The Standard American Accent
The 500 Word lists include the major sounds that tend to change from one language to another. To speak with an American accent, you will need to practice these sounds regularly. The rules below will not work as well if you need to perfect a major sound, such as R or TH. See Milestones in English pronunciation. Use the following rules as a general guide to the standard American accent–or use this page if you need to take that final step to fluency.
1. All accents have a point of resonance. This is an area in the mouth. The standard American accent has the point of resonance in the middle of the mouth. British English has the point of resonance in the forward part of the mouth. A person who learned British English as a child often has to practice relaxing the face so that the sound resonates in the middle of the mouth.
2. There is a lot of facial movement in formal American English. If a sound is made with an open jaw, you really want to open the mouth. Sounds made with the lips, such as the long E and the W, need that movement of the lips.
In casual English–which you will see in many TV dramas and movies–there is less movement, but you will notice that the characters are usually sitting or standing immediately next to each other. Think about the difference between these characters and news reporters–who are filmed several feet from the camera–at a professional distance. Overall, most students benefit from using more facial movements at first and then trying casual English. Remember that Americans will switch from formal to casual without thinking about it.
3. Vowel sounds are large–they take slightly more time than consonants. This applies to all the vowels except the 3 vowels that are truly short: the short E, the short I, and the short U as in met, sit, and up. Though we teach “short vowels” and “long vowels,” the word “short” refers to the spelling, not the sound. Short vowels usually have one-letter spellings, and long vowels usually have two-letter spellings. Examples are man and main or hot and boat. The short A sounds and the short O sound, as in cat, family, father, and hot, are sounds that take a bit of time because the jaw is quite open.
In a word with two or more syllables, the stressed vowel is usually the only one that is a large sound. In the word marketing, the largest vowel sound is the open A. The vowel sounds can be the most difficult to master because of the many spelling exceptions, but actually, making large sounds can help you hear mistakes and improve your pronunciation.
4. Vowel sounds need to be clear, but they are not precise. Unlike some languages where each sound has a distinct value, Americans are comfortable moving to a new sound in the middle of a word. This is a very subtle point. However, it may help you to move your face and make large vowel sounds. Generally, try to create smooth, large sounds and let them flow together. Learn about linking vowels.
5. The reduced T sounds of American English are very important to the accent. Reducing the T sounds gives the language a softer tone overall.
6. The unconscious parts of any spoken language are the keys to fluency. While sounds are learned, then forgotten so that they become unconscious to some extent, syllable stress and word stress are highly unconscious aspects. If a teenage American looks up a new word, the phonetic symbols will take a moment of time while the stress is just a light mark or bold print–it is so quickly learned. Word stress is never consciously learned unless a person pursues a career involving public speaking. One of the best ways to learn is simply to practice daily by repeating word lists or readings. This allows you to gradually gain your own awareness of stress. Learn more about syllable stress and word stress.
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