the correct vocabulary used by people living in the United States.
Here's a chart highlighting some examples:
This isn’t to say that Americans won’t understand you if you use the wrong term, but sticking to the American version of words will help you be best understood and blend seamlessly into American conversations.
In the General American accent, the pattern of word stress sometimes differs from British English. When words are stressed differently, American English typically places primary stress on the first syllable of a word, while British English often emphasizes the second or later syllables. For instance, in the word "address," Americans typically stress the first syllable, pronouncing it as "A-dress" while Brits might stress the second syllable, making it "a-DRESS." American speech also tends to use rising or falling intonation patterns for questions and statements, respectively.
Americans tend to speak at a moderate pace, with an average of around 150-160 words per minute, or about 4 syllables a second. This can be good to know when you practice connected speech, to communicate more authentically.
One striking feature of the Standard American accent is the minimal use of pauses between words. Instead there is a high degree of linking, where words flow seamlessly into each other to create a smooth and connected sound. For example, take the phrase “He told her to leave.” Native speakers from America would generally link the “d” in “told” with the “h” in “her,” resulting in more of a flap sound and a less voiced H. It would sound more like “He tol-der to leave.”
Take, for example, Ellen and Kristen Bell’s pronunciation of the term “a lot of” throughout the introduction of this interview. Rather than fully pronouncing each individual letter, it becomes something closer to “a laddah.”
This linking or connected speech enhances the fluency and natural flow of spoken American English, and it is vital for achieving the characteristic rhythm and tempo of the American accent.
Learning the American accent requires practice and dedication, for both non-native speakers and for those with British accents. Here are some valuable tips to help you refine your pronunciation:
One effective way to improve your accent is to listen to how American actors from your favorite movies or TV shows speak (making sure they exhibit the General American accent and not a regional accent). Pay attention not only to their words but also to their mouth movements and facial expressions. This visual and auditory approach will provide you with valuable insights into the nuances of the American accent, which you can then replicate and incorporate into your own pronunciation.
Recording your own speech is a fantastic tool for self-assessment. Listen to your recordings and compare them to native speakers or the actors you admire. Identify areas where you need improvement and practice those specific sounds or words. This self-feedback can be a powerful learning tool for accent reduction.
For personalized guidance and feedback, consider working with a native English speaker coach. They can pay close attention to your speech to provide targeted instruction, correct your pronunciation, and guide you through the intricacies of the General American accent. If you're interested in private classes, BoldVoice offers expert coaching to help you achieve your accent goals.
Fine-tuning the American accent can be especially difficult without receiving reliable feedback and individualized lesson plans. Accent training programs are a great way to obtain exactly that - lesson plans tailored to you and your pronunciation challenges, as well as immediate feedback on exercises to help you notice errors and make the appropriate adjustments.
With curated practice materials, expert-informed lessons and activities, and videos by professional Hollywood accent coaches, BoldVoice is a powerful tool to master the American accent and blend in with native English speakers. Get the app and start your free trial today.
Mastering the American English accent is a journey that requires daily practice and dedication. With time this accent will become ingrained in your speech, allowing you to communicate with confidence and authenticity.
To further refine your skills, continue having conversations with native speakers and take advantage of resources like BoldVoice to listen, practice, and work with expert coaches. American pronunciation, with its unique characteristics and rhythm, can open doors to new opportunities and enhance your communication abilities. Stay committed to your journey, build up your muscle memory for American consonants and vowels, and your American accent will soon become second nature.