Learning English is difficult enough on its own. So, congratulations on taking the steps to advance as far as you have! But, sometimes knowing grammar and sentence structure isn’t enough when you get into real world situations. It can also help to know major English accents, such as the standard American accent.
Understanding and communicating with Americans in their native accent is key to advancing your study of English. This article is full of tools and tips to help you master the kind of speech common in the USA and urban Canada. Read on to learn how to do an American accent!
To help aid you in this article here is a link to a phonetic alphabet chart. You can use it to help understand some of the word and phrase breakdowns.
1. Know Syllables, Stress Timing, and Emphasis
In any ESL course, you learn the breakdown of syllables in a word. In case you don’t remember, here’s a quick reminder: Syllables are small units of sounds that make up words, so the word syllable would have three syllables (syl-la-ble).
English is a stress-timed language, and that means that there will be strong and weak along with long and short sounding syllables to make up a sentence. This is important, as most stressed syllables in American English will be even longer and louder than in British English.
The combination of the stress and length in syllables creates the rhythm you hear when American English is spoken. Let’s look at an example to better understand the concept.
Let’s go to the movies this weekend.
This is a simple sentence that most can understand. Notice, when an American says the sentence, go to the and this in the sentence are short sounding syllables. It almost sounds like he’s saying go-to-the as one word. Let’s, movies, and weekend are longer sounding and stressed.
Sentences can be broken into content words or structure (or function) words.
Content words are typically nouns, main verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. They’re words that add meaning to a sentence. Also, content words are words with meaning that are emphasized in speech. Basically, they’re the words you intend a listener to understand.
Structure words are usually auxiliary verbs, pronouns, articles and prepositions. They exist for grammatical purposes.
On that note, let’s revisit the example above. Even if you only heard the content words Let’s, movies, and weekend, you would still understand what the speaker intended to say.
Learning to differentiate between content and structure words and when to emphasize them is a big step in communicating in an American accent.
2. Learn the Connected Speech
The second tip on speaking and understanding an American accent is to know the connected speech Americans use. It’s not always taught in a classroom, and knowing these speech patterns will help you understand and communicate more effectively.
We define connected speech as words or phrases where the last sound of a word has a direct effect on the next word that is spoken. Therefore, many separate words or phrases will connect and sound as though they are one word.
For example the phrase - This evening
When an American says the phrase, it almost sounds like they’re saying Thisevening.
This is an example of linking, and there are many words that Americans link together. Overall, there are many categories of connected speech as well, so let’s look at some other common forms.
Americans use connected speech that involves an intruding sound that inserts itself between two words.
For example, the phrase Do it will sound like someone is saying Dewit.
In addition, sounds can disappear when a stronger syllable sound appears in the word after another word that is spoken. We’ll add to our previous example of Do it to show this concept.
Listen to the phrase in the Nike commercial: Just do it.
It sounds like the announcer is saying Jus-Dewit. When the /t/ sound disappears, it’s called an elision, and it commonly happens with /t/ and /d/ sounds in American accents.
A final example of connected speech is called assimilation. This happens when the sounds of two words blend together.
When Americans say won’t you, it can sound like they’re saying wonchu. Phonetically the /t/ and /y/ become /ʧ/.
When Americans say don’t you, it can sound like they’re saying donchu. Phonetically the /d/ and /y/ become /ʤ/
Understanding and speaking in an American accent can be tricky as it is different from speech patterns in British English. (The British English vs. American English distinction is challenging for many students!) Knowing connected speech will help you distinguish the two forms. There are many other examples, so here is a video that will help you better understand the concept.
3. Understand "R" Sound
Knowing how to use the letter R is crucial to understanding and speaking in an American accent. The /r/ can have a different sound regionally in America. It is also considered a sound that is different from what is heard in many other languages.
This is because American English has r-controlled vowels. This means that /r/ sound is pronounced in a word that is r-controlled. Here is an example:
How to pronounce world vs word
As you saw in that video, the word Word is pronounced Werrd. Notice the /o/ sound isn’t pronounced.
The word World is pronounced Werrld. Notice the /or/ sound isn’t pronounced.
Understanding the /r/ sound is key to understanding what is spoken. There are many more examples of r-controlled words in American English, and you must know and understand them when communicating. Here is a link to an in-depth explanation of r-controlled vowels.
Last, let’s revisit the /r/ sound. No matter where you are, the /r/ sound in the word ‘are’ is loud, and long. Look at this example:
Where is the parking lot?
Americans pronounce the /ar/ in park strongly, and examples like this carry over into the entire language. To better understand the rhotic sound and the difference it makes between American and British English, you can watch this video, and to gain an even greater understanding of this type of English American accent, check out the tips in this American accent video.
As I mentioned earlier, this article has focused on the standard American accent. This would be the accent spoken commonly on TV and radio, most typically exemplified by speakers in California and the American midwest. Like all English speaking countries, America has different english accents by region. But the “standard” rules above are still incredibly valuable. Learn the standard American accent, and your English will be understandable most anywhere in the English speaking world!